Published June 01, 2013
Like it or not, modernisation is here to stay, and along with it, a myriad of ups and downs. BT Weekend traces how gentrification has toggled the balance between residents, new shops and generations-old businesses in seven of Singapore's trendiest dining enclaves.
|HEIGHTENED TENSION Chief among residents’ anxieties is that the new boutiques, bakeries and cafes (above) will irreversibly displace the generations-old businesses in Tiong Bahru - the very crux of the neighbourhood’s charm - PHOTO: JOHN HENG|
IT ALL started with a car. Three weeks ago, as part of the launch for Tiong Bahru barbershop We Need a Hero, a modified car was parked outside the store as a promotional prop.
A resident decided to post a photo of the vehicle on the Tiong Bahru Estate community Facebook page, which quickly sparked off a series of heated comments from residents and followers of the online community.
Several among them bemoaned the non-stop flow of new-fangled Western concept stores that have streamed into the increasingly trendy estate over the last two years. Other residents BT Weekend spoke to say that this is just the tip of simmering tensions between long-time residents of the neighbourhood and new businesses wedging in to cash in on its hype.
Chief among their anxieties is that the new boutiques, bakeries and cafes will irreversibly displace the generations-old businesses in Tiong Bahru - the very crux of the neighbourhood's charm.
A wine shop, an art gallery, several small convenience stores and a 24-hour yong tau foo stall have all been replaced in the last few months. The string of closures climaxed last Friday, when Hup Seng provision shop drew its shutters for the last time after over 50 years, and 70-year-old Hua Bee coffeeshop, known for its meepok and butter-addled kopi, announced that it would close in mid-June.
"I'm for giving a neighbourhood a new lease of life, but it must be done in a sustainable manner and where it is sensitive to the essence of the neighbourhood," says Georgina Koh, 32, who used to run a pop-up store from her Tiong Bahru walk-up apartment of six years. She has since expanded into two permanent retail stores, Nana and Bird and two.o.ri, both in the neighbourhood.
Though the neighbourhood is still a sleepy, resident-dotted enclave on weekdays, the weekend crowds tip the balance, she observes. Fellow Tiong Bahru resident, jewellery designer Chris Lim, 35, agrees: "We see more visitors with cameras here on weekends. It feels like we live in a tourist attraction."
Though modernisation is to be expected, his main gripe is that it is happening too quickly. The new businesses are very similar and do not cater to the needs of the neighbourhood, relying instead on the hype that bring people into Tiong Bahru. "What happens if the new businesses close or move to the next cool spot? I am worried we will be left with an empty shell," he says.
To encourage residents not to take for granted the estate's fast-disappearing hawker stalls and provision shops, a band of business owners and residents came together to set up a 'We Love Hua Bee' Facebook page. "The kopitiam is the true common denominator. It represents community, and it is this rich, multi-cultural community that we want our children to grow up in," says its spokesman, and Tiong Bahru homeowner, Carolyn Oei. "The nail in the coffin will be when we have an established chain move in," adds Ms Koh.
But new businesses say they are mindful of preserving the neighbourhood's vintage vibe, as that is precisely what attracted them to the area in the first place.
Self-taught baker Wendy Koh, 25, who will be opening Kisses Bakery next month in the former Hup Seng space, plans to retain the provision store's iconic blue shutters, its signboard, as well as a 60-year-old antique cupboard handed down from the Gohs.
Spa Esprit's public relations manager Janet Lim says the group makes a concerted effort to craft concepts that blend in with the character of the neighbourhood, rather than open chain outlets. Spa Esprit currently runs four outlets in Tiong Bahru: coffee joint 40 Hands, modern eatery Open Door Policy, Tiong Bahru Bakery and We Need A Hero.
Though Tiong Bahru Bakery is a French bakery (fourth-generation baker Gontran Cherrier is a business partner), its logo is designed to resemble the Chinese seal prints on traditional Chinese biscuits and its take-away packaging inspired by the zichar stalls that dot the neighbourhood, says Ms Lim.
Several residents also laud newcomers such as Two Face Pizzeria for seamlessly integrating a Western eatery into a kopitiam space through a day-and-night use concept. There are green shoots for the hawker business as well. Instead of running yet another air-conditioned cafe, young bakers Melvin Koh, 26, and Lewis Lee, 22, rented out a coffeeshop stall to run their no-frills baking business.
