Monday, July 29, 2013

The Straits Times : Rats! Tiong Bahru faces gnawing problem

The Straits Times
29th July 2013
By Melody Zaccheus

Residents blame lack of covered drains and growing number of eateries

THE increasing sight of rats in the 77-year-old Tiong Bahru estate has become a cause of alarm for residents, who say that the rising number of eateries there is one reason for the problem.

Over the last six months, rodents have been seen scurrying in broad daylight, with some even running into ground floor units of homes and shops.

"There's definitely a growing presence of rats along Tiong Poh Road and Seng Poh Road. I will spot one almost every time I walk there," said teacher Fred Ong, 30, adding that some of these pests were "huge".

"It's never been this bad," said Madam Yee Kwai Wing.

The 76-year-old, who has lived there since 1986, spots two or three rats outside her ground floor flat at 73 Eng Watt Street almost every day.

Unsealed gaps along drains which run along some ground floor units provide perfect hiding and nesting spots.

The lack  of a centralised rubbish chute system and irresponsible disposal of rubbish (above) do not help the situation. -- ST PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE
"They find their way out from the many gaps in our drains, pipes and holes in the ground, to eat the garbage residents and restaurants throw away," she explained.

Minimart owner Rodney Goh believes the problem is made worse by the lack of a centralised rubbish chute system at the estate.

Instead, rubbish bins line the backs of the old blocks, some of which were built by the Singapore Improvement Trust in the 1930s.

As not all residents dispose of their refuse properly, the waste food only encourages rats to set up home, he added.

"Sometimes when it rains, the drains flood and the rats run in through our shop's front entrance," said the 58-year-old.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) told The Straits Times that it found 26 rat burrows during its latest inspection last Wednesday.

This was after the agency found 16 burrows, which were subsequently treated and sealed by the Tanjong Pagar Town Council's (TPTC) pest control team, in common areas of the estate during a routine check on June 27.

The lack (above) of a centralised rubbish chute system and irresponsible disposal of rubbish do not help the situation. -- ST PHOTOS: DESMOND WEE
NEA said that the town council has been advised to "intensify surveillance and treatment to reduce the rat population".

Last week, it was reported that more than 10 rodent nests were found in the nearby Bukit Merah estate, which also comes under the TPTC.

Rodents typically nest and burrow in the ground, under buildings, and in rubbish and other types of litter. In 2010, the NEA found 1,687 areas with rats, three times more than the 443 the year before. The Norway rat species makes up 90 per cent of the rodents in Singapore.

"The number of rats per burrow really depends on the time they are left alone to breed. Over time, they can form an underground network," said technical specialist Hadi Hanafi, 31, from Maximum Pest Management.

Tanjong Pagar MP Indranee Rajah has asked the town council and grassroots to address the growing rat problem.

"They will be checking on the eateries and adopting measures to control the problem. When dealing with rats we need to find out where the burrows and food sources are."

She added that rubbish should be secured tightly in bins as plastic bags alone do not suffice.

While the NEA said it has taken action against a food operator in Tiong Bahru, other operators in the area were found to be clean, with proper refuse management and food storage.

But it also reminded them to continue making sure that waste food is properly disposed of.

The Orange Thimble cafe in Tiong Bahru hires its own pest control company to ensure that it stays rodent free.

Said its manager Dewihajar Ali, 34: "Our pest control guy comes by at least once a month. He places a certain type of chemical in the drain to make sure the rats stay away.

"We need to be responsible over our garbage and make sure the bags are secured tightly. It will be good if every establishment does its part."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Sunday Times : HDB coffee shops are not District 10 bungalows

The Sunday Times
By Han Fook Kwang, Managing Editor
14th July 2013

They were built by the HDB to serve residents on state land acquired for a public purpose

Here's a $23.8 million question about Singapore's most expensive coffee shop, in Hougang: How come I can still buy a cup of kopi-o there for 90 cents?

The simple answer is that, disregarding the price of the property, what goes into making that cup of coffee didn't cost much - especially not the wages of coffee shop assistants.

