Nostalgia with a twist at new cafes taking over old HDB shop premises

Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop was turned into Sin Lee Foods (above), and its owners Mr Sean Lim and Ms Jerraldine Chen have retained its signboard. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop was turned into Sin Lee Foods (above), and its owners Mr Sean Lim and Ms Jerraldine Chen have retained its signboard. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop (above) was turned into Sin Lee Foods, and its owners Mr Sean Lim and Ms Jerraldine Chen have retained its signboard. -- PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO
Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop was turned into Sin Lee Foods, and its owners Mr Sean Lim and Ms Jerraldine Chen (both above) have retained its signboard. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Yam cake. -- PHOTO: FU YINGZI
Shing Lee bookstore, which was opened by Mr Peh Boon Poh has been modernised and turned into The Tastemaker cafe (above) by his three grandchildren. -- PHOTO: FU YINGZI
Shing Lee bookstore, which was opened by Mr Peh Boon Poh (above) has been modernised and turned into The Tastemaker cafe by his three grandchildren. -- PHOTO: STACEY PEH
Mr Foo Chee Kow and his wife Jessie Lim converted provision shop Tian Kee & Co. into a cafe of the same name, and serve dishes such as all-day breakfast (above), which comes with a roti prata for a local twist. -- PHOTO: STEFFI KOH
Mr Foo Chee Kow and his wife Jessie Lim converted provision shop Tian Kee & Co. (above) into a cafe of the same name, and serve dishes such as all-day breakfast, which comes with a roti prata for a local twist. -- PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO
Mr Foo Chee Kow and his wife Jessie Lim (both above) converted provision shop Tian Kee & Co. into a cafe of the same name, and serve dishes such as all-day breakfast, which comes with a roti prata for a local twist. -- PHOTO: STEFFI KOH

With the thriving cafe scene in Singapore, it is no surprise to find new joints opening in various locations all over the island every week.

But perhaps a new trend could be emerging - HDB shops with a long history in old estates are being turned into cafes.

Tian Kee & Co at Dakota Crescent, which opened about a month ago, used to be a 54-year-old provision shop, while Sin Lee Foods at Jalan Bukit Ho Swee took over the shop space of the popular 51-year-old Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop two weeks ago.

Both cafes have kept the original signboards of their predecessors.

The Tastemaker at Havelock Road, which opened on June 1, was a 49-year-old bookstore called Shing Lee. It was turned into a cafe by the owner's grandchildren.

SundayLife! checks out the three newly opened cafes.


Where: 12 Dakota Crescent, 01-48, tel: 6344-8527, open: noon to 9pm (Tuesday to Friday), 10am to 9pm (Saturday and Sunday), closed on Monday

Old school provision shop Tian Kee & Co. always captured Mr Foo Chee Kow's attention whenever he went on his regular evening jogs around the neighbourhood of Dakota Crescent.

He says: "When I moved here in 2011, I was surprised to find something like this in our estate. It had a very Tiong Bahru feel to it and made me feel nostalgic."

In January last year, the 37-year-old and his wife Jessie Lim, 38, decided they wanted to set up an old school cafe.

After many months of scouting locations and not finding any suitable ones, they were delighted when they found out last October that the 54-year-old provision shop space was up for sale.

Regarded as a landmark in Dakota Crescent, Tian Kee's closure was reported by The Straits Times in the same month.

The owner, Mr Lim Han Tian, 85, decided to call it a day because of poor business and his old age.

It was the perfect opportunity for Mr Foo and his wife to make their cafe dream a reality, right at their doorstep.

"We were so happy and bought it within 12 hours of learning that the space was available," says Mr Foo, a self-professed heritage buff.

The couple spent close to $200,000 to buy and set up the 30-seat, 600 sq ft cafe, which opened on June 18.

Mr Foo used to run an interior design company but has since quit to run the cafe with his wife, a housewife. They have a two-year-old son and their second child is due in November.

The couple kept the original signboard and retained the name for their cafe.

He says: "Many residents have patronised the shop since they were young. We wanted to keep the sign so Mr Lim's grandchildren can see his legacy."

Recalling fond memories of growing up in a close-knit kampung community, he hopes his cafe can bring residents together and create the same kampung spirit of neighbourliness.

"We would like our cafe to become a gathering point for residents where everyone will know each other by name, and can come here for a coffee or exchange ideas."

Entering the cafe is like taking a wistful step back in time. Customers are greeted by the sight of 1950s Formica-topped tables, old stools, whirring ceiling fans and customised zinc roofing used as borders in the cashier area.

He says: "I still remember how whenever it rained, I would be so annoyed by the pitter-patter sound on the zinc roof but eventually got used to it."

Almost everything displayed in the cafe used to be from the provision shop. These include Khong Guan biscuit tins, an old Milo tin, a chessboard as well as rusty metal tobacco and alcohol licence signs.

Long-time patrons of the old shop may also remember the Bonjour bread rack, which now holds a kettle of water, cutlery and condiments for customers. To top it off, the counter tabletops are made from the wooden planks from Tian Kee's doors.