Maria Ng of Orange Thimble Cafe, says the key is for new businesses to make a connection with the residents they reside among. Her cafe hosts community-centric events to connect its stable of artists with residents through artists' talks, for instance.
Despite all their grouses, residents also have to gain from the tizzy over Tiong Bahru. Real estate prices have spiked considerably in the area, with pre-war walk-up apartments going for between $1,200 to $1,600 psf. Some units can fetch as much as $1.4 million.
And the boom has its downsides for the newer businesses too. "Though we're seeing more foot traffic, we are also victims of our own success as the rents have shot up in the neighbourhood," admits Yeo Wenxian, co-founder of homewares store Strangelets.
And there's another irony. "I often see owners and staff of the new F&B outlets frequent the old coffeeshops. It seems the new businesses need the 'old' Tiong Bahru too," quips Mr Lim.
By Debbie Yong
The march of progress
|The Keong Saik neighbourhood - a collection of shops and eateries - PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN|
Ever since the Jason Atherton-fronted Spanish tapas bar, Esquina, opened along the strip in late 2011, the Keong Saik neighbourhood - a collection of shops and eateries that lie along the intersecting triangle of Teck Lim Road, Jiak Chuan Road and Keong Saik Road - has been slowly blossoming into a dining destination in its own righ.
Swiftly trailing in Esquina's wake came eateries offering up a global range of flavours, from French restaurants Taratata, Nicolas le Restaurant and Provence to Thai eatery MooJaa, 1980s-themed British restaurant The Retrospective and, most recently, Japanese ramen-bar Mariko's and barbecue specialist, Burnt Ends.
What the area has got going for it - and which makes the sudden explosion of new restaurants seem like a natural progression rather than an unexpected development - is Keong Saik's existing pedigree as a food street, say the area's tenants.
|WITHSTANDING THE TEST OF TIME |
Treasures await behind the doors of Cheng Hoo Tian, a four-storey part-museum, part-fine dining Teochew restaurant. - PHOTO: YEN MENG JIIN
Tong Ah Coffeeshop is a four-generation-old business that dates back to1939. Neighbouring zichar eatery Kok Sen is one of the street's oldest and most iconic, and packs a full-house even on an early weekday evening. Between them is Kim Hock Seng, a bak kwa specialist that's been around for 30 years. Its owner, Ong Geok Hoo, 63, recalls in Mandarin: "It used to be very quiet, and very hard for businesses to survive in the 1990s. We've seen many come and go within months." The area's former reputation as a thriving red light district didn't help. "My customers would be too embarrassed to walk on the street, they either call for delivery and some even asked me not to print my shop's address on our boxes," he laughs.
Which is why, like him, many of Keong Saik's long-time business owners cheer the area's new tenants for replacing the seedy karaoke bars that once lined the streets, and for helping to boost area's vibrancy by drawing in young, often foreign, patrons.
"They may come here for the Western restaurants but when they are here, they may hear people talking about the local coffeeshops and return to give us a try," says Foong Kee's Derrick Wong, who has noticed a significant increase in foreign customers in recent months.
But Tong Ah's Tang Chew Fue, 49, is less optimistic: "Though the new businesses bring more people to the area, the demographics of our customers are completely different. Theirs happily pay $70 for a meal but ours complain when they have to pay more than $4 for a plate of noodles," he says.
Along with the exponentially rowing interest in the area is his rent, which jumped 100 per cent over the last two years. It is ultimately the consumer who will pay for this in terms of higher food prices, he says. A cup of local coffee, for instance, will cost $1.20 from this month, up from $1 previously.
For some, higher rents are an "inevitability" that they've already learnt to accept. Foong Kee's Mr Wong has just extended his lease by two years at a 30 per cent increase. "As the street gets busier, so does our business, so as long as the rent increase is reasonable and proportionate to the increase in takings, we can still manage."
But Kim Hock Seng's Mr Ong does feel threatened by incoming young entrepreneurs with deep pockets because he has built up a long-standing relationship with his landlords: "If landlords get too greedy raise their rents too high, they risk having to constantly look for new tenants who default after a few months."