They are likely to belong to the bottom 20 per cent of income earners, whose incomes have stagnated over the years.

Mean-spirited though it might be, it's their meagre earnings you have to thank for your cheap beverage.

If they were paid more, like workers in Japan or Switzerland, for example, you can bet your last teh kosong that you will have to pay a lot more.

That 90-cent coffee represents one part of Singapore, perhaps the part that many of us are fond of even if we would rather not have our livelihood depend on it.

The $23 million Housing Board coffee shop, however, is another story altogether and might as well belong to a different world.

What goes into making up the sky-high price and how did it reach such a level?

When The Straits Times spoke to people in the property business last week, they cited one possible reason: the prospect of capital appreciation of the shop, which means it might sell for an even higher price in future.

If those experts are right, the buyer was prepared to pay the record price not because it made business sense in the running of a coffee shop, but because it was a good property buy which he could hope to profit from at some later date.

Stallholders in the shop were quoted as being understandably concerned that the new owner might raise rents. Patrons were in turn worried about having to pay more for food and drinks.

Alas, the two worlds do collide, and when a $23m deal spills over to a 90 cents cup of coffee, you know what the outcome is likely to be.

But should the price of a cup of coffee be tied to the ups and downs of the property market?

Can't Singaporeans have their kopi without worrying about the next multimillion-dollar deal?

The reality is that in this land- scarce, market-driven country, almost everything is affected by the high price of land and property.

It's a lament I often hear from Singaporean bosses complaining about the cost of doing business here, especially rental cost.

A friend who runs an SME says he regrets selling a building he developed for a tidy profit and renting back some of the floors for his own operation.

His rent has gone up considerably over the years, and the profit he made from the sale has not been enough to cover the rising rent. He did not foresee industrial rentals increasing so much and says he knows others with similar stories.

For residential property, rising prices have led the Government to impose no fewer than eight sets of cooling measures since 2009 with only limited success.

It shows how difficult it is to tackle the problem once a property bubble builds up.

In a normally functioning market, the price of a coffee shop property cannot be so high that it would be impossible for the buyer to recoup his outlay from operating the shop.

If Singaporeans are only willing to pay 90 cents for a cup of coffee, it places a limit on how much that coffee shop itself is worth.

But if the shop is viewed more as a property buy and less as a place to sell food and drinks, its price will have more to do with the state of the property market than the price of a cup of coffee.

Eventually, though, that coffee price will have to go up, as is likely to be the case in that $23 million shop.

This is the same worry many people have over the setting up of real estate investment trusts (Reits) which critics say exert pressure on rentals because of the financial returns these instruments are expected to provide for investors.

They have been blamed for ever rising rentals of retail shops in the malls and industrial property.

Should the Government intervene to stop these price increases?

Or are they the result of market forces and best left unregulated?

The trouble is that, contrary to popular belief, the price of land, and hence property, is not decided solely by free market forces here.

In fact, it is mostly determined by the Government because it is the largest landlord and has control over many policies that affect selling prices: how much land it releases for development, the period of the leases it offers, the zoning parameters it draws up, the actual prices of public flats it builds, the restriction on property loans it can impose and so on.

With so much control at its disposal, the Government has a primary responsibility to ensure that prices and rentals do not get out of hand.

Indeed, it recognises and accepts this, which was why it intervened with all those cooling measures.

But it has to be clearer about what exactly is its overall policy regarding these prices.

It isn't at the moment, and this explains why it dithered in the past and did not act as decisively as it should have when prices moved so precipitously.

It has been only recently that it has taken a clearer position on, for example, public flats.

Earlier this year, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that when pricing new flats, the HDB would set prices on its own instead of pegging them to resale flat prices.

"We should be the price-setter, not be the price-follower... The social objective is to ensure home ownership and affordability," he said.

In practical terms, it meant pricing new flats in non-mature estates at four times the annual median income of applicants, 30 per cent lower than the current 5.5 times.

That's a good start to making it clearer, more transparent and affordable.

What about coffee shops?

