Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Sunday Times : Two Face kopitiam

The Sunday Times
Lifestyle Section
Posh Nosh
23 December 2012
By Tan Hsueh Yun 

When a friend sends me photos of a new eatery in Tiong Bahru, I just have to laugh out loud.

Two Face, it is called. And when I visit, I realise how apt the name is.

By day, 01-46 at Block 56 Eng Hoon Street is a kopitiam with stalls selling yong tau foo and vegetarian food, among other things. These close at about 3pm. In the evening, the place transforms into Two Face Pizza & Taproom, a chill-out place with a simple menu and craft beers.

Residents walk in to get takeout pizza, yuppies and arty types hang out, sip beer and talk over food.

The 70-seat eatery, which opened on Dec 7, is co-owned by three people. One of them, Mr Tan Choon, 49, moved into the neighbourhood three months ago.

He says: "I was going around and noticed that the stalls are closed in the afternoon. I approached the owner and asked if he'd let us have it in the evening. He was reluctant at first, then he agreed."

It takes just 10 minutes to transform the space, with its retro green-and-white mosaic floor, into Two Face. Hoardings covered in blackboard paint hide the stalls completely.

Diners order at a counter, and the food is cooked in the coffeeshop's shared kitchen.

Pizzas are the stars on the menu and will appeal to people who like their crusts thin and crackly.

An unusual Kiam He Pizza ($14), is topped with bits of salted fish, olives, oregano, capers and basil. The fish is a great topping for pizza, and goes especially well with the mozzarella cheese.

Smoked Duck Pizza ($14), with slices of the meat, truffle flavoured mayonnaise and a handful of rocket leaves on top, is also popular with diners.

A couple of dishes I will go back for.

The Aglio Olio Mushroom + Bacon ($12) has al dente pasta spiked with slices of chilli padi. That bit of heat really lifts the olive oil and garlic pasta dish, which can sometimes be too rich.

Ha Chong Gai ($8), or prawn paste chicken, comes with crisp batter and juicy meat underneath. It is better than some versions I have had at zi char stalls although I am beginning to think there can never be too much prawn paste in the crispy chicken pieces.

It comes with a kicking, although not overly spicy, chilli dip. The bright red sauce comes in handy for two other dishes.

One is Oyster Mushroom ($6), battered and deep-fried chunks of the fungi. It comes with nothing to dip it in, alas, so thank goodness for the chilli. A blue cheese dip would work well too, come to think of it.

I keep getting tempted to dip the crisp pieces of deep fried pork in Maple Mayo Pork Belly ($8) into the chilli too, and it works beautifully. The meat sits on a nest of thin cut fries and are drizzled with mayonnaise mixed with maple syrup. Great idea, but it needs a little more zip.

Beefy Ballz ($10) look good but have far too much gristle. They are being tweaked, and I will go back to try the new, improved version.

When I do, I will order the Two Face Signature Drink ($4), a delicious blend of sour plum, caixin and pineapple. The bright green drinks looks way too healthy but I love how refreshing it is; a little sour, a little sweet and with no trace of bitterness from the leafy greens.

On Sundays, the place is open all day, with brunch served between 10am and 3pm. On the menu are dishes such as Eggs Benedict ($14), Fluffy French Toast ($8) with strawberries and banana and Juicy Steak Sandwich ($16).

Mr Tan is working to add more pizzazz to the place. There might soon be poetry written on those black hoardings, and an artist is keen to display his work there.

With friendly prices - there is no service charge or GST, and more than decent food, Two Face is shaping up to be a cool neighbourhood hangout.

Is this the start of a new trend, with other two-face places opening up? Now that would be an interesting addition to the food scene.


Two Face Pizza & Taproom has a simple menu that includes Kiam He Pizza and Two Face Signature Drink (above), which is made with sour plum, caixin and pineapple. -- PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

Two Face, Block 56, Eng Hoon Street, 01-46, tel: 6536-0024, open: 5 to 11pm (Tuesdays to Thursdays), 5pm to midnight (Fridays and Saturdays), 10am to 10pm (Sundays), closed on Mondays except for tomorrow and Dec 30, when it is open from 5pm to midnight

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Sunday Times : Weigh the pros and cons of shorter leasehold homes

The Sunday Times
16 December 2012
Invest Section
By lee su shyan money editor
Such units may be priced lower but buyers should consider life expectancy, value when cashing out

BUYING leasehold is one thing but what about a property with just a 60-year lease? That surely is stretching things. Well, maybe.

Like many people, I have always leaned towards freehold but I may well be proved wrong by a small site at Jalan Jurong Kechil that has such a lease.

The tender was awarded to Aspial Corp's unit World Class Developments (North) for $73.8 million recently. Yes, Aspial is a jewellery company but it has a property development arm.

The site is about 152,848 sq ft and it was specified that it could be developed for residential or retirement housing.

It was remarkable that it attracted 23 bids, an unusually large number of developers getting in on the game, especially given the lease is much shorter than the usual 99 years.

World Class has yet to reveal its design plans but already there is much interest online in what the development will be like.

Now that shoebox flats are passe, it seems developers think that shorter-lease projects will be the next big thing.

Consultants and property agents say that many people are coming to the market with a budget of $1 million to $1.2 million.

A 60-year leasehold unit can be priced at perhaps a 20 per cent discount to one with a 99-year tenure.

This means - if you adopt a back-of-the envelope calculation - spending $800,000 for the same apartment that would have cost $1 million.

For a buyer, especially for retirement housing, this makes sense as it means an extra $200,000 for expenses and other investments.

However, it is not entirely a no-brainer as it would partly depend on how long you live and how much spare cash you have.

The value of a 60-year apartment runs down quicker than for the 99-year property.

Assume you bought it when you were 40. By the time you are 70 and need the money, you may have lost the option of cashing out of your main asset since it may not be worth that much.

Conversely, if you were able to afford the $1 million on a 99-year lease, after 30 years there will be more value for you to realise if you do need to sell and downgrade.

It is a similar decision for an investor weighing up between the 60-year and a 99-year leasehold apartment.

As the yield is based on the $800,000 capital sum, a 60-year leasehold flat will offer better returns. After all the tenant is not going to value the apartment based on the tenure of the land.