"We had the choice to renovate the place into something completely modern," Mr Foo says. "But the shop's history was precisely the reason why we fell in love with it in the first place, so we did not want to change anything if possible."

Despite its classic retro decor, the food sold here is decidedly contemporary, with offerings such as muffins, cheesecakes, pies, coffee, tea and iced drinks.

One of the cafe's bestsellers is its all-day breakfast ($12.90), which comes with a sunny side up egg, bacon, a cheese sausage, a hashbrown, cheese and a piece of roti prata rather than toast, for a local twist.

Though it has been open for less than a month, the cafe has been gaining a following among people drawn to its old fashioned setting.

Student Shirley Yeo, 24, says: "I used to live across the road. This place brings back memories of my childhood."

It is a bittersweet feeling for many residents, who ultimately appreciate that Mr Foo has retained the spirit of a provision shop so dear to their hearts.

Cobbler Lee Choong Hian, 67, a regular at the cafe, says: "I knew Mr Lim very well so I definitely miss the shop. But the older generation of people like items with historical value, so I think it's great that they kept the sign."

Australian David Newman, 48, a stay-at-home-dad who moved to Dakota Crescent 16 months ago, thinks the revamped Tian Kee & Co. has given a new lease of life to the sleepy neighbourhood.

"It's one of the best things to happen to this area because of the people it brings together. I'm a little sad that the provision shop has closed but it was a dying trade. Like everything in life, things move on and this is change for the better."


Where: Block 22 Havelock Road, 01-705, open: 8am to 8pm daily

When he was in primary school, Mr Alvin Peh would help out during the school holidays at Shing Lee bookstore, his grandfather's shop at Havelock Road, along with his younger brother and sister.

Now 28, he says: "We would help tidy and clean the shop, buy meals for our grandfather who manned the cashier and walk around to offer assistance to customers."

His grandfather, Mr Peh Boon Poh, 98, opened the independent bookstore in Chin Swee Road in 1935. It moved to Havelock Road in 1965.

Mr Peh never imagined that he would one day end up transforming his grandfather's beloved book haven into a modern cafe.

He had discussed plans with his siblings to set up a store together that would encompass the five senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and sound in 2011, but the idea never materialised.

His sister Stacey Peh, 26, is a graduate student who is studying for her master's in architecture overseas, while his brother Peh Shing Jie, 25, is an assistant engineer.

"We were all too busy with our own jobs back then to pursue the idea vigoriously," says Mr Peh, a manager in an organisational development consulting company.

The opportunity came up again when his grandfather decided to close the bookstore in 2012 due to old age.

He and his siblings spent approximately $190,000 renovating the store, turning it into The Tastemaker cafe. They pay rent to their grandfather.

Mr Peh says it was through observing his grandfather's passion in taking care of the bookstore that taught him and his siblings the values of being thrifty and working hard.

With the sleek and minimalist decor of the brightly lit cafe, which opened on June 1 this year, it may be difficult to imagine that this same space was once cluttered with wooden shelves full of books, knick-knacks and stationery.

Now, whitewashed walls, wooden tables and potted green plants hanging from the ceiling make for a therapeutic environment in the 600 sq ft cafe, which can seat about 40.

Mr Peh says: "We wanted our cafe to be something simple, honest and not overly packaged."

Despite The Tastemaker's stylish look, he feels the legacy of his grandfather's bookstore will live on in a different way.

"It is through the human connection rather than the actual physical exterior of the store that people will remember Shing Lee by. Old-time patrons familiar with my grandfather told me they were glad his grandchildren were taking over the space."

He adds: "At the end of the day, we are incorporating the same values taught to us by our grandfather in our own unique trade."

The cafe currently serves light fare such as cakes, toast and sandwich sets, but will be introducing local dishes such as laksa and curry chicken rice in a few weeks.

Its top sellers are yam cake and glutinous rice ($3.80 a serving), both of which are made from Mr Peh's family recipes.

"A lot of local residents around the area are the elderly, and we want to cater to them as well. You wouldn't expect to find such items in a cafe," he says.

Most young patrons do not know the month-old cafe was previously occupied by a bookstore.

Student Wing Yan, 22, who was at the cafe for the third time since its opening, says: "The food here is above average, but the main draw for me is the environment. It is not very crowded, which makes it a good place to chill with my friends."

Older residents in the area may feel more for the humble Shing Lee but realise that change is inevitable.

Mr Lim Hock Lai, 32, who runs a soya bean business, says: "I have some feelings for the bookstore, because I always passed by it and it was so old. But over the years, there were not many people patronising it so I think the cafe is a better way to earn money, and it is the grandson who is running it."

Housewife Ng Kim Hiok, 59, a resident of the area for the past 40 years and a mother of three grown up children, has fond memories of the bookstore. She had been a regular customer.

She says: "I took all my three children to this bookshop to buy their stationery and school books when they were in primary and secondary school.

"Though I miss the store, the ex-owners have been in business for a really long time and it's time to make way for new blood."