Agreeing, Patrick Fok, who runs both The Retrospective and Mariko', believes the focus should be on encouraging landlords to be more reasonable. "Many of the landlords around Chinatown have owned the buildings for many years and are likely not paying off mortgages, so they should not be ruthless in ramping up rents. Landlords need to be socially responsible too."
But Esquina's Loh Lik Peng believes that the desire to reap profit is an understandable one: "How do you stop them? Do we tell them they must carry on in the face of such lost opportunity or that they can't retire because somebody remote to them says it's detrimental to the area's character?"
Then there is the question of whether the old businesses are in themselves sustainable.
While regulations prescribed by the Urban Renewal Authority ensure the preservation of heritage building faces, the issue of the old trades disappearing is "much more complex and is tied up in Singapore's modernisation", says Mr Loh.
"A lot of these old trades die out because not enough people patronise them or are prepared to pay them enough for them to make a decent enough economic return. Sometimes, they simply retire and nobody takes over. This is the reality.
"How do you stop the march of progress?"
By Debbie Yong
A sense of community
CONTROVERSY comes with the territory the moment you take over a pre-war shophouse or a conservation site, as Charmaine Ong would know. The vice-CEO of family-owned boutique hotel The Sultan has had to weather critical posts on the hotel's Facebook page. When the 64-room hotel won a URA Architectural Heritage Award last October, it was slammed by a netizen who posted nasty comments questioning the credibility of their research.
"But with Kampong Glam, people always speak of a sense of community that defines the zeitgeist of the area," she says, allowing that different folks have varying views on conservation.
Regardless, Kampong Glam's transformation is not over. Last October, Forward Land - managed by the Choo family behind brands such as Hotel 81, Value and V - won the tender for a 0.84 hectare site near The Sultan, at the corner of Jalan Sultan and Victoria Street. Apart from bohemian hangout Haji Lane, surrounding streets such as Bussorah, Kandahar, and even farther-flung Jalan Kubor are seeing a wave of modernised retailers and cafes with original concepts.
There is the newly opened Aliwal Arts Centre, for one, where two indie cafes, A for Arbite and Eat Play Love, have already popped up on its premises. In addition, four shophouses along Sultan Gate - destroyed by fire in 2006 - are currently undergoing reconstruction. They are owned by engineering house Lai Yew Seng, and possess highly-coveted restaurant permits. They're expected to be ready by the third quarter of the year.
Despite these sweeping changes over the past year, tenants young and old are not particularly concerned with gentrification. Says Abbyshane Lim, chef-owner of restaurant Symmetry along Jalan Kubor: "There are still plenty of traditional textile shops and the like . . . we can coexist peacefully and in balance."
Agrees Taher Amir Khan, owner of 92-year-old carpet business Amir & Sons: "I don't think the youngsters here are affecting the older businesses, in fact they are doing very fresh and exciting things, and they are very enterprising!"
A bigger issue is the crushing lack of parking space in the area. Older businesses such as zichar place Seow Choon Hua Restaurant says that they are losing regulars who complain that parking is harder to find.
Mr Amir suggests converting the nearby open-air parking lot into a multi-storey facility. The plot lies between Sultan Gate and Aliwal Street. Other suggestions include pedestrianising more streets during peak periods, following the example of veteran Haji Lane tenant Going Om bar, which is behind the Samsara Sunday Fair series. To close the road for two Sundays in February and May, co-founders Barry Tan and Oliver Pang had to apply for a Public Entertainment Licence and a Road Closure permit with the Singapore Police Force and the Land Transport Authority respectively.
Neighbouring tenants are intrigued by the idea. "We will definitely benefit from the spillover crowd during such events," says Levine Teo, co-owner of Ogopogo cafe over at Bussorah Street.
National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan has since lauded Samsara Sunday Fair on his blog. Says Going Om's Mr Tan: "We are flattered, and are certainly encouraged to create more of such events to promote an inclusive and harmonious community."
|TRANSFORMATION NOT OVER |
Samsara Sunday Fair where streets are closed to traffic. - PHOTO: MND
He acknowledges that there are complications, however. "To be honest, it is not easy work trying to make everyone satisfied," he says. "We have lost money on these events, but the outcome and feedback made up for it."