However, if you look at the financing aspect, an investor may also end up having to pay a higher interest rate and being able to borrow less simply because banks are unwilling to finance this relatively shorter lease.

A good response when the Jalan Jurong Kechil site is launched may mean buyers are becoming more open to different lease terms.

It may also encourage more such sites with shorter lease terms to come onto the market, giving home owners more options.

This will bring the Singapore system closer to Hong Kong, where homes are often sold with 50- or 60-year leases.

However, to my mind, apart from the drawbacks of shorter leases, there are also risks from how the developers go about pricing the project. Although prices for a 60-year lease may be lower than for a 99-year lease, the question is how large is the gap and how fast it may close.

Looking at the enthusiastic response from developers, in future they may aim to price it lower than a 99-year leasehold property, but not as much as 20 per cent cheaper, as long as they think there will be demand.

While a shorter lease will make sense at the start for the buyer because it is cheaper, there are drawbacks that arise 30 or 40 years down the road.

Think through this buying decision carefully. Given that life expectancy is getting longer, this may well be a problem that will come home to roost sooner than one thinks.

The Sunday Times : Indie outlets get help via social media to stay afloat

The Sunday Times
16 December 2012

Mr Kenny Leck, 34, owner of BooksActually in Tiong Bahru, launched an appeal on Facebook and successfully raised $16,000 last month. -- ST FILE PHOTO
Pressured by escalating business costs, the owners of two indie ventures here have taken to social media to mobilise their customers for funding.

Tiong Bahru bookshop BooksActually launched an appeal on Facebook and successfully raised $16,000 last month.

This was followed by The Pigeonhole, a cafe and arts space in Duxton Road, which hopes to raise $15,800 by Dec 27.

The Pigeonhole opened in March last year and is owned by Ms Ave Chan and Mr Rayner Lim.Both declined to comment when contacted by The Sunday Times, but they posted on crowdfunding portal Indiegogo that they were raising funds to pay for rental arrears and relocation costs.

"This fund-raising campaign started because we - and many of our friends and customers - really don't want us to close down for good," they wrote.

As of yesterday afternoon, a week into the campaign, more than $7,300 has been raised online. Donations are also accepted in-store.

They also plan to hold a free benefit concert on its premises at 52 Duxton Road this Friday, to help raise funds.

BooksActually, located at 9 Yong Siak Street, hit its target of $16,000, which it used to pay for a two-month security deposit for the rental of its 1,800 sq ft shop.

Owner Kenny Leck, 34, said he had a week to raise that amount after his landlord raised his rental from $3,800 to $8,000. His deadline was Nov 20.

"We've shifted so many times, and it is crazy to shift again when we're trying to build the business and are on track to stabilise it," said Mr Leck, on why he decided to stay put instead of finding a new location for his business.

The independent bookstore opened in 2005 in Telok Ayer, before moving to Ann Siang Road and Club Street.

Mr Leck went on Facebook to announce a 30 per cent storewide sale on Nov 15 and a book launch on Nov 16.

"I don't believe in just taking people's money," he said. "I wanted people to come and buy something, even if it's only a voucher, or if it's something they don't want, they can give it to someone else."

Lawyer Choo Zheng Xi said police permits are required for collections "made by means of visits from house to house or of soliciting in streets or other public places".

"It is conceivable that a strict interpretation of 'other public places' could be read as including the Internet," said Mr Choo. "But I know of private companies who have raised money through PayPal and have not got into trouble with the police."

Customers were happy to chip in for The Pigeonhole's campaign. Eight donors The Sunday Times spoke to gave between $50 and $200.

Student Leow Yi En, 16, who donated $50, said: "The Pigeonhole helps to promote the local arts scene and I hope that it would be able to continue with its work."

He also spent $30 at BooksActually the weekend the appeal was made.

Dr Kevin Lim, 35, who donated $200 to The Pigeonhole, said: "People are helping one another to make their community a better place."

The assistant director of the National Art Gallery, which will open in 2015, added: "There is co-dependency, something that harks back to the idea of the kampung spirit, which we as modern Singaporeans hardly experience today."

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Straits Times : Hipster hooray for two.o.ri

Located in Tiong Bahru, two.o.ri (above) sells items such as clothes and lifestyle items by local and international brands. -- PHOTO: MARK CHEONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

What: two.o.ri

Where: 61 Seng Poh Lane, 01-05

When: 5 to 10pm (Wednesdays to Fridays), 11am to 9pm (Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays), closed Mondays and Tuesdays

Who: The co-owners of fashion boutique nana & bird in Tiong Bahru, Ms Georgina Koh (below right), 32, and Ms Tan Chiew Ling (below left), 32. The duo have collaborated with distribution company Darts, which focuses on international designer brands, to open this eclectic apparel and lifestyle store.
two.o.ri (say "two-ooh-ray") is tucked away in an unlikely location: in a one-storey building in an open-air carpark, with a zi char restaurant and a seafood distributor for neighbours.


Ms Tan, who works in a creative agency, says: "There are a lot of old-school food and beverage outlets here, and a lot of people are surprised to see our shop."

Still, given the hipster enclave that Tiong Bahru has turned into, the shop is well placed.

"We see the potential that traffic will stream down from the busy Yong Siak Street," explains Ms Koh.

Yong Siak Street is where independent bookstore BooksActually and popular coffee joint 40 Hands are located.

The "two" in the shop's name refers to different groups of people interacting with one another, while "ri" is slang for laughter in French.

Having opened their first boutique, nana & bird, in Tiong Bahru last year, the partners decided to open a second, larger one in the same area to stock a wider range of products - from lifestyle items to menswear. nana & bird, which sells women's clothes and accessories, occupies 430 sq ft in a former residential unit on a HDB block's ground floor.

two.o.ri, which officially opened at the end of last month, is twice that size.

The 800 sq ft shop is curved on one side, with squarish cut-outs over clear glass windows that let in light. Black-and-white blinds adorn the shop's full-length glass entrance.

Goods, such as watches, sunglasses and bags, are tastefully arranged on custom-made varnished plywood shelves and tables.

Ms Tan and Ms Koh designed the interior themselves and wanted to create a raw yet welcoming feel. They spent around $10,000 doing up the space.