For those in housing estates, such as the one in Hougang, there is no reason why they should be bought and sold like bungalows in District 10. They were built by the HDB to serve residents on state land acquired for a public purpose.

If the price of coffee has to go up eventually, Singaporeans would rather the increase went to those shop assistants and stall holders rather than property players out to make a financial killing.

One simple way to ensure these shops keep to their original objective is to require that they be sold back only to the HDB.

It would put a lid on spiralling prices.

And keep that cup of kopi-o within everyone's reach.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Straits Times : Pre-war Chinatown coffee shop moving out

The Straits Times
13th July 2013
By Debbie Lee

Iconic building that housed it for 75 years sold to foreign investor

Tong Ah Eating House is moving from its current location to a new address, at 35, Keong Saik Road. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

FOR about 75 years, Tong Ah Eating House has stood out in Keong Saik Road for its distinctive red-and-white facade and shape as it sits on a triangular plot of land.

But from Monday next week, this old-school coffee shop will head out to a new shophouse, even if it is just a few doors down the same road.

The move marks the uprooting of a business the great-grandfather of Mr Tang Chew Fue, 50, started at the spot in 1939, a date embossed on a signage proudly displayed at the top of the three-storey building.

Mr Tang blames the upheaval on the sale of the property to a foreign investor, believed to be a hotelier. It is valued at about $8 million, he said.

The coffee shop's owner is a relative of Mr Tang, who rents the place for $8,000 a month.

He declined to go into the reasons for the sale and neither the relative nor the new owner could be reached for comment.

Nicknamed Ah Wee, Mr Tang took over the coffee shop from his father in 1999.

Little has changed on the menu as the Foochow family stuck to its winning formula of serving kaya toast in the morning and zi char food at night.

He will keep the menu intact in the new place at 35, Keong Saik Road, but he worries about his profit margin as he now pays 50 per cent more in rent.

"I feel squeezed," he said. "Property prices have gone up as many private investors have bought land here."

He also worries that the loss of outdoor seating, for which the coffee shop is known, will hurt his business. "The outdoor seating is important to me. In the new location, the interior is large but my customers will have fewer carpark space," he said.

"I will miss this place," he said. "The atmosphere will not be the same at the new place."

The coffee shop's customers, mainly office workers and residents in the area, were similarly nostalgic.

"Eating on the five-foot walkway is a treat that has been around for a long time. It is a special ambience with an old-world charm," sales executive Lee Siew Song said wistfully.

The 55-year-old works nearby and eats at the coffee shop twice a week.

Tong Ah is the second old-world coffee shop to change hands in just over a month. Last month, 70-year-old Hua Bee coffee shop in Moh Guan Terrace in Tiong Bahru was leased to hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, 41. As a result, one of its two stallholders, coffee-seller Tony Tiang, 58, has called it a day.

Coffee shop owner Tang Chew Fue, 50, says the atmosphere at the new place will not be the same. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Straits Times : Retro rocks

The Straits Times
12th July 2013
By Lydia Vasko

The Singapore HeritageFest is back with more events than ever

To mark its 10th anniversary, the Singapore HeritageFest will offer a record number of activities when it kicks off next Friday.

Shows and exhibitions will be staged at 10 malls, including an exhibition in City Square Mall on the history of magic here and one on Singapore's spice history in Plaza Singapura. There will also be more than 20 other programmes islandwide.

The 10-day festival, which carries the theme Memories For Tomorrow, runs until July 28.

Its events, which are all free, include a tour of coffee roasters, cafes and other places involved in Singapore's coffee trade, as well as craft workshops and cooking demonstrations.

Nine clan associations, including Kwong Wai Siew Li Si She Shut, founded in 1874, and Poon Yue Association, founded in 1879, will also open their doors to the public - some for the first time.

Tour their headquarters to view antique furniture and historical relics, as well as to learn about their history and the roles that the various clans have played.

Organised by the National Heritage Board, this year's festival aims to emphasise the role individual and community memories play in modern Singapore.