Besides, he quips, "What's Singapore without a few complaints?"
By Tan Teck Heng
|REMNANTS OF AN OLD NEIGHBOURHOOD |
Apart from must-try hawker fare at Chomp Chomp and Serangoon Gardens Market, what remains of familiar haunts in Serangoon Gardens (above) include sports bar cum pet cafe Happy Daze. - PHOTO: ST FILE PHOTO
SINCE February last year, no new shophouse lots can be converted to eateries along Serangoon Garden Way. The moratorium imposed by the URA was meant to curb traffic and parking problems.
URA has since explained that alternative solutions such as widening the roads or building multi-storey carparks are not feasible because of lack of room.
More than a year on, some remain doubtful over the ban's efficacy. "In fact, I feel that the traffic situation is getting worse," says resident Reetha Sturgess.
By limiting the supply of F&B shophouse lots, the ban also has the unfortunate effect of driving rents up even further on properties with restaurant permits. Observes resident of 40 years Debra Zuzarte: "We've lost a couple of the old-style coffee shops. It's just sad that rentals seem to dictate who stays."
Ms Zuzarte also owns BZB's Pub, a decade-old establishment which has become a meeting ground for regulars and Serangoon residents. It boasts bluesy live music, monthly potlucks and charity drives.
|REMNANTS OF AN OLD NEIGHBOURHOOD |
Apart from must-try hawker fare at Chomp Chomp and Serangoon Gardens Market, what remains of familiar haunts in Serangoon Gardens include sports bar cum pet cafe Happy Daze (above). - PHOTO: ST FILE PHOTO
Apart from must-try hawker fare at Chomp Chomp and Serangoon Gardens Market, what remains of familiar haunts include sports bar cum pet cafe Happy Daze (opened since 1999), and the famous Pow Sing Restaurant, which grew from a humble chicken rice stall back in 1983.
Past the ban, owner of Chillax Café and Radio DJ with 98.7FM Darren Wee appears to be the only indie F&B operator who has managed to acquire an existing restaurant lot. The cafe has a second-level massage bar, and has replaced Liquid Kitchen as of April last year.
"I used to enjoy going to Liquid Kitchen a lot," says Mr Wee, who previously lived in the area for over 18 years.
For him, the URA ban does not address the lack of parking space. "It's not just eateries; there are tuition centres, dance schools, banks and so forth - all these increase the number of people visiting this area as well," he says. "What we need is the expansion of existing parking spaces".
Ms Sturgess agrees: "The new mall could have been built with more parking lots, and so can the hawker centre which was supposedly just upgraded."
"The establishments keep changing, so there isn't enough time to have any sort of history," adds Ms Zuzarte. Concludes Ms Sturgess: "Commercialisation has butchered the neighbourhood".
By Tan Teck Heng
BOTH Adora Tan-Richer and her father grew up on treats from the Red House Bakery on East Coast Road. She also remembers posing for photos in room settings at IKEA Katong along Amber Road, and sending them to her penpals with little notes like "This is my room - isn't it nice?"
Today, the streets of Katong are a far cry from the heart-warming masak-masak days. "Old Katong shophouses are being turned into Internet cafes, convenience stores and swanky joints," observes Ms Tan-Richer, who lived there till she was 16. "With every change, a piece of Katong is lost."
The iconic Red House Bakery was closed in 2003. This month, Warees Investments - the property arm of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) - will relaunch it as The Red House. The residential project includes 42 units, a heritage gallery that will open 24/7, and of course, a bakery.
In the face of related changes over the past couple of years, anxieties surrounding iconic F&B haunts in Katong are mounting. In November 2011, Katong Mall redeveloped into 112 Katong. And come October, Katong Village - a lifestyle hotspot along East Coast Road in the former Joo Chiat police station - may be put up again for tender after the first failed to draw bids last year.
More recent casualties include one third of the Katong laksa trio at number 49 (the other two being 328 Laksa and Roxy Laksa), replaced last November by café Rabbit Carrot Gun. Lord Trenchard Richard Huggins owns the quirky joint, and has since started luxe bed-and-breakfast Rabbit Warren upstairs, followed by pub The Trenchard Arms just next door.