The shop carries local and international labels for men and women from places such as New Zealand, South Korea and Britain. These include Canadian label Oliberte and home-grown womenswear label aijek.

Clothing costs between $100 and $500. Prices range from $3 for a pen to $1,280 for a leather bag.

The owners are also hoping to make full use of their ample new space to host events - from pop- up stores-within-a-store to collection launches.

Ms Koh says: "We could even get a DJ in to spin or have an artisanal coffee pushcart. Just seeing this as a retail space would be under-utilising it."

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Straits Times : The more, the merrier

The Straits Times
11th August 2012
By Cheryl Faith Wee

Some animal lovers keep between seven and nine pets at home

Ms Bella Koh lives with eight cats in the apartment she shares with her husband Terence Yeung -- ST PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA, KEVIN LIM

When it comes to furry friends, owning just one pet is not enough for some animal lovers.

A check by Life! found some keeping up to nine critters. Take Ms Bella Koh, 31, who has eight cats in the three-bedroom apartment in Tiong Bahru that she lives in with her design-lecturer husband, Mr Terence Yeung, 42.

Ms Koh, who owns vintage boutique Flea And Trees in Tiong Bahru, got her first cat in 1998 and has been adopting felines ever since. They range from neighbourhood strays to others rescued from dire straits.

She says: "There was a little black kitten we found on the expressway. We halted the car and took it back home. If we had left it there, it would probably have been run over."

Her husband also helps take care of the cats. Tasks include feeding them twice daily and letting them out of the house in the afternoon and ensuring they return safely in the evening.

The couple also bathe all the cats once a month. Ms Koh says: "We work like a factory line. I bathe them in our shower and my husband wipes them down. We get muscle aches after that."

They spend around $200 a month on food for their cats.

Another pet lover is chef Jason Ong, 42, who has four birds and three dogs. He shares a one-storey corner terrace house in Upper Thomson with programme director Kevin Neo, 36.

Mr Ong, who owns cafe Torte in Waterloo Street, says: "It is a big responsibility but it is always fun. We never get bored. I grew up around animals and my family even had a pig."

He keeps the birds in cages in the backyard. The dogs run free in the frontyard when there is no one at home.

Still, some onlookers are baffled by Mr Ong's dedication to his pets. The animal lover says jokingly: "My neighbours get very upset when they find out that I feed my birds papayas from the trees in my yard. They want the papayas, too."

He does not leash or keep the dogs in a room when guests come over during festive occasions such as Chinese New Year and Christmas. As a result, some fearful friends decline invitations to visit.

Mr Neo says: "Most of our friends like dogs but those who are afraid will most likely not come."

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority allows a maximum of three dogs per private non-HDB premises. Permission must be obtained to keep more than three dogs. For public housing, only one dog of an approved small breed is allowed. The Housing Board does not permit cats to be kept in HDB flats.

All dogs above three months old must have a licence. Cats do not have to be licensed and neither do birds and fish.

The director of the Singapore Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Ms Corinne Fong, 49, says: "Good intentions aside, these individuals should be financially prepared to ensure the well-being of their pets, which means seeing to their day-to-day needs and regular vet visits."

She adds: "They should plan long- term, have a good support network and also consider what will happen if they are away or no longer capable of taking care of their pets."

Mr Marvin Ong keeps nine chinchillas in four cages in his bedroom in a flat which he shares with a flatmate. -- ST PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA, KEVIN LIM

Engineer Marvin Ong, 35, has nine chinchillas - rodents the size of a rabbit with a squirrel-like tail. He arranges to leave his pets with a friend when he is on holiday. They live in four cages in his bedroom in a rented three-room HDB flat which he shares with a flatmate. He divides the animals into three pairs and one trio in each of the large, spacious cages.

Mr Ong has dreamt of getting a chinchilla since he was 17. He got his first one about two years ago when he could finally afford it. It cost him around $2,000.

But he could not resist adopting more, especially those from online forums that he noticed were kept in poor conditions.

His pets' cages, with fans attached, cost more than $3,000. He spends more than $180 a month on their food.

"This amount is quite okay. After all, it is only about one-third of what it costs to feed a human every month if you spend about $10 on meals daily," says Mr Ong.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Straits Times : Tiong Bahru's old-new vibe

The Sunday Times
29th July 2012
By Cheryl Faith Wee

Long-time residents and family businesses in the estate co-exist alongside cool new cafes and eateries, drawing the attention of locals and tourists

Once a sleepy residential area, Tiong Bahru has roused from its slumber with at least one new shop opening in the neighbourhood every other month.

Its reputation for being an upper-class estate where wealthy businessmen housed their mistresses in the 1930s and early 1940s gave way to a tight-knit middle-class estate with a kampung feel after World War II.

And now, besides housing long-time residents and famed eateries that go back decades, the distinct 1930s Art Deco-style buildings of the neighbourhood are also home to quaint cafes, indie boutiques and hip working professionals.

The estate's revival has drawn both locals and tourists, who on weekends, comb the main streets and back lanes of the sprawling residential area turned trendy destination.

The neighbourhood's rejuvenation in the last decade has also made those abroad sit up and take notice. In the past five years, international publications such as American daily newspaper The New York Times and travel news website CNNGo have lauded the estate's beautiful architecture and unique mix of old- and new-world charms.

Premium coffee joint 40 Hands in Yong Siak Street is often attributed as the catalyst that drew all eyes to Tiong Bahru. It opened in 2010 and the owners helped persuade seven-year-old independent bookstore Books Actually to move from Ann Siang Hill to just across the road the following year.

Within months, quirky boutique Strangelets, the bistro Open Door Policy and the restaurant SocialHaus opened alongside them.

Yong Siak Street, which takes just two minutes to walk from one end to the other, has a total of five eateries and counting - Japanese restaurant Ikyu is expected to open there next month.

Just this week, PS Cafe, which has four outlets here, started operating a 1,000-plus sq ft food and dessert test kitchen in Guan Chuan Street nearby. While the kitchen does not retail food yet, PS Cafe says that it is developing a retail element.

There are currently 21 food and beverage outlets among the 64 HDB commercial properties in the Tiong Bahru estate.

The Housing Board evaluates requests to convert a shop into an eating establishment based on criteria such as the layout and concept of the unit.

