Disruption in the HDB heartland

HDB shops become hipster cafes, and a wet market business goes digital, as a new generation takes over traditional businesses

Did you read about the fishmonger in Beo Crescent who's gone fishing online?

It's about a couple who took over the family's fish business.

DishTheFish has a wet market stall in Beo Crescent, and an e-commerce platform. It's run by Jeffrey Tan, 32, and his wife Angeline Ong, 29. Jeffrey used to help his father cut fish as a teenager.

They plan to open another outlet in a mall, where they will have space for a demo corner to teach customers how to steam a fish or sous vide it to perfection.

They use tech and data analytics to figure out what fish to buy, track users' preferences, and handle inventory, accounting and human resources.

That story of millennials taking a heartland business digital was my favourite news article of the week.

I've always had a soft spot for heartland businesses. I think in part because my parents were also small business folks - they made a living selling drinks or snacks and in my growing up years, they ran a char kway teow stall at a hawker centre. I also grew up in HDB flats.

Back in the days before the Internet, I used to write a column called Heartlanders. It was about, well, life in the HDB heartland.

It was Minister George Yeo who popularised the term "heartland" to refer to our Housing Board estates. Once derided as vertical cemeteries of the soul, they became "Singapore's heartland".

The term "heartland" in America's cultural lexicon refers to the vast land in between the two oceans.

Depending on the era and your own sensibility, it can refer to ranches, vast plains, or mountainous areas.

"Heartland" was also used to describe a certain ethic around the working class - hard working, honest, no-nonsense. The salt of the earth type of community.

The term "heartland" as a way to refer to our own public housing estates caught on.

Many of us embraced the identity in the 1990s and after. It was a badge of honour. To be a heartlander was to be a person plugged into Singapore's tradition, a speck in the continuum of our history that reaches back to the hardworking, frugal, self-denying, sacrificing pioneers.

I always think you can take a heartlander out of the HDB heartland, but you can't take the heartland out of a true blue heartlander.

Even today, when I've shopped all over the world and Orchard Road is a short dash away, I enter a wonderful, wordless, weirdly content zone when I wander aimlessly in and out of shops in HDB town centres.

Even today, after I've lived in private condos with pools, landed housing with gardens, and in heritage stone buildings overseas at college, my dream retirement home is an HDB flat.

I can just see myself living happily in a mature estate that has an MRT station, a wet market, a town centre with shops and a mall or two nearby, all within walking distances or a short bus ride away.

Having a seniors activity centre nearby where I can do group exercises, and maybe volunteer at a small residents' library managed entirely by seniors, with books for neighbourhood kids we can read to, would enhance the quality of my life.

If there's a hipster cafe nearby where I can enjoy my soy latte and Eggs Benedict, all the better.

My generation - born in the 1960s and 70s - is at home in both the old HDB estates and the new hipster enclaves spouting up all over the island. I enjoy most the HDB estates that have both.

Think Tiong Bahru. Ghim Moh/Holland Village. The Sunset area in Clementi. Tanjong Pagar. Dakota Crescent. Toa Payoh Lorong 1.

Ms Karylan Lee is the owner and baker of 51 fiveone degrees in Toa Payoh North. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR

Every time I see a shop in an HDB estate taken over by a hipster cafe with its minimalist/ rustic/ industrial chic decor, I make a mental note to check it out one day.

It helps that I have a millennial niece with a nose for such things. So I've gone to places near my office like 51 fiveone degrees (the orange chiffon cake is a hit wherever I bring it), Creamier (love the waffle), the Daily Press and the quaintly-named froyo (frozen yoghurt) shop Frozen by a Thousand Blessings.

One afternoon a couple of years back, she bundled me into my car and we set the GPS for a cafe in Jalan Bukit Ho Swee. How hipster can a cafe there get? I thought to myself. I know the area for its rental flats and poor working-class neighbourhood.

Owners of Sin Lee Foods, who retained the signboard for the original Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop, are scouting for a new location, according to their Facebook page. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR

She knew it for Sin Lee Foods, a former coffeeshop that got a new lease of life when a young couple took it over. Where once Sin Lee would have sounded ulu, they embraced the name, making good on their promise to the third-generation owner to retain the signboard for the original Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop. The cafe's Facebook page indicates the cafe has closed and it is scouting for a new location. I hope it keeps its heartland hipster vibe in its new home.

It's a sign of Singaporeans' self-confidence that we embrace our humble working-class roots, branding hipster cafes under dialect names (think Chye Seng Huat hardware which despite its name is a coffee joint) and turning common daily items from our past - like colourful enamel ware, cockerel design bowls, red vacuum flasks and the ubiquitous white cotton Good Morning towels used in most homes - into iconic cultural markers.

A new generation of Singaporeans are rejuvenating our HDB neighbourhoods, turning some hipster, and others digital.

As a consumer, I enjoy the way they expand and enhance my buying and eating experience. As a heartlander, I'm glad to see the neighbourhoods get a new lease of life, the shops get new tenants, and to see the way a new generation of Singaporeans enjoy life in the heartland, in a way that is refreshingly different from my genearation, but no less valid.

Disruption is in the heartland - in a good way.

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