Further down the road, Ali Baba Eating House - which incubated local restaurant chains such as steakhouse Astons and French bistro Saveur - has been remodelled into Alibabar, a posh concept known as a "hawker bar", as coined by owner Tan Kay Chuan.
|ADDING LIFE |
Alibabar (above) has brought buzz to the Katong area. - PHOTO: DEBBIE YONG
And just earlier this year, paranoia broke out over rumours that traditional confectionary Chin Mee Chin would soon close. Its owners have clarified that no revamp is in sight.
"If we want to maintain traditional and cultural food, we have to keep it exactly the same," says spokesman Tan Cheow Suan, stressing that the last major renovation was 20 years ago.
If anyone has a bone to pick with these developments, it would be Peter Wee, the fourth-generation owner of the century-old shophouse lot which houses Katong Antiques House. His outfit gives tours of the carefully preserved interior, which comprise a small courtyard and rare Peranakan heirlooms.
Yet, Mr Wee - who happens to be the president of the Peranakan Association Singapore - concedes that evolution is inevitable.
"We have to give way to modernisation, and changes like 112 Katong and Alibabar have brought life to this area of Katong and generated buzz," says Mr Wee.
For him, what is contentious is the degree of conservation. "Big developers and new businesses cannot just gut historic buildings and leave a façade or a shell," he says. "These 21st-century shells cannot accommodate the past or its people; without the people, a building is just a building".
Agrees Ms Tan-Richer: "New F&B outlets are great, but perhaps the fare offered should be in line with the area," she says, citing Peranakan cuisine as a quintessential part of Katong.
|ADDING LIFE |
Newcomer Sinpopo (above) preserves details of earlier Singapore, from the shophouse grille and tiles right down to the toilet door. - PHOTO: SINPOPO BRAND
In that sense, newcomer Sinpopo along Joo Chiat Road checks all the boxes. The concept by Awfully Chocolate preserves details of earlier Singapore, from the shophouse grille and tiles right down to the toilet door. Some degree of Peranakan influence is evident on the menu, which includes dishes such as pengat - or fruits stewed with coconut milk and gula melaka.
As for The Red House, nostalgia and history will be part of its DNA, says COO of Warees Investments Zaini Osman. "We have 'walked the ground' to meet local grassroots, Peranakan and business associations, and did research on the heritage of Katong," he says. "We hope to deliver a landmark development which contributes to national efforts towards heritage preservation".
And while Rabbit Carrot Gun serves largely British fare, Lord Trenchard has been careful to renovate sensitively. "Breathing new life into the beauty of this historic piece was a key driver," says the Singapore citizen. "When we removed the scaffolding for the first time, there was a spontaneous round of applause from the diners at the neighbouring Laksa noodle bar!"
But conservation seems to be a losing battle. Cautions Lord Trenchard: "Preserving buildings - irrespective of usage - faces financial pressure via mounting regulation. It will prove harder and harder for conservation to be commercially viable".
By Tan Teck Heng
A better dining experience
DINING in a quiet residential estate far from the madding crowd: it sounds a dream to foodies craving a break from the hustle and bustle of city life.
But this has created some unhappiness among residents in Jalan Riang - a neighbourhood in Braddell Heights estate off Upper Serangoon Road.
Gone is the tranquility of the neighbourhood. In its place stands an enclave of hip new restaurants that draws the crowds, leading to traffic congestion, illegal parking as some customers do not want to walk a long way, and increased noise levels.
These issues have ruffled feathers among residents.
"Parking can be a big problem here. Sometimes, people park outside my house and block the way. The road is already so narrow; it doesn't help that there are so many cars," says resident Theresa Lim, who has lived in Jalan Riang for some 20 years.
The retiree in her 70s, lives several doors away from the shophouses which house five eateries and other businesses.
It's not the noise that bothers her as her home is some distance away; it is just the sudden influx of visitors to a once quiet place, that has taken some getting used to.
"This place used to be so peaceful 20 years ago. There was just a provision shop and a kopitiam. Now it's different," she says.