Private buildings in the area fall under the purview of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, whose criteria for change-of-use applications are similar to HDB's.

In spite of the F&B outlets that seem to have taken over the area, the enclave of conserved private pre-war homes, located just minutes away from the Central Business District, was popular as a residential area first.

It attracted young working professionals such as Ms Georgina Koh, 32, who moved into the area six years ago when she got married. She says: 'Back then, it was very sleepy here but I loved its kampung feel.'

Ms Koh, who works at the Singapore Tourism Board and is also a co-founder of fashion boutique Nana & Bird in Yong Siak Street, paid around $200,000 for a 947 sq ft three-room post-war flat in 2006. These days, the same post-war flat would cost $600,000 to $680,000.

And a 1,000 sq ft private pre-war flat with about 53 years left on a 99-year lease would set a buyer back by about $1 million now.

Rental flats here are popular too, especially with expatriates. Property agent Alvin Yeo, 41, who deals primarily in Tiong Bahru homes, says rents for a typical 1,000 sq ft unit can hit $3,500 or $4,000 a month.

Rising rents in the area have also hit businesses. Shop space rentals go for more than $7 psf a month, up from around $4 about two years ago. And the numbers are still climbing.

The owner of Books Actually, Mr Kenny Leck, 34, expects his mid-four-figure-sum rent to double when the two-year lease on his 2,100 sq ft unit expires next year.

He says: 'This area is hot and it is the landlord's prerogative to make money in a free market. I am 50-50 about moving again, but the thought of moving all my stock is a nightmare.'

Commercial space in the area is in such demand that mom-and-pop shops in Seng Poh Road, such as 74-year-old provision shop iEcon and 19-year-old hardware store Hock Eng Hin, receive offers from keen buyers every other week.

Mr Michael Chan, 64, is part of family- run business Hock Eng Hin that occupies a 1,300 sq ft unit. He says: 'We bought the unit for around $570,000 in 1993. Now it's worth around $2 million.'

He adds: 'A lot of old shops have closed and sold off their business but we tell the interested buyers 'no' because our hardware store can still survive.'

At nearby iEcon, Mr Rodney Goh, 57, says: 'The shop has sentimental value - it was handed down by my grandfather. Even if my children do not want to run a provision shop in the future, they can have the space to do other kinds of business.'

Some eventually give in to these offers. One former owner is 60-year-old delivery man Wee Chye Guan. For more than a decade, he owned a provision shop in 78 Yong Siak Street, but sold the under 1,000 sq ft space earlier this year for what is said to be around $1.4 million. Mr Wee declined to confirm this.

He still lives in Tiong Bahru and notes: 'It is hard to make a living from a provision shop these days.'

The new landlord has rented the space to a cafe called PoTeaTo.

Some residents are apprehensive about the growing number of F&B outlets. Earlier this year, a resident called the police about it being too noisy at night, while others reportedly were unhappy about parking congestion on weekends.

Businesses in the area have tried to be mindful of residents. For instance, SocialHaus added noise-absorbing velvet curtains to its windows to contain the music.

A member of the Seng Poh Residents' Committee, Mr Kelvin Ang, 40, who has lived in Tiong Bahru for the past seven years, says: 'Newcomers are welcome but instead of just coming here to leech off the community, they should balance how they can do a business and contribute.'

One example of how the new co-exists with the old is 40-plus-years stall Ah Chiang's Porridge in Tiong Poh Road.

Mr Cher Kee Chiang, 65, who has been selling porridge cooked over traditional charcoal stoves since the 1970s, sold his business for a five-figure sum to Mr Eddie Tan, 41, and his partners in 2005.

Mr Cher says: 'My children were not interested in taking over the business and I felt it would be a lost opportunity if I did not sell it.'

In Mr Tan's hands, the small stall grew to occupy the entire coffee shop. Modern equipment, such as gas stoves, are now used in combination with charcoal ones to shorten customers' waiting time, but Mr Cher still works at the stall every day.

Even retired cleaner Ng Siew Tock, who is almost 90 years old and has lived in Tiong Bahru since 1980, has few problems with the changes in the neighbourhood. She says: 'It used to be very quiet, but now it is very lively. We need such new blood.'


Pastry pioneer


When pastry chef Steven Ong, 44, opened his high-end patisserie Centre Ps in Guan Chuan Street in 2007, old-timers warned him of his store's bad feng shui.

He explains: 'My shop is located at a traffic junction facing oncoming cars and they said this meant all my luck will be lost.'

Friends also advised against the location. Businesses in the area then consisted mainly of provision shops and coffee shops. His shop, selling luxe fare such as macarons ($2.50 each), pastries such as eclairs ($3.80 each) and custom-made cakes (1kg from $50+) seemed out of place.

The former executive pastry chef at Conrad Centennial Singapore hotel, who noticed the space was for rent while in the area for its famed hawker fare, took the risk anyway. Five years later, Centre Ps is still there and thriving.

Customers include expatriates, working professionals and grandparents who buy macarons and cakes as treats for their grandchildren. Mr Ong is now lauded for recognising the potential of the area.

He says: 'Back then, I was the youngest tenant in an old neighbourhood. From the start, it was a very comfortable place. I love this enclave that is so near to the city.'

From being the only shop selling such pastries in the area, he now faces competition from other nearby cafes such as Drips Bakery Cafe in Tiong Poh Road and Tiong Bahru Bakery in Eng Hoon Street, which draws a good crowd throughout the day.

But he is unfazed. Centre Ps does not have a seating area and relies on advance orders rather than over-the-counter sales.

While the chef-owner declined to reveal sales figures, he says that business is better than it was five years ago, owing partly to the spillover from other eateries.

And his macarons, which come in 20 flavours such as apple tea chocolate and black sesame, are a hit. Some customers place orders two days ahead to get the flavours they want.

Mr Ong says: 'One of my customers is a vegetable seller in Tiong Bahru market who treats my pastries and cakes as an indulgence and a way to spoil himself.'


Tea spot


For decades, the ground-floor spot at 78 Yong Siak Street now occupied by newbie cafe PoTeaTo was a corner provision shop.

PoTeaTo's owner, Ms Debra Chan, 32, says: 'The previous owners took a while to decide whether they wanted to sell because they wanted to seek the blessing of the former owners first.' This was made difficult by the fact that the former owners had died. They must have given their approval somehow, as it did get sold.

