Coffee shop bids farewell with a last free meal

Owners of Bugis halal eatery serving free food tomorrow to thank patrons before closing

Tong Seng Coffeeshop is popular for its affordable halal versions of local fare like chicken rice, laksa, fishball noodles and wanton mee.
Tong Seng Coffeeshop is popular for its affordable halal versions of local fare like chicken rice, laksa, fishball noodles and wanton mee. ST PHOTO: NURIA LING

Tomorrow, Tong Seng Coffeeshop owner Ong Choon Seng is expecting the largest turnout at his halal eatery in its 16-year history.

After all, he is giving away free meals during lunch and dinner to say thank you to his loyal customers before Tong Seng rolls down its shutters for good - another casualty of the manpower crunch.

"We planned the closing to coincide with Hari Raya Haji, so our customers can have one last meal here before the public holiday," said the 36-year-old Mr Ong, who has been running the business with his 34-year-old brother Choon Hui under the supervision of their father.

Tomorrow, every customer will be entitled to one free drink and a choice between chicken rice, laksa, fishball noodles and wanton mee, promised Mr Ong.

These dishes have been staples at Tong Seng, which has gained a following for its affordable halal versions of local fare, a rarity in town areas like Bugis. That explains why its patrons come from a broad cross-section of Singaporean society.

It is common to see smartly dressed executives tucking in alongside labourers in paint-flecked trousers along the shop's narrow five-foot way.

Located along bustling North Bridge Road, the four-level shophouse built in 1927 has served as a budget hotel.

Instead of backpackers, the second storey now sees salesgirls on their lunch breaks jostling for seats with national servicemen who make the trek for Tong Seng's famous fried dumplings.

Those who will miss the coffee shop most are its regular Muslim customers, who often gather there to break fast during the Ramadan period.

For civil servant Zainal Abideen Abdul Wahid and his wife Jumiliati Chadiri, the coffee shop has served not only as a dating spot for a dozen years, but also as a place to dine with family. "We will really miss this place, especially the chicken rice chilli," said the 35-year-old.

Technical operations manager Hasbullah Ali, 27, also fondly recalled how he bumped into several long-lost secondary school friends in the 10 years he has frequented Tong Seng.

"Many of them are motorbike riders, so they arrange to meet and grab a bite here because there's parking," said Mr Hasbullah, who lives in Woodlands but heads to Bugis every week for his favourite chicken rice.

This "kampung" spirit is strong not only among patrons, it is also what gels its 40 employees together. Half of them are foreign workers who live together in the upper storeys of the shophouse.

The thought of having to leave her workplace of 10 years and return home to Malaysia brought server Zahara Awang to tears.

"Of course I am sad to go. But I will go back to relax for a while," said the 41-year-old, in between booming out orders in the Hokkien she has picked up from her colleagues.

For 59-year-old Chen Tuck Kwang, it will be hardest to bid farewell to the Ongs, who took him on as an employee although he had diabetes.

"Even after I was hospitalised for a month, they still let me come back. They let me go for my medical appointments, no questions asked," he said. "My wife and I are very grateful to the boss here."

Saying goodbye to his staff and customers has not been easy either for Mr Ong, who spent his teenage years helping out at the shop.

But his family, who bought the shophouse a decade ago for under $4 million, has received attractive offers. While he declined to reveal how much, real estate expert Ku Swee Yong estimates that the property could fetch between $15 million and $18 million today.

"Given that it is in a prime district, has great visibility and is located near an MRT station, it would be attractive to tenants and investors," noted the CEO of real estate company Century21 Singapore.

The decision to shut down was also driven by the rapid change in Bugis and the rest of Singapore.

Mr Ong believes the time for his coffee shop has come and gone - its signs have faded and its walls are well-worn with age. Meanwhile, new eateries have sprouted up all around Tong Seng, further down Liang Seah Street and across the road in Bugis Junction shopping mall.

"To compete, I would have to renovate and turn it into an indoor restaurant, which is not what a coffee shop is about," he said.

The tightened inflow of foreign workers has also led to manpower woes for Mr Ong, who points out that good help is getting harder to find. The daily grind goes on from 6am to 11pm, with workers getting one rest day every fortnight.

"We have to cut back on foreign workers and hire Singaporeans, but the job is too tiring," he said.

As news of Tong Seng's closure spread in the past month, customers have thronged the coffee shop daily, eager for a last taste of its food. Traffic has surged by as much as 80 per cent, said Mr Ong.

The outpouring of support has spurred him to open his doors to them even after the official closing today - for a final free meal.

"It's our way of saying thank you for being with us all these years."

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