Village revival

Village revival

Changi Village, depending on who you ask, is either one of these things: an old fishing village, a gateway to Pulau Ubin, or a nasi lemak supper haunt.

But its generally idyllic kampung spirit might have been jolted recently with an influx of modern eateries and hipster cafes that might just transform the area into the Tiong Bahru of the east.

One of the first few entrants was a cosy 800-square-foot cafe Chock Full of Beans, which opened in October 2011, taking over a then-vacant space which previously housed a pub.

Its co-owner, Thia Choon Thor, recalls how when it first opened it was one of the few Western eateries around, and would often be overlooked by passers-by who would make a beeline for the hawker centre and coffeeshops.

She says: "For the first few months we doubted ourselves. Maybe we made the wrong choice opening here, because it was so quiet, nobody noticed us, and we were alone here."

Fortunately for the cafe, things started to pick up after about a year as a few more F&B outlets started opening along its street and drew some foot traffic.

Now, that same street has turned into a destination for cafe-hoppers, as there are at least five new cafes within a stone's throw.

This includes ice cream cafes Bunny & Pony and A Spoonful of Sugar; Peloton Coffee & Juice Bar; Rock And Ash Singapore; and The Finest Tea Shop which is just around the corner.

Syed Abdul Rahman, managing director of The Finest Tea Shop, believes that the popular hawker centre's major renovation in 2012 also played a part in changing the public's perception of the food options in Changi Village. "For over 30 years, Changi Village was well known for its nasi lemak, but when the hawker centre closed for almost a year, its patrons started to wander. Now they have become much more open to exploring food establishments around the area," explains Mr Syed, whose family-run cafe opened officially last September.

He predicts that even more eateries will open down the road, as the area becomes increasingly popular as a getaway from Singapore's otherwise bustling city life.

For some existing tenants like Bunny & Pony's Jason Low, more new eateries are a welcome development as he hopes it will draw more human traffic to his cafe.

However, other business owners are more wary, and are concerned too much too fast might only affect the area's rustic charm.

One of them is Chang Weng Lok, owner of Queen's Garden - a modern European restaurant at the new Raintr33 Hotel just down the road.

She says: "I really hope this place can retain its current state, with the old-fashioned colonial buildings and laidback vibe. I want it to stay quiet and relaxing because what people come here for is that quietness and natural environment."

Sharing her view is Ms Thia of Chock Full of Beans, who says: "I don't look forward to too much change here actually. I prefer that it remains as it is now. No MRT, no shopping mall. Otherwise it would end up like another Holland Village, too commercialised. (Changi Village) is ulu and we like it like this."

Queen's Garden

33 Hendon Road, Changi Village

Z9647 1378

Weekdays, 11.30am to 10pm; weekends, 10am to 10pm.

Closed on Tuesdays

Chang Weng Lok has always wanted to open her own ice cream shop.

After all, she was always interested in food and the mixing of flavours, and even took a diploma in food science to learn more about it.

Her parents however, had bigger plans.

Last year, they helped her set up Queen's Garden - a modern European family-style restaurant that had its official opening on Jan 3 this year.

"My mum wanted to train me as a young entrepreneur. It's like a dream come true. I got more than I asked for," says Ms Chang, 23, who also has a degree in business management from the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM).

She handles the sales and marketing, while her mother acts as a consultant and her father's engineering background puts him in charge of the hardware and software.

With the restaurant, Ms Chang is able to work closely with her chef to come up with dishes for the menu, putting to good use what she learned in school, plus a bit of experimentation.

For example, instead of a brownie, the restaurant serves an original creation called a green tea-nie (S$12) which is essentially a green tea-flavoured brownie.

Other items on the menu include a chilled angel hair pasta with flying fish roe (S$13) and a Chilean sea bass served with a sweet mango sauce (S$36).

Queen's Garden is on the first floor of the swanky new Raintr33 Hotel, which is housed in what used to be a commando camp.

It may be located on the foot of the hill where the old Changi Hospital is, but the restaurant's vibe is anything but eerie.

Instead, the 70-seater (30 indoors and 40 outdoors) is cosy and romantic, and attracts a large proportion of couples at dinnertime.

"Our main attraction is our outdoor section. On days when the weather is good, all our customers will be outside. It's cooling, it's sheltered, and most importantly it's so close to nature," says Ms Chang.

She adds: "People who used to live in this commando camp even come back regularly to look at it. They have memories here. And they're happy this building is finally being put to use."

The Finest Tea Shop

4 Changi Village Road, #01-2060

Z9237 9458

Tues - Thur, 10am to 10pm; Fri - Sun, 8.30am to 10pm.

Closed on Mondays

Running a family business isn't always an easy feat. After all, different generations means varying viewpoints that sometimes result in conflict.

Fortunately for Syed Abdul Rahman and his family, they've found a concept that caters to the tastebuds of both his parents' generation as well as that of him and his five siblings.