Ms Chan, who rents the shop of just under 1,000 sq ft from the new landlord, decided to keep the provision shop's wooden green backdoor, which adds to the raw feel of the cafe's brick- and-cement walls.

She opened PoTeaTo just over a month ago. The casual tea joint is one of the newest arrivals in a street already popularised by the likes of coffee joint 40 Hands and independent bookstore Books Actually.

Ms Chan had always wanted to open a cafe and left a marketing job to do so earlier this year. PoTeaTo, located just a few doors down from 40 Hands, serves potato dishes and other bistro fare such as soup and pasta.

The first-time cafe owner took notice of the area when some friends moved into the estate about two years ago. It gave her an excuse to visit the neighbourhood. Charmed by its homely vibe, she decided that the place would be suitable for her hole-in-the-wall cafe.

She says: 'I wanted to be in a friendly neighbourhood where residents could come in and chill in their shorts and slippers, or stop by after their evening stroll.' 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Straits Times : Not a Tiong Bahru resident but he appreciates its history

The Straits Times
26th July 2012
Pearl Lee

Mr Tan Han has had ties with Tiong Bahru since the 1980s and is one of the volunteer tour guides for the HeritageFest. -- ST PHOTO: MARIEL VICTORIA MOK

HE MAY not be a resident of Tiong Bahru, but 64-year-old Mr Tan Han has been involved in grassroots activities in the area for more than 20 years.

Last Saturday, he and two other guides led a group on a heritage trail around the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood for the Singapore HeritageFest.

He is one of 250 volunteers for this year's festival.

When asked about his connections with Tiong Bahru, Mr Tan said they started in the 1980s.

He was working at the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (now MediaCorp), and was involved in promoting the Channel 8 serial Five Foot Way.

He got to know the management committee at Tiong Bahru Community Centre when the Chinese drama serial held promotional activities there.

'My wife also lived here before we got married, and I used to come here for dinner a lot,' said Mr Tan, who is now part of the management committee at the community centre.

This year, Tiong Bahru Community Centre partnered with National Heritage Board to conduct a heritage trail around the estate for the Singapore HeritageFest.

For Mr Tan, a retired tour guide, leading a group around Tiong Bahru was 'a natural thing to do'.

'I like to interact with people and tell them about Singapore's history,' he said.

The Tiong Bahru estate is one of Singapore's oldest. It has a mix of pre-war and
post-war flats and, more recently, eateries and stores favoured by youngsters.

When asked if he liked the new crop of shops, Mr Tan said they make Tiong Bahru more colourful and interesting. 'But I have not been to any of these new shops. It is a bit awkward for someone my age to go to such places,' he said.


Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Straits Times : Tiong Bahru's new F&B outlets irk residents

28th April 2012
The Straits Times
By Tay Suan Chiang

Many want to limit the number of outlets, but some welcome the new buzz 

NOISY PATRONS: A resident complained that with the arrival of new establishments like SocialHaus, the once-quiet Yong Siak Street is noisy at night. -- ST PHOTOS: NURIA LING

DELIVERYMAN Wee Chye Guan was happy living in Tiong Bahru until a new crop of hip eateries popped up in his estate.

Along Yong Siak Street, where he lives on the ground floor of a four-storey block, three establishments - 40 Hands, Open Door Policy and SocialHaus - have opened in the last two years.

They occupy the ground floor of the area's famed walk-up apartments.

'The diners talk and laugh very loudly at night, and it gets worse when they are drunk,' said Mr Wee, 60, adding that he has called the police several times.

'It used to be quiet on this street,' added the resident of more than 20 years.

Other residents said the new arrivals have brought parking woes, especially on Friday and Saturday nights and eve of public holidays.

The new kids on the block are cafes 40Hands, which opened in 2010, and The Orange Thimble and Drips Bakery Cafe, which did so last year. Open Door Policy, a restaurant, and SocialHaus, a restaurant and bar, also opened last year.

They add to the 18 food joints already in the area, such as the well-known Por Kee Eating House and Ah Chiang's Porridge. The Straits Times understands that at least two more food and beverage outlets will be opening in the estate this year.

It is not a prospect that Yong Siak Street resident Regina Tay, 37, welcomes, as she already finds the street congested.

PARKING WOES: A row of vehicles parked along Yong Siak Street on Thursday night. Residents said the new eateries have brought parking problems, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. -- ST PHOTOS: NURIA LING

'Diners park on both sides of the road, despite double-yellow lines on one side and season-parking spaces on the other,' said the lawyer and resident of five years. She has called the Land Transport Authority (LTA) several times to complain.

Ms Eleanor Chong, 34, a senior manager who lives in Seng Poh Road, said there are nights when she has to park farther away because diners have taken up the season-parking spaces.

Residents are hoping that a limit can be set on the number of food and beverage outlets opening in the area, taking a cue from what has happened in Serangoon Gardens.

Acting on residents' complaints over parking, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) imposed a ban in February on converting more Serangoon Gardens shophouses into eateries.

In Yio Chu Kang, the URA did not allow three eateries to renew their licences because of traffic problems.

'There should be control now, why wait till that stage to try to resolve a big problem?' asked civil servant Deanne Tan, 34, who has lived in Yong Siak Street for two years.

A spokesman for the Housing Board, which manages the shop spaces on the ground floor of the walk-up apartments, said it evaluates requests to convert HDB shops into family restaurants based on factors such as the layout, concept and location of the unit, and whether the proposal will inconvenience residents.
Private buildings in the area fall under the purview of the URA, whose criteria for vetting change-of-use applications are largely similar to HDB's.

Meanwhile, residents have made their grievances known to the new eateries. Mr Mark Teow, owner of SocialHaus, said he will close the front windows at 10.30pm to contain the noise, and has installed noise-absorbing velvet curtains at the front and back.

Spa Esprit, which owns 40 Hands and Open Door Policy, advises diners not to park in Yong Siak Street. 'We direct them to the large parking space at the back of 40 Hands,' said Ms Janet Lim, public relations manager of Spa Esprit.

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah, who has received complaints about parking, said there is no space to build a multi-storey carpark in the estate.

