Yong Siak St's rent rise ousts old businesses as chic ones move in

Seamstress Lu Mei Cui, 37, working on a set of curtains at her boss' shop, Sin Yick Seng Bamboo Chick Centre, a blinds and curtains maker.
Seamstress Lu Mei Cui, 37, working on a set of curtains at her boss' shop, Sin Yick Seng Bamboo Chick Centre, a blinds and curtains maker.
(Above)  At general supplies store Hock Leong Hin Teck Kee, Mr Lee Hon Fay (left), 75, and store owner Lee Sui Tiong, 65, load supplies for a client. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
(Above)  At general supplies store Hock Leong Hin Teck Kee, Mr Lee Hon Fay (left), 75, and store owner Lee Sui Tiong, 65, load supplies for a client. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
(Above) The owner of Books Actually, one of the newer establishments in Yong Siak Street, may move his shop as the rent is becoming too high. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
(Above) The owner of Books Actually, one of the newer establishments in Yong Siak Street, may move his shop as the rent is becoming too high. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Newfound hip factor comes at a price

The last few veteran shopkeepers in Yong Siak Street, including noodle and beverage suppliers, a coffee shop, and a blinds and curtains manufacturer, find themselves out of place at Tiong Bahru's hippest stretch.

Over the past three years, the narrow street has shed its laidback past and transformed itself into a hipster hot spot, as chic joints such as cafe 40 Hands and independent bookstore Books Actually set up shop.

Their entry in 2010 and 2011 hastened the street's gentrification - several creative agencies, a boutique and restaurant-bars such as SocialHaus and Ikyu have since joined the influx. About 15 of the 25 or so shop spaces there belong to these businesses today.

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"It used to be a quiet place and rental was reasonable, but it (the rent) has since quadrupled to $8,000 as compared to six years ago," said Mr O.H. Lee, 45, co-owner of a family-run beverage supplier, who is considering moving out.

Xing Zhi Language Centre owner Tan Mei Huan, 50, cited rising rents as the main reason for the upcoming move of her Chinese tuition centre to Jalan Bukit Merah.

Said Mr Tony Neo, 40, the second-generation owner of Sin Yick Seng Bamboo Chick Centre, a blinds and curtains maker, who has fond memories growing up there: "While the (newer) shops have brought life to the neighbourhood, their clientele does not match ours and we don't get much benefit from their presence."

He plans to move and rent out the 1,500 sq ft shop that his father handed down to him.

Rental rates per month in Yong Siak Street have more than doubled from $2.70 per sq ft (psf) in mid-2011 to $6.20 psf in the same period this year, said Mr Nicholas Mak, SLP International's head of research and consultancy.

"With new condominiums springing up in the vicinity and nearby estates such as Redhill, rents are soaring and landlords will try to take advantage of the growing interest in Tiong Bahru," he said.

The rising rates might ironically drive out some of the first wave of newer establishments such as Books Actually. Its co-owner Kenny Leck, 35, said the store, which pays $8,000 in rent, will not stay if the landlord goes ahead with his plan to jack it up by another $6,000 or so once the rental contract is up in early 2015.

"It will be hard to sustain a bookshop at that new rental. It will be a pity because we have become friends with many of the residents here," he said.

On the part of the authorities, there is an urgency to better manage the mix of businesses in the 77-year-old conservation estate which attracts Singaporeans and expatriates from all corners of the island, as well as tourists.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority, which manages the private shophouses in Yong Siak Street and other nearby areas, and the HDB, which takes care of 64 commercial properties in the area, are keeping a tighter lid on eateries hoping to set up shop there because of concerns raised by residents.

This year alone, four applications to turn shop premises into eateries were rejected.

This comes after residents complained about loud music from some of the establishments and the rowdy - and often drunk - patrons who would spill over to other streets and leave a messy trail of cigarettes and alcohol bottles on weekends.

The situation has improved somewhat after some Yong Siak Street residents banded together to give feedback to the authorities.

Still, residents have different opinions about the recent transformation of the street from its sleepy past.

Housewife G. Devaki, 47, said she misses the old Yong Siak Street, where it used to be "very conducive for children to study and was just a regular residential neighbourhood".

But retired hairstylist Annie Cho, 65, who lives at Block 78, said that while the occasional rowdy groups are a source of annoyance for the residents, she believes the changes are for the better. "I like how some of the nice book shops and cafes create a pleasant atmosphere in the neighbourhood.

"It's very different from the past when it used to be a very ugly street and nobody wanted to live here - just the elderly," she said in Mandarin, adding that many Yong Siak apartments used to be occupied by bar girls and prostitutes.

Some of the shops there are also aware of their responsibility to residents. "We remind all our customers that they are dining in a residential area whenever we sit them outside the cafe. We also close shop at 10pm instead of midnight as our licence permits," said Ms Michelle Lingo, 27, supervisor of PoTeaTo.

Mrs Vanessa Kenchington, 29, the chef-owner of Plain Vanilla Bakery, said businesses have the responsibility to bond with their community, not "merely take advantage of the area's hip and cool quality".

"We are here to grow with the neighbourhood and build relationships. As business owners, we have to be aware of the environment around us - we are the guests and we don't want to be a nuisance," she said.

Designer Ella Zheng, 27, who works in the area, believes this balance of needs between the two groups can be achieved. She said some shop owners carefully curate their space to cater to the growing number of Singaporeans interested in "style, design and culture".

Cultural geographer Lily Kong from the National University of Singapore said some of the new tenants appreciate the historical and economic value of the vicinity.

Although the commercialisation of Yong Siak Street may be viewed by some as "adulterating the authentic", Professor Kong said these new establishments help keep the memories of its past alive, as elderly residents pass on and older businesses pull down their shutters.

"Some of the new tenants along Yong Siak Street are actually very interested in history and heritage, both as a source of identity and distinctiveness, and as a commercial opportunity."

melodyz@sph.com.sg