That's why at their four-month-old eatery, The Finest Tea Shop, there is something for the whole family - from local dishes like traditional nasi lemak (S$4.50) and mee rebus (S$4) based on their late grandmother's recipe, to more modern Western cafe food like sandwiches (S$5.90 to S$8.90) and toast with scrambled eggs (S$4.80 onwards).

Says managing director Mr Syed, 23: "Many cafes out there focus only on 'hipster' food, but we wanted to have a nice place where families can come together and have meals.

Our family used to love dining at Swensen's but our late grandmother had trouble adapting to the Western dishes. That gave us the idea for our concept."

The idea also shows in their selection of desserts - they sell red velvet cupcakes alongside ondeh ondeh cupcakes (S$3 each), and rainbow cakes next to pandan gula melaka cakes (from S$6 per slice).

These desserts are freshly baked in-house every day by Ms Nooraini Ma'at - Mr Syed's mother - who used to sell her cakes and pastries on Instagram.

While she mainly takes care of the baked goods department, the other family members fulfil other roles such as social media management, the handling of finances, and daily operations.

As for the reason they decided to set up shop, he explains: "Our late grandmother had a food stall in Siglap and Chongzheng Primary School, and the profits were used to bring up my dad and his siblings. My dad wanted to relive those days. So that's the thing that motivates us - it's our family's life journey."

Bunny & Pony

1 Changi Village Road, #01-2000

Tues - Thurs, 12pm to 9pm; Fri - Sun, 12pm to 10pm.

Closed on Mondays

In Changi Village. there are three ice cream cafes - Oliyve which sells gelato, A Spoonful of Sugar which sells ice cream and pastries, and now, Bunny & Pony.

Sure it sounds like tough competition, but Bunny & Pony's manager Jason Low is more than happy about it.

"It's good because it will bring people to the area," says Mr Low, who is in his 40s.

"Even if another one wants to set up right beside us, we'll welcome it. Because if there are a few outlets in Changi Village, people will say, 'let's go and try', and (that will bring the crowd here)."

Bunny & Pony opened in the first week of December, and so far some of the most popular flavours of its homemade ice cream have been the Hershey's, oreo, gula melaka, and lavender.

Prices start from S$3.60 for a single scoop of premium ice cream, and from S$8.10 for a Belgian waffle plus one scoop.

The ice cream bakery's other specialty is its coffee, which is freshly brewed with beans from Central and South America and priced from S$3.50.

It's not surprising that the cafe specialises in these two items since its two silent owners are self-professed coffee addicts and ice-cream lovers, who first thought of starting a cafe two years ago.

Explains Mr Low, who is a friend of theirs: "They knew running a cafe with high overheads and manpower issues will be a big challenge, and selling ice cream isn't the most lucrative business, but they decided to tough it out anyway as they wanted to start a place that serves good coffee and ice cream."

So when the opportunity came to lease a shop in a charming location like Changi Village, they didn't hesitate to take it.

To set themselves apart from their competition, Bunny & Pony also has a lifestyle retail section which sells consignment items by local designers and imported goods such as lamps, tote bags, notebooks and glass mugs.

Says Mr Low: "Down the road, we are also planning to sell DIY arts and crafts, products, and hold workshops. We're working with some local designers and youngsters to make our cafe more modern, lively, and fun."

Peloton Coffee & Juice Bar

1 Changi Village Road, #01-2008

Z6543 2771

Weekdays 11am to 5.30pm; Fridays 11am to 10.30pm; weekends 8.30am to 10.30pm.

Closed on Wednesdays

A "PELOTON" refers to a group of cyclists in a race - an apt name for a cafe that targets cyclists in a popular cycling destination like Changi Village.

The cafe, Peloton Coffee & Juice Bar, opened officially last May, in a 1,000 square-foot space (including alfresco) that used to operate as a Chinese medical hall.

It was a collaboration between triathlon group Swim Bike Run Singapore, and cafe owners Rashidah Saheer, her sister Wahida, and their friend Mustafa Kamal Abdullah who also owns another cafe, Penny University along East Coast Road.

"We're kind of sporty, though we're not really cyclists, but we were asked by our friends at Swim Bike Run Singapore to consider working with them," says Ms Rashidah, who works as a lawyer full-time.

"We thought about it and decided why not. I like artisanal cafes and it was always in the back of my mind to do something like that; it was a good opportunity."

The cafe serves a selection of food from savoury sandwiches (S$9.90 onwards) and salads (S$7.90), to waffles (S$6 onwards) and desserts (S$4.50 onwards), as well as drinks including coffee (S$3 to S$6.50) and juices (S$6 each).

Initially, it also sold sporting gear alongside its F&B, but in October, the retail section shifted to a bigger space at the Changi Civil Service Club down the road.

Although they still do joint promotions now and then, the change from a sports concept to a general lifestyle one has led to the cafe attracting more young families and groups of friends instead of their original target audience, observes Ms Rashidah.

"Peloton offers a relaxing atmosphere since it's so close to the beach and we find it to be a great place for customers to just hang out... (Plus) what we have to offer is very different from the hawker food and all sorts of local cuisines available at Changi Village," she says.


This article was first published on January 24, 2015.
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