The Business Times
By Debbie Yong
8th October 2014
Debbie Yong looks at the latest wave of openings that is transforming the aged estate into a trendy cafe cluster popular among the young
|CULTURAL IMMERSION: The businesses in Tiong Bahru are helping to highlight the area’s rich history; Tai Kwang Huat coffeeshop, a pre-war unit is now home to heritage bistro The Tiong Bahru Club. PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG, NANA AND BIRD
WHILE up-and-coming neighbourhoods such as Everton Park and Jalan Besar have been wresting over the spotlight as the “new Tiong Bahru”, the neighbourhood that first popularised the idea of heritage-chic has quietly been revamping itself to suit the times.
New businesses have been slowly trickling into once-sleepy Tiong Bahru over the last few months, accelerating the pre-war housing estate’s transformation from a trendy cafe cluster popular among the young into a complete lifestyle destination.
Among the latest entrants are the Clothes Curator, a three-month-old boutique specialising in loose-fitting cotton and linen apparel for women in their late-20s to 50s, as well as fortnight-old Curated Records, which offers vinyl records from independent bands of various genres. Deeper into the neighbourhood, The Modern Outfitters is a menswear store started by entertainer Dick Lee and young tailor Clinton Zheng; Nana & Bird Kids on Eng Hoon Street specialises in homewares and socially conscious, sustainably produced products for children, and is a sister store to their two-year-old Chay Yan Road flagship store; pop-up Crateful is a collection of locally produced food; while Bloesem, a creative art studio for home decor enthusiasts now has two units along Eng Hoon Street and Seng Poh Road.
|Nana & Bird Kids on Eng Hoon Street specialises in socially conscious, sustainably produced products for children and home PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG, NANA AND BIRD
Even decades-old businesses in the area have been prompted to spruce themselves up, in keeping with the neighbourhood’s growing vibrance.
Cheng’s Delicacies’ owner Dawn Cheng says that the month-long revamp of her family’s 25-year-old eatery on Yong Siak Street in June was carried out with the aim of making the place more comfortable for their existing clients, but it has unexpectedly helped to stretch their diner demographics. The Hainanese zichar and curry rice specialist’s new cafe-like decor and attractive dessert counter now lures in youthful weekend shoppers with their coconut oil-seeped gula melaka chiffon cake and handmade traditional kuehs. “Before, we would get parents who bring their children here for dinner, but now we see younger diners bringing their parents and grandparents in for a meal,” Ms Cheng observes.
Decade-old nail parlour and spa Hui Aesthetics, too, spent S$30,000 to spruce up their space three months ago. Even though owner Jade Shen Jie didn’t expect the neighbourhood to develop so quickly when she moved into the venue a decade ago for its lofty ceilings and sleepy village feel, she isn’t surprised that it has. “We’re not quite as old as some of the businesses that have been around for decades, but we aren’t new either, so I’ve been able to watch the neighbourhood’s growth from the middle ground,” she observes. “I like the buzz that the new businesses bring – we visit them often to buy cakes and flowers – yet I couldn’t help but shed a tear watching some of elderly tenants move out of the old coffeeshops.”
But she adds: “At least the architecture of the buildings was left untouched thanks to the government’s conservation efforts. But the businesses within have to evolve to suit the times – that is inevitable.”
“We knew from talking to residents that there was a lot of anxiety and hype over what we would open here,” says Jerry Singh, who took over the lease on Tai Kwang Huat coffeeshop, a pre-war unit prominently sited across from Tiong Bahru Market in July. “We wanted to create something that would restore and celebrate the space’s rich history,” he adds of his three-day-old heritage bistro, The Tiong Bahru Club. The coffeeshop’s landlord Lim Ah Boon, who ran a fruit stall in the space for 45 years, put up the entire unit for rent when he had to undergo an operation last year. He now helps out at the bistro daily. “I’m not getting any younger and my two children don’t want to take over, so this was the only option. Of course I miss the place, but what’s the point in thinking about the past? We have to move on,” says Mr Lim.
And move on is exactly what marketing executive-turned-baker Tricia Lim did when she took over the corner coffeeshop that used to house Hong Kong Jin Tian for close to two decades . “I didn’t want to do another local-inspired concept, that’s become too common these days,” says the New York-trained baker, explaining her cafe Whisk’s minimalist, European-inspired decor.
