Would butter make bitter coffee better?

Would butter make bitter coffee better?

Butter coffee may be the hippest thing in Australia now, yet, one of the only places left to get the traditional drink in Singapore is Heap Seng Leong.

Located at Block 10, North Bridge Road, the old-school eatery is a time warp to the 1970s.

An orange public telephone a few decades old sits on the counter with plastic jars of biscuits (50 cents a piece).

Instead of a cash register, an abacus board is used to count money.

Mr Shi Pong Hsu, 78, still potters around the place, pouring out steaming cups of coffee and flipping slices of toast on a charcoal grill.

His usual uniform is a singlet and pyjamas pants.

It comes from the tradition of coffee shop helpers being made to wear clothes without pockets so that money will not be stolen and hidden away.

He says he inherited the business from his father and the shop on North Bridge Road has been around since 1974. Before that , they were in the Bugis area.

At Heap Seng Leong, they stick resolutely to traditional ways, continuing to serve butter coffee, which is nearly extinct in modern-day Singapore.

His son, 50-year-old Shi Ting Chow, helps him run the shop and will also inherit the business from him. He does not plan to change the way things are done.

"Charcoal-grilled bread is fresher, more fragrant and tastier," the younger Mr Shi explains. He adds that they are more familiar with such methods, and new appliances are expensive and difficult to learn.

He rapidly cuts thick slices of bread with surprising accuracy. Instead of using butter knives to scrape off the burnt bits of bread, he uses the metal lid of condensed milk cans. The bread crusts are kept in a bag, to be given to customers for free to feed their pet fish and birds.

Madam Sandra Yee, 53, has the fondest memories when she sips coffee in Mr Shi's shop.

Similarly, Mr Law Peck Min, 51, frequents the coffee shop about twice a month for its butter coffee.

He tells TNPS in Mandarin: "In the olden days, they used to sell butter in pieces. Sometimes it was triangular in shape, sometimes it was a square. People would stick a toothpick in and eat the butter just like that."

They might not earn much from the business as rentals keep increasing, but the Shis would like to preserve the heritage and pass the shop to the next generation.

The younger Mr Shi says his son, 14, and daughter, 16, don't show much interest: "They do not come to the shop to see me work, the way I used to watch my father. But I hope they will eventually inherit it, too.

"It reminds people of a simpler, purer and more comfortable time. I want to preserve our heritage through the shop."

As for the older Mr Shi, he doesn't see himself stopping any time soon. He says: "My kids ask me to stop working. But I can still work, so I'd rather work.

"I can depend on myself. My children give me money but I ask them to take it back."

He says he prefers the status quo.

"There's no use renovating (the shop). It has been like this for over 30 years," he says.

Throughout the three hours we were there, the older Mr Shi never sat down. He was constantly moving about fulfilling orders. And finally at 5pm, he sat down, albeit briefly, and ate from a styrofoam box.

When asked whether that was his lunch or dinner, he grins and says: "Simply eat, lah."


This article was first published on June 29, 2014.
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