Ms Angelita Teo, festival director and director of the National Museum of Singapore, says: "We wanted to recognise the relevance of heritage in our everyday lives, sharing memories that bring Singaporeans together and connecting people through community platforms.

"It's a festival for the community by the community."

While the National Heritage Board organised some of the activities, most of the exhibitions and programmes were put together by individuals and independent groups such as the Singapore Coffee Association and schools such as CHIJ Katong Convent. A group of Secondary 2 and 3 students from the school did research on how to make traditional nonya kueh and will showcase their findings as part of the official launch of Singapore HeritageFest at the National Museum on July 21.

More than one million people are expected to attend the festival's events this year, similar to the turnout in previous years.

To register and find out more about the programmes, go to



Singapore Hok San Association Lion Dance Troupe putting on a performance. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Chinese clan associations are an integral part of the Chinese community. They helped ease new immigrants into their new lives in Singapore's early years, organised community activities and set up schools and scholarships.

The public will get to learn about the roles they play and their history as these associations open their doors to the public during the HeritageFest, some for the first time.

Besides tours, they will also organise talks, performances and other activities.

These include a talk on the restoration of the Ee Hoe Hean Building (next Saturday, from 9.30 to 11.30am, 43 Bukit Pasoh Road), which houses the Ee Hoe Hean Club, one of Singapore's oldest millionaires' clubs that was founded in 1895.

There will also be a Nanyin opera and musical performance (July 26, 8 to 10pm, 137 Telok Ayer Street) hosted by the Siong Leng Musical Association. The Hok San Association tour will include a perfomance by the lion dance troupe. Founded in 1939, the association has the oldest lion dance troupe in Singapore.

Info: For full details, go to



Mr David Christie with his 1967 Morris Mini Moke (front) and 1972 Morris Mini 1000. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Ten vintage cars from the 1930s to mid-1970s will be on display for one afternoon. Some of the cars include a 1930s Armstrong Siddeley, the only one of its kind running in the region, and a 1972 Morris Mini.

The event's organisers, the Singapore Art Museum and the Malaysia and Singapore Vintage Car Register, say the show is being held in Jurong in recognition of its motoring history.

The area used to be where various types of vehicles were assembled,such as the Mercedes- Benz and the Morris Mini, before the factories were closed in the late 1970s.

Due to the restrictions on and high costs of car ownership today, vintage pre-war cars and classic cars from the 1950s to 1970s are not easy to find here. Many were sold after they became too expensive to maintain.

Car enthusiast David Christie, 51, assistant honorary secretary of the vintage car register's Singapore chapter, says he hopes the exhibition will remind Singaporeans about what car ownership used to mean. He will be showing one of his classic cars, a 1972 Morris Mini 1000.

"I want people to remember the utility of the vehicle and how it serves one's transportation needs," he says. "Before, a car was part of the family. You bought it with the view of keeping it for as long as possible. As long as it runs, you keep it. Now, a car is a luxury and people are more detached about owning one."

Where: Our Museum @ Taman Jurong, next to Taman Jurong Community Club, 1 Yung Sheng Road

When: July 27, 2 to 7pm


This photo, which documents hawkers and their trade in Singapore, will be shown at the Heritage Hawker Auditory Art Installation & Exhibition at The Arts House. -- PHOTO: JIM ORCA
For 21/2 years, a three-man team went around Singapore interviewing more than 1,000 hawkers in 105 hawker centres.

The trio - Mr Sinma DaShow, 41, and Ms Jernnine Pang, 33, both children of hawkers and founders of local cooking school California Sushi Academy, and photographer Jimmy Yong, 39 - documented the assorted stories, paying special attention to older hawkers who were having trouble finding someone to take over their businesses.

The research has been compiled into a 330-page book, Not For Sale - Singapore Remaining Heritage Street Food Vendors. It will be launched next Thursday at The Arts House (1 Old Parliament Lane, 5pm).

Mr DaShow will be on hand to answer questions and share his experiences.