And while adapting their concepts to suit the neighbourhood is a personal choice, not all of the new businesses have been keeping to the stipulated conservation guidelines, says Tiong Bahru resident and active community contributor Carolyn Oei. Several have altered building facades by installing glass-door shop fronts. “It might be time for the re-establishment of a business association to complement the residents committee and to make things more cohesive,” Ms Oei suggests, adding that she hopes to see new more residents, whether residential and commercial, become more active in volunteering their time to conduct heritage walks or writing in to the authorities requesting recycling bins for the betterment of the neighbourhood, as current residents regularly do.
Echoing her thoughts, Ms Shen adds: “The new businesses that come in should hopefully be a place where, anyone – whether you’re a resident, an expat or a tourist – can walk into and get a feel of the local culture.”
Vinyls for a lifetime
55 Tiong Bahru Road #01-53
Tel 6438 3644
Hours: 11am-9pm daily
FORTNIGHT-OLD Curated Records is the realisation of a childhood dream by Tremon Lim, who left a publishing job of six years in May to start the independent records shop along bustling Tiong Bahru Road.
It was a dream that the 30-year-old thought was done and dusted at one point in his life but the yearning was revived again a few months ago, thanks to a visible vinyl resurgence of recent years, says Mr Lim.
The little nook of a shop packs in over 1,200 records into its brightly lit 280 square foot space, mostly from independent bands and performers in genres spanning electronic, rock, folk and pop music. It’s “the stuff that most large record shops don’t bring in”, he explains, because “regular bands may move much faster, but there’s no point selling what everyone else is already selling”. Prices range from S$27 to S$49 per record.
Mr Lim was initially scouting for a store in the City Hall area close to the existing cluster of record shops in the area, but settled on his existing unit hoping to add colour to the historic neighbourhood, which did not have any music-related shop.
Besides expanding his repertoire to include used records, Mr Lim further plans to host autograph and meet-up sessions with independent local musicians and bands in the shop.
“People who come to Tiong Bahru are the types to appreciate and want something to hold and keep for a lifetime, and vinyls are exactly that,” he says.
The Tiong Bahru Club
57 Eng Hoon Street, #01-88
Hours: 8am-10pm (Mon-Fri), 8am-midnight (Sat-Sun)
|CELEBRATING OLD TIMES: The club’s food to the decor, made up of old kopitiam kitchenware and vintage knick-knacks (above), provide a reminder of the rich history of the area PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG
THE club rules are stated clearly above the bar: No outside food, no mischief making, and no flirting with the cashier. But then there’s also a catch: there are no real penalties for bending the rules, nor are there any criteria to qualify for membership – or any membership fees to begin with.
What this three-day old “club” really is is owner Jerry Singh’s tongue-in-cheek jibe at the idea of an exclusive country club set right in the heart of historic Tiong Bahru. Membership, incidentally, is handed out in the form of cardboard discount cards that you have to pencil your own name onto.
The “heritage bistro”, in Mr Singh’s own words celebrates all that is old, from its food – a hodge podge of plates that pay homage to the culinary culture of past and present immigrants to Singapore – to the decor made up of old kopitiam kitchenware and vintage knick-knacks scavenged on Mr Singh’s global escapades.
|Interior of the Tiong Bahru Club PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG
Besides retaining the former Tiong Bahru coffeeshop’s old tiled blue floors and metal shutters, don’t be surprised if you see an elderly uncle helping to direct customers to seats and hand out menus. He’s actually the coffeeshop’s landlord who ran a fruit stall in the space and still supplies the fresh fruit platter on Tiong Bahru Club’s dessert menu.
|Truck Stop chicken wings PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG
Food-wise, expect Asian-inspired starters such as the crispy fried Truck Stop chicken (S$10.80), named for the rest stops built for truck drivers plying India’s treacherous North-South highway; satay served on mini tabletop charcoal grills (S$11.80); and a duet of Thai sausages (S$10.80) made up of a fat-chunked Isaan-style sausage and a spicy lemongrass and chilli speckled Chiangmai-style sausage.