She has asked the HDB to consider installing electronic signboards to indicate parking options in the area, such as the multi-storey carpark in Kim Tian Road.

She said there should be more coordination between various agencies such as the URA and LTA. 'If you allow more food and beverage outlets, there are bound to be traffic problems.'

But while some residents said they plan to come together soon as a group to meet their MP, others said there are benefits to having more eating places too.

'I don't think there are too many outlets, as they offer different foods,' said public relations director Jansen Siak, 39, who has lived in Tiong Bahru for almost three years.

Retiree Mok Hin Wing, 79, a resident of 46 years, feels that the new facilities have given a fresh feel to the neighbourhood.

'Tiong Bahru is livelier now, and I like the buzz,' he said.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Sunday Times : Pay up or get out

26th February 2012
The Sunday Times - LifeStyle
By Kimberly Spykerman and Natasha Ann Zachariah

Rising shop rentals in Serangoon Gardens have left shopkeepers and residents wondering how long the neighbourhood can afford to keep its old-fashioned charm

Will Serangoon Gardens lose its homey charm with smaller businesses being driven out by retail chains? -- ST PHOTOS: LAU FOOK KONG
It has become the hang-out place for yuppies, expatriates from nearby international schools and the well-heeled in smart-casual attire who throng its restaurants, spas, salons and pub-lined streets.

But a quiet junction in the bustling, suburban enclave of Serangoon Gardens tells another story behind the retro charm of its quaint shops.

The intersection of Maju and Portchester Avenue has seen livelier days. Until two months ago, the lounge-bar Liquid Kitchen drew the supper crowd looking for a nightcap, and soccer fans over the weekends.

But now, the shutters are down at the six-year-old outlet after the landlord doubled the rent when the lease came up for renewal last December. The new rent at the 2,700 sq ft two-storey unit would have been $24,000, up from $12,000, LifeStyle understands.

And other outlets tell of similar woes over rent hikes too, particularly the mom-and-pop shops which are part of the area's charm. They are struggling to compete with the big boys who can afford to pay high rents.

With a new mall, myVillage, touting brand names such as Bakerzin, Shin Kushiya and Relish, as well as standalone stores for chains such as Cold Storage Gourmet, Harry's Bar and Sushi Tei, property agents say that Serangoon Gardens could be going the way of Holland Village.

Holland Village is seen by some as a victim of its own chi-chi charms. It was once home to the European population and upper-income families, who lived side by side with HDB heartlanders since the 1950s and 1960s, much like the Serangoon Gardens of the past.

In the past 20 years, crowds were drawn to the bohemian feel of the place, which had independently run cafes. Today, big chains such as Crystal Jade, BreadTalk and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf have moved in, capitalising on the area's popularity.

Rental for a 1,500 sq ft unit in Holland Village can start from $18,000 and can go above $20,000, depending on the location, estimates Mr Danny Han, a senior associate director with OrangeTee.

One symbol of the change is the loss of that corner staple: the coffee shop.

In Serangoon Gardens' case, it was a stark transition. In 2010, a coffee shop harking back 50 years and which had remained largely unchanged, made way for a bank.

But who could blame coffee-shop owner Loi Boon Kee. The Straits Times reported then that he bagged a deal for Citibank to lease the two-storey unit on Chartwell Drive for more than $30,000 every month. That was 40 per cent more than what he previously collected from his tenants, and at least $10,000 more than the market rate that was being paid for a similarly sized space of 3,800 sq ft.

Serangoon Gardens is not the only suburban location where rents are on the rise. It was reported last week that at one point last year, the gap between prime Orchard Road retail space and top suburban locations narrowed to its lowest level on record. In the first quarter of last year, the difference was only 97 cents a sq ft.

For some businesses such as Liquid Kitchen, the rise can be too much. 'The rent was definitely a factor in why we moved out. It was just too high,' said a senior staff member who declined to be named. The chain has another outlet in Upper Thomson Road and recently opened a smaller outfit on Neil Road.

Higher rents have also taken their toll on two-year-old Thai restaurant Por Jai, located in a prime spot opposite the area's main bus stop.

It closed shop earlier this week after the landlord upped rent by 25 per cent to $25,000 for the two floors that it let.

While that is not as big a jump as some have faced, business was poor as diners preferred the offerings at the iconic Chomp Chomp hawker centre nearby, says a manager of the family-run business, who declined to be named. The restaurant has two other outlets.

Indeed, for the past year, it had sublet the second floor and had sought a tenant to take over its ground floor unit, but received few offers. So when the rent jumped this year, it had no choice but to go.

The manager says: 'Our overheads were already too high, and our business was not enough to sustain the rent. It was just not within our budget.'

The Straits Wine Company is leasing its third unit in six years. Previously at Maju Avenue in 2005, it later moved to 68A Serangoon Garden Way, two streets away, in 2010. Just a year on, it is now moving around the corner to 80 Serangoon Garden Way by the end of next month.

While declining to mention rental figures, the company's chief executive, Ms Kathy Lim-Sheehy, says it moved the first time because the landlord wanted to double the rent. Now it is moving again from its second location as the landlord there wants to rent the ground floor and the second floor, where it is now, as a single unit and for a higher rent.

Its new location will give it direct frontage, as it is on the ground floor and rent is relatively lower.

She says: 'I really couldn't afford to take both units in the previous location. But I wanted to stay in the area as we have a good following of loyal customers.

'I don't think I'll ever be happy with the rent - it's not cheap, definitely, but it's the best that we can get, so we're going to take the risk and sign the lease.'

The trend of rising commercial rentals mirrors the increase in residential property prices in the neighbourhood. Residential property prices have more than doubled in recent years as many homeowners tear down the single-storey houses to build swanky big homes.

The retail mix is bound to mirror this change. And there is no shortage of new businesses wanting a slice of the action. Mr Mohamed Ismail, chief executive of PropNex Realty, says that the change has also been driven by the growing number of international schools in the area, such as the Australian International School and the French School of Singapore.

'With more expatriates, businesses that can cater to this market will compete for the space in Serangoon Gardens to target this community,' he adds.

The newest kid on the block is Japanese bakery Mugiya, which opened just last week. And for it, rent prices brought cheer. The shop is paying a rental of at least 30 per cent lower than its other three mall outlets. It is subletting the store from NTUC FairPrice.