Where: Block 4, Jalan Bukit Ho Swee, 01-164, tel: 6377-3170, open: 10am to 9pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday

The owner of this newly opened cafe, Mr Sean Lim, 24, wants to set the record straight: He did not keep the black and gold Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop signboard at the storefront to give his cafe a hipster vibe.

He says: "A lot of people such as food bloggers assumed we kept the shop sign because it was cool, but that was never the case."

In fact, the coffee shop's landlord, Mr Thian Boon Hin, 66, asked that Mr Lim keep the signboard, in exchange for renting him the shop space to open his cafe.

"Mr Thian said we could do whatever we wanted to the space as long as we did not remove the signboard," says Mr Lim. "He places great sentimental value on this place, which has been in his family for more than 50 years, and we agreed because we wanted to be respectful."

He runs the cafe full-time with his girlfriend and co-owner Jerraldine Chen, 23. Both of them are chefs. He used to work at haute French restaurant Guy Savoy at Marina Bay Sands, which has now closed, and she worked at three Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York.

"If we had deliberately kept the sign to make our cafe hipster, the charm of it all would have been lost. Things ended up naturally this way," says Mr Lim, who eventually settled on the name Sin Lee Foods for the cafe.

Mr Thian, who lives above the cafe, says: "This shop was passed down by my dad and the sign is something that should not be casually thrown away. I've been working here since I was young and I want it to continue to exist."

He became the landlord of the place 25 years ago, after the shop was passed down to him from his mother, 89, who had taken over from his late father.

A hidden gem in the tranquil neighbourhood since 1962, the 51-year-old coffee shop was a favourite haunt among residents and gained a loyal following for its prawn noodles and lor mee. It also housed a beverage stall managed by Mr Thian, which sold eggs, toast and coffee.

He decided to rent out the coffee shop in January this year after the prawn noodle and lor mee stallholder, who wanted to be known only as Madam Wee, retired and there was nobody to take over her business.

The coffee shop's location in one of Singapore's most historic HDB estates was what drew Mr Lim and his girlfriend.

He says: "When we visited the shop, we immediately found it suitable. It is on top of a small hill, away from all the other cafes so it feels pretty quaint. We also love how Bukit Ho Swee is a place with so much heritage."

The 900 sq ft cafe, which cost the couple $200,000 to set up, seats 50 people comfortably. It is air-conditioned and has an outdoor dining area under a sheltered pavilion.

Decked in wood, metal and with walls of faded red bricks, the interior of the cafe evokes a rustic and homey feel. The couple, who wanted their cafe to be "raw" and "clean", originally intended to replace the old tiles they had hacked off the walls, but were surprised by the naked red bricks they found underneath and decided to leave them as they were.

Mr Lim has found other ways to preserve the past in his cafe. Customers can admire an artwork of old Chinese calendars layered with a coat of white paint displayed upright on the brick wall.

Small blue ornaments symbolic of the 1980s and 1990s era, such as a five-stone bean bag and vintage paratrouper, sit on a tiny ledge in the centre.

He says: "I wanted to add meaning to our cafe. The old calendars are indicative of the past, while the new coat of paint represents freshness. We want to bring something new to this neighbourhood, while respecting the current history contained within it."

He collaborated with local art studio Ooze to put the piece up at no cost.

Though it has been five months since the closure of the coffee shop, not everyone in the area is aware that a new kid on the block has taken its place, especially with the old sign still prominently displayed.

Mr Lim says with a laugh: "Since we opened on July 1, there have been a number of people in their 30s and 40s walking through our doors asking for prawn noodles and lor mee. We've had to turn down their requests politely, but they still come in to try what we have to offer."

Sin Lee Foods serves cafe fare, which includes truffle fries, salads, Eggs Benedict and sandwiches.

Its signature dish, Sin Lee's fried chicken and waffles ($21.90), features a juicy boneless chicken leg placed atop cheddar cheese waffles with house slaw and melted maple butter. The cafe also sells beverages such as coffee, iced drinks and teas, priced from $4.

Residents are quickly taking to the idea of having such a novel cafe in their neighbourhood.

Administrative assistant Kenneth Ong, 27, who has lived in Bukit Ho Swee all his life and was at Sin Lee Foods for the first time last Tuesday, says: "The cafe is very different and we now have a new neighbourhood place to hang out at."

Student Tan Hui Yi, 20, says: "I like the lighting of the place, which makes the environment very comfortable and feel rather old school. I think it's unique that the cafe retained the signboard, which is significant and particularly historical for this area."

Though the cafe seems to be steadily attracting a young crowd of patrons, not everyone from the older generation shares the same enthusiasm.

Retiree D. Packrisamy, 70, a resident of the area, says: "I used to come here every day to eat the prawn noodles and I'm sad that the coffee shop is now gone. I don't think the elderly will patronise the cafe much and I see mostly youngsters coming here so far.

"I'm not working anymore, so I wouldn't pay $4 for a cup of coffee and I definitely prefer drinking the traditional kind sold in a kopitiam."

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