Then, pop into The Arts House' foyer and film gallery, where you can view the hawkers' portraits and listen to audio recordings of their interviews. Admission to the exhibition, which runs till July 31, is free.

You can also join one of the guided heritage hawker tours to meet some of the hawkers interviewed for the book. The guided tours, which last 30 to 45 minutes each, will take participants to four hawker centres to meet some elderly hawkers and learn about their stories first-hand.

The tours start at 10am on Saturdays from July 20. The locations include Tiong Bahru Food Centre (July 20), East Coast Park Lagoon Food Village (July 27), Toa Payoh West Food Court at Lorong 1 Block 127 (Aug 3), and Circuit Road Food Centre at Block 79 (Aug 10). Registration is not required. Just show up at the hawker centres on the dates specified.

Where: Book launch at Chamber, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

When: Thursday, 5pm


A shophouse designed by architect Kwan Yow Luen at the junction of Keong Saik and Teck Lim roads is an example of a Streamline Moderne-style building. -- PHOTOS: JULIAN DAVISON

Tiong Bahru is not the only place here with eye-catching Art Deco architecture from the 1920s and 1930s.

There are about 30 such buildings scattered around other parts of Singapore, including the facade of Cathay Building in Handy Road, which was gazetted as a national monument in 2003.

With the help of Dr Julian Davison, an anthropologist and architecture enthusiast, the Urban Redevelopment Authority has put together an exhibition on the history of Art Deco architecture in Singapore.

Learn about the hallmarks of Art Deco styles and how Singapore's culture, climate and lifestyle shaped the country's architecture in the 1920s and 1930s.

The exhibition includes two talks, which will be held at the URA Centre at 45 Maxwell Road. The talks are: Setting Up The Peranakan Home, Bukak Rumah by Peranakan expert Randall Ee (July 25, 3 to 4pm; Level 4, seminar room); and Art Deco Architecture by Dr Davison (Aug 3, 10 to 11am; Level 5, function hall).

The talks are free but pre-registration is required at

Where: The exhibition will be held at URA Gallery, Level 1, URA Centre, 45 Maxwell Road

When: Next Friday to July 28, from 9am to 5pm daily

The so-called 'Rocket Building' (above), at the junction of Circular Road and Lorong Telok, designed by Ho Kwong Yew in 1938. -- PHOTOS: JULIAN DAVISON
The Loke Yew Building on the corner of Armenian and Loke Yew streets, designed by local architect E.C. Seah in 1931. -- PHOTOS: JULIAN DAVISON


Authors such as Yu-Mei Balasingamchow will lead a tour around the neighbourhoods they grew up in. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Experience some of Singapore's neighbourhoods through the eyes of authors who grew up there.

Bookstore BooksActually and author Verena Tay have organised two tours based on Balik Kampung, a collection of eight short stories published late last year, inspired by the childhood memories of its authors.

One tour covers neighbourhoods in central Singapore, including Redhill, Braddell Heights and Old Holland Road, while the other covers neighbourhoods in the east, such as Marine Parade, Upper Changi and Changi Village.

The authors, such as Yu-Mei Balasingamchow and Yeow Kai Chai, will lead the tours, read excerpts of their stories and provide participants with personal anecdotes and memories of the neighbourhoods.

The goal of the tours, says Balasingamchow, is to get people thinking about the idea of home and how it relates to the neighbourhood, a physical place. "The tours are a way to recognise these spaces and pay homage to the past," she says.

Yeow, who is also deputy integration editor at The Straits Times, adds: "Singapore is very good at landscaping and beautifying things beyond recognition. The aim of the tours is to draw attention to some places and the subtle human stories about them that you can't read in a textbook."

Tour participants will meet at BooksActually, where chartered buses will take them to the neighbourhoods on each tour for free.

Each tour is limited to 30 participants and registration is on a first-come-first-served basis. Tour participants will receive a free copy of Balik Kampung at the start of the tour.

Where: Tours start at BooksActually, 9 Yong Siak Street

When: The Eastern tour on July 21, 2 to 5.30pm; the Central Tour on July 28, 2 to 5.30pm

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