Mains comprise a multi-racial mix of Eurasian, Malay, Indian, and even Spanish and Italian-inspired fare such as pastas, fish fillet, soto ayam and fried rice, along with “a curry for every culture,” says Mr Singh of his four options of Thai, Indonesian, Indian and a searing Eurasian devil’s curry (S$16.80 to S$18.80).
On weekends and public holidays, there’s the Good Morning brunch offerings of nasi lemak and bacon-wrapped egg cups or chorizo and beans.
End your meal on a sweet note with their selection of traditional kuehs such as kueh ko swee, ubi pisang and pulut udang all produced in a central kitchen. Wash it all down with sodas, coffee, tapped beers and easy-drinking wines or pick from a selection of over 14 flavours of chai teas from Chaiholics, a two-year-old tea cafe and retail brand also run by Mr Singh.
The legal-trained former manager in a global mining company left his corporate job in 2011 to start Chaitime, a tea chain “positioned somewhere between TWG and Starbucks” that currently has two outlets in the Marina Bay Financial Centre and Chevron House. The brand was renamed Chaiholics this June.
The Tiong Bahru Club is the first of a Singapura Club series of dine-in restaurants he hopes to eventually run. A slightly larger second outlet, the Namly Club, will open along Namly Avenue in Bukit Timah later this month serving up the same menu in similarly vintage surrounds, along with a retail corner where customers can pick and purchase proprietary Chaiholics teas and gift sets.
Meanwhile, Chaiholics, which already has an outlet in Cardiff in the United Kingdom, will soon launch a second outlet in London, presided over by Mr Singh’s UK-based Singaporean business partner. The duo plan to open a further 30 Chaiholics shops in key cities around the world in the next two years.
25 years and counting
27 Yong Siak St
Tel 9748 9135
Hours: 10am-3.30pm, 5.30-9.30pm daily, closed Tuesdays
|REVITALISED The Chengs (Hugo, Dawn and Glenn) gave their 100-seater eatery a sprucing up in June PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG
THE Chengs regularly get offers between S$6 million and S$12 million for their home-style Hainanese coffeeshop along Yong Siak Street – but they aren’t budging.
In fact, the family has just given the 100-seater eatery that they’ve been running for 25 years in the same space a much-needed makeover in June.
A new kitchen exhaust was installed, chipped marble tables were replaced with spiffy new wooden coffeeshop tables and plastic chairs, and a new dessert counter showcases their range of home-made cakes, traditional kuehs and their signature savoury pumpkin pie.
The renovation – along with a name change to the trendier-sounding Cheng’s 27 – was prompted by 25-year-old younger brother Glenn’s joining the family business earlier this year, according to older sister Dawn, 40. Their parents Cheng Mook Boon and Lim Toi Ang, both in their early 60s, still help out in the kitchen. The elder Chengs first started Cheng’s Delicacies in Pekin Street in the early 1980s, but moved the eatery to Tiong Bahru, where the family also lives, in 1989.
|Gula melaka chiffon cake tinged with coconut oil PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG
Their regular menu of Hainanese curry rice and cooked dishes such as vinegared pork belly and deep fried prawn rolls remain, alongside more trendy creations such as a gula melaka chiffon cake tinged with coconut oil that’s popular with the weekend hipster crowd. Desserts start from S$5 and savoury dishes from S$7. Youngest brother Hugo is also working on an online store for their desserts to be launched in a month.
A bit of polishing
57 Eng Hoon Street, #01-80
Tel 6323 2821
Hours: 10am-8pm (Mon-Sat), 11am-8pm (Sun)
|Hui Aesthetics has doubled their capacity with four brand new pedicure stations and three manicure stations. PHOTOS: DEBBIE YONG
OLD is gold, they say, but even gold needs a little bit of polishing sometimes. After a decade of business in Tiong Bahru with nary a tweak to its decor, nail parlour and spa Hui Aesthetics underwent a little nip and tuck in June. Instead of its previous dark and wood-decked Balinese-inspired decor, the front half of the shop now has a brighter, whiter design palette that incidentally – though unintentionally – parallels the design aesthetics of their trendy cafe neighbours, says Hui’s founder Jade Shen Jie, 46, who is also the wife of local Chinese television host Guo Liang. Its four brand new pedicure stations and three manicure stations are double their previous capacity. Manicures and pedicures cost an affordable S$25 and S$35 respectively, inclusive of nail art. One-hour massages start from S$100 and facial treatments range from S$98 to S$250.