A spokesman for Mugiya, who declined to give the rental amount for the 600 sq ft shop, says: 'We picked this location as it has a nice, relaxing, lifestyle vibe. Also, the crowd from the residential area is good.'

However, it is not all plain-sailing for some newcomers. Japanese restaurant and wine bar Yama Mae, which opened in August last year on the corner of 87 Serangoon Garden Way, is experiencing 'rollercoaster days', says head chef Roy Chee.

Lunch hour is often quiet, and Yama Mae, which pays about $13,000 in monthly rent for the almost 2,000 sq feet ground floor unit, relies on regulars rather than walk-ins. While it is doing all right for now, Chef Roy, 41, says that it is tough to draw in the residential crowd, as not many are willing to pay $20 to $30 for a meal.

He says: 'There are no offices in the area and many of the long-time residents here are old. They either stay home and eat or go for cheaper options or brands they know well, such as Pow Sing or Chomp Chomp.'

But the old-style, 'kampung' flavour of the area is precisely why some business owners are keen to come in or stay in the area despite rising rentals.

The older faces in the neighbourhood, some of whom have been around since the 1980s, say they are able to survive because their landlords charge them 'discounted' rates.

Borshch Steakhouse owner Peter Ho, 70, says: 'Our landlord is fair to us because we are such a long-time tenant, that's why we can stay here for so long. We have been a little affected by these new restaurants opening here, but we do all right because we have our regulars.'

The restaurant, which opened in 1988 and serves Russian and Western cuisine, is an institution in the neighbourhood. Old-fashioned dishes such as peach melba and baked alaska, an ice-cream dessert, can still be found on its menu.

Similarly, a nameless barber shop on Porchester Avenue, which is known by its location alone and which has been around for more than 20 years, is hanging on thanks to a good relationship with the landlord.

Mr Ringo Moban, 51, one of the long-time barbers there, says: 'We don't make much. But we have loyal customers, and we love the place and the people. So as long as we can afford to stay, we will stay.'

Barber Ringo Moban says the business can get by because its landlord does not charge exorbitant rent.
At least five other businesses LifeStyle spoke to say they have been paying slightly below market rate, between $1,000 and $2,000 less, due to a good relationship with the landlord. Still, there are some landlords who may be keen to cash in, seeing big-name, established companies moving in the area.

Propnex Realty property agent Elaine Leong, 43, who is currently brokering two deals for commercial spaces in the area, says: 'Many landlords would rather deal with established companies or banks because it is easier to collect rent from them.'

The current asking rent by the landlords is between $12,000 and $14,000 for a 1,400 sq ft space, up from, she estimates, between $8,000 and $10,000 from the last tenancy.

Rising rents are inevitable, and are something business owners say they have to live with. Education centre, Jan & Elly English Language School, which has been in the area since 2003, says that with rising rents island-wide, it is willing to accommodate slight increases as customers are familiar with them being there.

School founder and director Elly Sim, who also owns outlets in Rail Mall and Greenwich V in Seletar Hills, says: 'It's the same all over the island. If rent goes up by a ridiculous amount, I will consider taking my business elsewhere, maybe overseas even.'

Still, residents and visitors to Serangoon Gardens can take delight in the pockets of old charm that remain. Just opposite the shiny new mall is a tiny sundry shop that has been around for more than 50 years, selling biscuits out of old-fashioned tins, as well as all sorts of knick knacks.

Mr Koh Guan Hock, 70, who runs the shop, says that places like his are a dying breed in an area that is springing to life with fancy watering holes and brand-name shops.

'I'm lucky the regulars still come to buy from old-timers like me,' he says in Mandarin, as he sits outside his shop, peeling a tray of onions.

Mr Eric Tan, 28, who works in the hospitality industry and has lived in the area since he was a child, says that the area has lost its 'homey' feeling, and even basic services such as photo-printing and stationery shops can no longer be found.

'It's a food paradise of sorts now, but there's nothing else besides that. As a resident, I'm not really enticed by what's there now. It used to be that Gardens was a secluded place, but now, it's just crowded all the time,' he laments.

What do you think of the changes to Serangoon Gardens? Write to

Their stall made way for a bank

Mr Steven Tan (left) and his partner, Mr Lee Chin Soo, started their chicken rice business in 1983 which has since expanded into two restaurants.
Every time Mr Steven Tan walks by Citibank on Serangoon Garden Way, he feels a keen sense of loss.

After all, that was where Mr Tan, 52, and his partner, Mr Lee Chin Soo, 56, started the famous Posin Hainanese Chicken Rice in 1983 - a name that, for Serangoon Gardens residents, is synonymous with the dish.

Back then, they served up chicken rice and other roast meats from a coffee shop at the junction of Serangoon Garden Way and Chartwell Drive. With business booming, they added a restaurant along the same stretch six years later, which sold only steamed chicken rice and Peranakan cuisine.

But in 2010, Mr Tan and Mr Lee were given dismal news about their thriving business located in the coffee shop. They, along with three other stall-holders including a long-time wonton mee seller, would have to pack their bags to make way for the banking giant.

'I was so sad, I couldn't sleep for a few nights when the landlord told me,' says Mr Tan in Mandarin, adding that they were given a month to vacate the premises. 'We've been selling food there for so long, and everybody knows us, it's a pity to give up selling the roast meats,' he says.

He tried to negotiate with his landlord to rent the place, but gave up as he could not afford the asking price of more than $30,000 a month. Already, he and his partner were paying a hefty rent to keep the other restaurant going.

Fortunately, they own a two-storey unit along the same stretch that they bought 10 years ago for $2.6 million. The previous tenant, Thai Express, moved out when its lease expired a year ago, and the men moved the original Posin outlet in and began selling roast meats there.

'We bought a unit back then because we were afraid that something would happen and we might be kicked out,' he says. Because of this foresight, Mr Tan and Mr Lee's company, the Pow Sing group, now runs two restaurants in the same stretch, both of which are packed to the gills during lunch and dinner. On a Sunday, the restaurants sell about 200 chickens.

But Mr Tan says that with Citibank paying a premium to keep its space, other landlords have bumped up their rents as well. The monthly rent on the second restaurant went up by $10,000 in just two years - the largest increase the owners have faced since the eatery started in 1989. They now pay about $38,000 every month.

