New life from the old

New life from the old

With the thriving cafe scene in Singapore, it is no surprise to find new joints opening in various locations all over the island every week.

But perhaps a new trend could be emerging - HDB shops with a long history in old estates are being turned into cafes.

Tian Kee & Co at Dakota Crescent, which opened about a month ago, used to be a 54-year-old provision shop, while Sin Lee Foods at Jalan Bukit Ho Swee took over the shop space of the popular 51-year-old Sin Lee Hup Kee coffee shop two weeks ago.

Both cafes have kept the original signboards of their predecessors. The Tastemaker at Havelock Road, which opened on June 1, was a 49-year-old bookstore called Shing Lee.

It was turned into a cafe by the owner's grandchildren.

SundayLife! checks out the three newly opened cafes.

Tian Kee & Co.

Old school provision shop Tian Kee & Co. always captured Mr Foo Chee Kow's attention whenever he went on his regular evening jogs around the neighbourhood of Dakota Crescent.

He says: "When I moved here in 2011, I was surprised to find something like this in our estate. It had a very Tiong Bahru feel to it and made me feel nostalgic."

In January last year, the 37-year-old and his wife Jessie Lim, 38, decided they wanted to set up an old school cafe.

After many months of scouting locations and not finding any suitable ones, they were delighted when they found out last October that the 54-year-old provision shop space was up for sale.

Regarded as a landmark in Dakota Crescent, Tian Kee's closure was reported by The Straits Times in the same month.

The owner, Mr Lim Han Tian, 85, decided to call it a day because of poor business and his old age.

It was the perfect opportunity for Mr Foo and his wife to make their cafe dream a reality, right at their doorstep.

"We were so happy and bought it within 12 hours of learning that the space was available," says Mr Foo, a self-professed heritage buff.

The couple spent close to $200,000 to buy and set up the 30-seat, 600 sq ft cafe, which opened on June 18.

Mr Foo used to run an interior design company but has since quit to run the cafe with his wife, a housewife. They have a two-year-old son and their second child is due in November.

The couple kept the original signboard and retained the name for their cafe.

He says: "Many residents have patronised the shop since they were young.

We wanted to keep the sign so Mr Lim's grandchildren can see his legacy."

Recalling fond memories of growing up in a close-knit kampung community, he hopes his cafe can bring residents together and create the same kampung spirit of neighbourliness.

"We would like our cafe to become a gathering point for residents where everyone will know each other by name, and can come here for a coffee or exchange ideas."

Entering the cafe is like taking a wistful step back in time. Customers are greeted by the sight of 1950s Formica-topped tables, old stools, whirring ceiling fans and customised zinc roofing used as borders in the cashier area.

He says: "I still remember how whenever it rained, I would be so annoyed by the pitter-patter sound on the zinc roof but eventually got used to it."

Almost everything displayed in the cafe used to be from the provision shop. These include Khong Guan biscuit tins, an old Milo tin, a chessboard as well as rusty metal tobacco and alcohol licence signs.

Long-time patrons of the old shop may also remember the Bonjour bread rack, which now holds a kettle of water, cutlery and condiments for customers. To top it off, the counter tabletops are made from the wooden planks from Tian Kee's doors.

"We had the choice to renovate the place into something completely modern," Mr Foo says. "But the shop's history was precisely the reason why we fell in love with it in the first place, so we did not want to change anything if possible."

Despite its classic retro decor, the food sold here is decidedly contemporary, with offerings such as muffins, cheesecakes, pies, coffee, tea and iced drinks.

One of the cafe's bestsellers is its all-day breakfast ($12.90), which comes with a sunny side up egg, bacon, a cheese sausage, a hashbrown, cheese and a piece of roti prata rather than toast, for a local twist.

Though it has been open for less than a month, the cafe has been gaining a following among people drawn to its old fashioned setting.

Student Shirley Yeo, 24, says: "I used to live across the road. This place brings back memories of my childhood."

It is a bittersweet feeling for many residents, who ultimately appreciate that Mr Foo has retained the spirit of a provision shop so dear to their hearts.

Cobbler Lee Choong Hian, 67, a regular at the cafe, says: "I knew Mr Lim very well so I definitely miss the shop. But the older generation of people like items with historical value, so I think it's great that they kept the sign."

Australian David Newman, 48, a stay-at-home-dad who moved to Dakota Crescent 16 months ago, thinks the revamped Tian Kee & Co. has given a new lease of life to the sleepy neighbourhood.

"It's one of the best things to happen to this area because of the people it brings together. I'm a little sad that the provision shop has closed but it was a dying trade.

Like everything in life, things move on and this is change for the better."

Where: 12 Dakota Crescent, 01-48 Tel:6344-8527 Open: Tuesday to Friday noon to 9pm, Saturday to Sunday 10am to 9pm, closed on Monday

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