Old Coffeeshops ways, go, going…

By Elaine Ng - Thursday, Nov 15, 2012

Many have swooned over dainty French cafes, artisanal coffee joints and raved about the cheerful rowdiness of British pubs. More comfortingly here, we celebrate the dingy old kopitiams (a dying culture) we go to for our very own local cuppa and delights.


Without the Internet, TV or much other entertainment in the past, the coffee shop was where gossip and news alike were shared and lively grassroots debates were conducted. Although times have changed, Singaporeans still seek satisfying sustenance here, be it a warm morning cup of coffee, a crusty toast jam-packed with kaya or a piping hot bowl of noodles.


Save for the well-known Chin Mei Chin Confectionery, many of these precious old gems are disappearing, although demand has not waned, and are making way for shiny new establishments. Most of the old school coffee shops are unlikely to be another Ya Kun or Killiney, so today, we visit a fading lot of still true blue old school kopitiam that are waiting in line to get into the chapters of our food history books.


1. Heap Seng Leong Blk 10 North Bridge Road, #01-5109 Daily 4am to 8pm

This is paying homage and a trip back to the 80s. We settled down on bright red plastic chairs and observed an elderly uncle hunched back with elbows raised as he “pulls” our coffee. His soft-spoken middle-aged son, equally scrawny, scrapes off the charred parts of our toasted bread and liberally spreads canned kaya over it.


Perhaps I have little tolerance for dainty coffee but their kopi gao (thick coffee) was a tad mild for us. But in between bites of bread — toasted and steamed —with sweet kaya and butter sandwiched and sips of our kopi gao, we thoroughly enjoyed getting updates on current affairs simply by eavesdropping on the spirited heartland regular clientele (read: old aunties and uncles) discussing anything relevant under the sun. Here, nobody bats an eye if you show up in your morning jammies. It’s part of the culture.


The ridiculous part – a portion of bread costs only 50 cents while coffee is so easy to swallow at 70 cents. It’s like they didn’t know it’s already the next century we’re in.


2. Tong Ah Coffeeshop 36 Keong Saik road Daily 7.30am to 10pm, closed on alternate Wed

Known for its ultra-crispy and thin kaya toasts and aromatic coffee coupled with great accessibility located in this triangular corner shoplot in the CBD area near Chinatown, this is like our little Flatiron Building (that famous icon in New York) with an iconic coffeeshop. For one, we know architecture buffs would have a field day by this building.
We went right for what the boss called “bao de”(thin) toast. Alternatively, you could just say “the more expensive one”. Even so, it is just 60 cents for two sandwiched slices cut into half. It’s toasted twice over and Tong Ah’s premium toast is beautifully crisp and light. We also loved the chilled slices of butter and the not-too-sweet yet rich homemade kaya. Cut in little square blocks, it went well with the fragrant, full-bodied coffee with just the right touch of bitterness that coffee fiends enjoy.


3. Hua Bee Restaurant Blk 78 Moh Guan Terrace #01-19 Daily 7.30am to 8pm, or when “sold out”

Entering Hua Bee Restaurant in Tiong Bahru can be likened to entering a nostalgic film set… Wait, it really is — the retro coffee shop was the setting for Eric Khoo’s critically acclaimed film, Mee Pok Man. Disappointingly so, the only stall here — yes, peddling mee pok — isn’t anything to rave about and neither was the toast (70 cents) nor the coffee. In fact, our steamed bread was soggy and our kopi a tad acidic. With so many trendy new cafés in the area, we wondered if Bee Hua’s days are numbered as we sipped on quietly in the empty shop. Strictly for kopitiam nostalgia buffs.


4. Lee Wah Coffee Shop 574 Balestier Road Daily 7am to 3.30pm, closed on Fridays (Bar Chor Mee)

Their new bright green signboard of Lee Wah Coffee Shop caught us but it was the worn out distinguished black signboard with golden engravings plus the old kopitiam little blue mosaic tiles that held us. Besides the usual coffee and toast, an affordable $3 noodle meal for those with bigger breakfast appetites is available here too.


Served faster than our coffee and toast, our bowls of bak chor mee came piping hot with a savoury bowl of broth. According to the Teochew elders at our table , these dish (and many other dishes) must be executed with lard for max soulful effect. So, the crispy bits of lard hidden under the noodles and mushrooms did just that trick. . What kept people returning, however, was the robust pork broth with a generous amount of minced meat, slivers of perfectly done liver and a solo piece of meatball. Yes, you may ask for refills of the broth without much fuss.


5. Seng Hong Coffeeshop Blk 58 Lengkok Bahru Daily 6am to 6pm, closed on alternate Sun

Deep in a Bukit Merah neighbourhood rests Seng Hong Coffeeshop of a calm and tranquil atmosphere ideal for a peaceful, idyllic afternoon chat away from the city. Some local celebrities are seen dropping by occasionally.


Like Heap Seng Long, the 40-odd year-old kopitiam delivers warm steamed white bread with the choice of a lumpy green kaya or sweet creamy peanut butter at 50 cents per slice with either spread. The 80-cent cuppa came with a thick layer of condensed milk sitting at the bottom. Taking a sip of the bitter coffee, we felt, as coffee maniacs, that it should be even more robust and full bodied. But adding an additional slice of butter into our coffee, like our next patron did, might have done the trick though…