But he and his partner are able to keep things going because of the patronage by regular customers, says Mr Tan. As with many of the old-time eateries in the estate, their regulars have been eating their chicken rice since they were children and now often take their own families for a meal there.

'The people here are nice, and Serangoon Gardens is comfortable. I like the kampung feel of the place,' adds Mr Tan.

The businessman, who is married with two children, is sanguine about the influx of new restaurants, which have changed the face of the estate.

He feels that more options for food will draw a crowd to the area, which can only mean good news for the restaurants.

'The most important thing is that we must maintain the quality of our food,' he says. 'Then customers will keep coming back.'

Kimberly Spykerman

Sinseh's $4m goldmine

MR CHAN NGYUNG SHIN (centre, with his wife and son), who owns Chong Hoe Health Products Chinese Medical Store. -- ST PHOTOS: LAU FOOK KONG
Physician Chan Ngyung Shin knows he is sitting on a goldmine but he is not about to cash in on it anytime soon. The 61-year-old runs Serangoon Gardens stalwart, Chong Hoe Health Products Chinese Medical Store. It has been there since 1957.

Today, the little shop sits squashed between two units occupied by United Overseas Bank. When this is pointed out to him, he chuckles, mentioning briefly that the bank showed interest in taking over his shop premises when it moved into the estate many years ago, so it could have one big premise.

'But I have never even considered selling this place,' he says, gesturing fondly to the shop's cupboards crammed with herbs such as ginseng and bird's nest and rows of dried fish maw hanging from metal poles.

Back when Mr Chan's late father, Mr Chan Toh Heng, first set up the business, Serangoon Gardens was a new estate. There were no buses that traversed the area, no market, and very few stores. The elder Mr Chan chose the area because of cheap rents - between $100 and $200 a month at the time.

A few years later, in the 1960s, the business got its own premises. He bought a 1,500 sq ft unit for over $40,000, which he slowly paid off in instalments.

Today, that shop space could easily fetch more than $4 million.

The younger Mr Chan has received offers from people wanting to buy the property, but it is a slice of family history that he cannot bear to part with.

After all, he has worked there since he was about 10 years old, together with his seven siblings, helping his father after school.

It is clear that Mr Chan has a soft spot for Serangoon Gardens and is reluctant to leave. He describes the denizens of the area as 'gentle and nice' folk, and has served many of them since they were children. They are still regulars at his store.

Sometimes, he still sees the odd Englishman coming into his store to shoot the breeze over old photos about days gone by, when many British people lived in the area.

Serangoon Gardens has changed, admits Mr Chan, but still he feels there is no other enclave in Singapore that feels quite as peaceful and old-fashioned.

He hopes to keep his business, which he now runs with his wife Goh Choong Phin, 61, for as long as he can. His son, James, 29, is being groomed to take over. James, Mr Chan's middle child, who studied biomedical science and traditional Chinese medicine at Nanyang Technological University, said he hopes to continue the family business in the area.

'It would be a pity not to carry on,' he adds.

Mr Chan's family also own another unit in the area, twice the size of the one he runs. It is also a TCM store and is run by his five sisters. It was purchased in 1993 for $2.7 million.

If James eventually decides not to take over, Mr Chan says he will work at his business and keep the shop for as long as he can.

'This area is becoming so popular. I could never consider selling it because I wouldn't be able to find another unit just like it.'

Kimberly Spykerman

Korean pastor turned restaurateur

The Kim sisters, Su Jung (left) and Su Yeon, like Serangoon Gardens for its family feel.
Step into Korean restaurant Hanwoori and immediately, Korean-accented calls of 'Annyeong haseyo!' greet hungry diners.

The sister team of Ms Kim Su Yeon and Ms Kim Su Jung have been serving up food from their hometown, Seoul, for the past five months, adding to the eclectic mix at Serangoon Gardens.

They are helped by Su Jung's Korean husband, Mr Lee Seng Jin, 40, who runs the kitchen. All three are partners in the business, with Ms Su Yeon's Singaporean husband, Mr David Ng, 37, as a silent investor.

They were excited and relieved to secure a spot at 76 Serangoon Garden Way, despite the shop - which is about 1,500 sq ft - being smaller than what they originally desired.

But they had wanted the location instead of usual popular Korean food haunts such as Tanjong Pagar because they live nearby at Serangoon North Avenue 4. Business-wise, it made sense too, as there was previously no Korean restaurant in the area, says Su Yeon, 37.

The restaurant is quite a change in lifestyle for her as she was previously a church pastor in Beijing. Her sister used to work in broadcasting and her husband was a chef in a restaurant in Korea.

Another reason they are pleased with their current location is that they like its family feel. Over the sounds of K-pop music videos on the mounted television screen, Su Yeon, who has been here for about seven years, says: 'We are running a family restaurant and we wanted a place to feel like home, which is what Serangoon Gardens feels like.'

Su Yeon, who is helming a business for the first time after being a housewife since she came here, adds: 'Since we've been here, many of our customers have become friends and they always come back.'

Indeed, at each of LifeStyle's two lunchtime visits, the Kims were chatting away with customers like old friends. 'They have come so many times, they know us by name. They have become our friends,' says Su Yeon, who has a two-year-old daughter.

The eatery sells dishes from bulgogi ($14) to fried octopus ($19) and kimchi ($9 for medium and $12 for large), or seafood pancake ($12, medium, $14, large).

Su Yeon says: 'Our prices are cheaper and our portions are bigger, so maybe that's why many find that it's worth it for them to come back and eat here.'

But the good days, unlike now, were far and few between when they started out last year.

It was difficult to make the $2,000 they needed to cover operational and rent costs as they had priced their food too low. But once they reworked their business plan, the restaurant has been in the black.

The $7,000 monthly rental is currently 'within their budget', and at a good price for them, though their two-year lease agreement has provisions for increments over the years.

Su Yeon says that their business has been helped by their landlord. She says: 'Nowadays, landlords may not care about the businesses they lease out to. But our landlord understands that we are new so he supports us. If we have to charge a high price to make a higher rental, we won't make enough to pay the rent.'

Natasha Ann Zachariah