Passion for pastry
58 Seng Poh Road #01-15
Hours: 9am-7pm (Tues-Thu), 9am-11pm (Fri-Sat), 9am-9pm (Sun), closed Mondays
|DIFFERENCES ARE IN THE DETAILS: Ms Lim settled on the Tiong Bahru venue to site her 45-seater Whisk for its high foot traffic and eclectic mix of aged aunties, uncles and youths. PHOTO: DEBBIE YONG
IT DOESN’T matter if hers is the umpteeth iteration to open in the by-now cafe-saturated neighbourhood, or that its all-white decor and flash bulb-studded signboard looks somewhat out of place in the aged estate. Tricia Lim of month-old Whisk Cafe believes that the differences are in the details.
Before setting up shop, for instance, she spent time checking out the baked goods of neighbouring cafes to make sure none of her offerings overlap with theirs, says the 30-year-old.
To formalise her passion for pastry, the former PR and marketing executive left her job in 2011 to enrol in a six-month course at the French Culinary Institute (now renamed as the International Culinary Centre) in New York – and she hasn’t looked back since. Besides training under her long-time idol and globally renowned pastry chef Jacques Torres, Ms Lim also spent time apprenticing at the Dominique Ansel bakery in New York, famed for creating the cronut.
The 45-seater Whisk is a physical manifestation of the online home bakery EatLoveBake that Ms Lim has been running since her return to Singapore two years ago. After scouring the island for over a year, Ms Lim settled on the Tiong Bahru venue for its high foot traffic and eclectic mix of aged aunties, uncles and youths. She spent a “six figure sum” doing up the 1,000 square foot space, which is partially owned by her banker parents.
Besides macarons in various flavours, her signature bakes such as carrot cakes, orange-scented cheesecakes and lemon tarts with less meringue to suit the local palate are also on offer from S$2.50 for a macaron to S$7 for a slice of cake. Seasonal specials such as a brown butter pumpkin cinnamon roll topped with a maple cream cheese frosting will be created intermittently, while savoury dishes such as sandwiches and quiches for lunch as well as easy drinking wines for evening diners will be introduced in the coming weeks.
The baby stroller-friendly space also offers mini-”babycinos”, or petite cups of foamed warm milk topped with cocoa and marshmallows for the little ones.
2/F, 69 Tiong Bahru Road
Tel 6438 9622
Hours: 12pm-7.30pm (Mon-Tues, Fri-Sun), closed Wed
|SHARING WINS: Combining the two national past times of eating and shopping is a no-brainer, says Ms Tan. PHOTOS: CLOTHES CURATOR
WHAT’S a budding entrepreneur with limited resources in a neighbourhood with rising rentals to do?
What every kampung dweller of yore would have done: share. Sequestered away on the second floor of year-old The Dispensary cafe in Tiong Bahru is the Clothes Curator, a four-month old clothes boutique run by former ad agency art director Iris Tan.
|Ms Tan PHOTOS: CLOTHES CURATOR
The Tiong Bahru resident of seven years was looking for a space in the neighbourhood to run her own business, but landlords were asking for frightful amounts in monthly rent for retail units in the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood.
She then chanced upon The Dispensary, and struck a deal to carve out a 320 square foot nook on the 2,200 sq ft cafe’s upper floor as a petite boutique. Aside from two labels, Tata and Exotic by Hong Kong designer Carmen Wong, the rest of the mainly cotton and linen apparel in loose fitting forms and handmade jewellery and accessories are individually handpicked from South Korea by Ms Tan and her business partner, who also owns Oka boutique in Far East Plaza. Prices range from S$40 for a t-shirt to S$189 for a dress.
The second floor space with no street-level visibility was no deterrent, says Ms Tan, who says most of her customers either heard about her through social media and by word-of-mouth recommendations from other shoppers. Or they are cafe patrons who chanced upon the store accidentally.
Combining the two national past times of eating and shopping is a no-brainer, according to Ms Tan.