Following complaints from residents about the congested roads and illegally parked vehicles, the owners of four eateries jointly hired private traffic wardens on Friday evenings and weekends, to direct cars passing through the area.
|CROWD CONTROL |
Four eateries, including Australian-themed cafe Rokeby (above), have hired wardens from a traffic management company to direct the cars passing through the area, helping to reduce traffic congestion. - PHOTO: ROKEBY
The initiative has been in place for around six weeks and seems to have helped a little, says Kelvin Lim, 28, who owns the Australian-themed cafe Rokeby, which opened in February. He and the other restaurant owners have to pay around $400 monthly to hire the traffic wardens.
He says: "We felt we had to do something about it; to be fair to the residents."
Another restaurant, The Cajun Kings, now provides free valet parking for its customers on Fridays and weekends.
This has created "a better dining experience" for its patrons as they no longer need to walk a long distance from parking spaces located far away, as well as reduced complaints from the residents, says restaurant owner Marcus Kok. He runs the place with two business partners.
"It's a good neighbourhood and the residents here are nice people. Many of them are our regular customers. It's only right that we don't create any inconvenience for them."
|CROWD CONTROL |
Dessert cafe Wimbly Lu (above) has pegged the closing time at 10.30pm on weekdays and 11pm on weekends, so that they 'don't disturb the residents'. - PHOTO: WIMBLY LU
"When we first opened in 2011, Jalan Riang wasn't so crowded the way it is now. It had this quiet charm. I think the residents like having more food options, but I'm sure they miss how quiet it used to be," says co-owner Luciana Tan, 41.
One long-term resident in his 70s, who wants only to be known as Mr Tan, has lived in Jalan Riang for some 50 years. While he isn't too pleased about the congested roads and occasional illegally parked car outside his home, he has gotten used to how crowded his once peaceful neighbourhood has become.
"People tend to park outside the houses. But apart from that, there aren't any major problems," he says. "A place can't stay the same forever anyway, things are bound to change."
By Sara Yap
TUCKED away in Greenwood, a residential area in Bukit Timah, is a burgeoning dining enclave where new waves of eateries are constantly popping up. Just this year, four new restaurants opened in the neighbourhood.
The increased dining options have come at a price, though. From clogged roads to indiscriminately parked cars that obstruct the flow of traffic outside homes - Greenwood's residents have seen it all.
Last year, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) even added Greenwood Avenue to a list of "problematic" traffic areas where new eateries cannot be opened, unless they are taking over the shop space previously occupied by another food business.
But some Greenwood residents feel that the inconveniences brought by the influx of visitors are minor in comparison to the benefits of having easy accessibility to food and amenities.
"I love the atmosphere here; the cluster of dining spots here has elevated the quality of the neighbourhood. It has also made it easier for us to get food and groceries," says consultant Matthias Goertz, 47, who has lived at the nearby Hillcrest Arcadia condominium for the past five years.
To avoid getting caught in heavy traffic, the German-born permanent resident prefers to take a 10 minute walk to the food enclave.
Housewife Colleen Sommerin, 43, who lives at Hillcrest Villa - a cluster housing development located a few minutes walk away - shares Mr Goertz's sentiment.
She says that the variety of food options available and the close proximity to grocery stores - there is also a Cold Storage supermarket on the strip - have made the neighbourhood "an ideal place to live in".
The traffic congestion is not entirely the eateries' fault, Ms Sommerin adds. The roads get clogged on weekday afternoons too, when parents pick up their children from the nearby Raffles Girls' Primary School.
Owners of some eateries say they suggest alternative parking areas to their customers when the lots outside are fully occupied, so as to reduce the congestion and deter people from parking illegally.
|RESPONSIBLE OWNERS |
French restaurant Shelter In The Woods (above) lets customers know of alternative places to park their cars, so as to reduce the congestion and deter people from parking illegally. - PHOTO: SHELTER IN THE WOODS
"For customers who drive, we let them know about other places where they can park. I haven't received any complaints from residents, though," says chef-owner David Thien of French restaurant Shelter In The Woods.
|RESPONSIBLE OWNERS |
Baker & Cook owner Mr Brettschneider tries to reduce the inconvenience caused to the residents. - PHOTO: BAKER & COOK
At bakery Baker & Cook, owner Dean Brettschneider feels the onus is on business operators to reduce the inconvenience caused to the residents.
He says: "As long as business owners act responsibly and help educate their customers about being mindful they are in someone else's neighbourhood, things will be fine."
By Sara Yap