New cafes give shot of energy to old estate

SINGAPORE - Several areas in Singapore are undergoing a gentrification process that has breathed new life into old neighbourhoods. In the third of a four-part series in Street View, we check out what's brewing in Toa Payoh, a historic town in the heart of Singapore which has drawn more young residents in recent years.

One would hardly expect Toa Payoh to be a hotbed of cafes and bakeries that pride themselves on offerings such as earl grey strawberry shortcake or handmade gelato paired with air-flown organic coffee.

After all, the 48-year-old neighbourhood is the second-oldest housing estate in Singapore, after Queenstown.

But as condominiums and premium HDB developments such as Trevista and The Peak @ Toa Payoh came up in recent years, more young couples have moved into the area, fuelling a growth in trendy lifestyle businesses.

In the last two to three years, at least six cafes and artisanal bakeries have sprung up in the estate, catering to a new generation of residents who prefer the occasional latte to kopi.

These include coffee places such as Shrove Tuesday and The Dream Cafe, as well as bakery-cum-baking classroom The White Ombre.

The newer breed of entrepreneurs say they are drawn by Toa Payoh's homely charm, convenient location and low rentals.

For example, some pay $3,000 a month in rent for their shops, compared with $8,000 to $10,000 in more central locations near Chinatown.

At Block 128 in Lorong 1, shopowners who have been plying their trade for decades find themselves sharing space with fresh-faced neighbours.

Air-conditioned cafes with items like waffles with handmade tahitian vanilla ice cream on their menus contrast with traditional kopitiams offering soya bean curd over at the next block.

"We think of ourselves as a new kind of kopitiam," said Ms Khoh Wan Chin, 38, owner and co-founder of ice cream cafe Creamier, one of the first of such cafes to open in Toa Payoh.

"Toa Payoh is very traditional, very quaint, and has its very own unique character," said Ms Khoh, who opened the cafe in 2011. Three years on, the cafe's business is thriving.

Young adults working in the area, such as those from the Philips Electronics office across the road, nip in for their after-lunch latte after eating at the nearby hawker centre.

During peak hours, a queue spills out from the cafe to the playground outside.

The store has seen "reasonable growth" with plenty of repeat customers, said Ms Khoh.

The change in the area has not gone unnoticed by the pioneer generation of residents.

Standing behind the counter of Lih Ching Medical Hall - which she has been running for 45 years - Madam Wong Chit Moy, 75, said the energy in the area has changed.

"Toa Payoh used to be a place for old people. The younger folk used to move out when they grew up, while their parents stayed on.

"Now, it's the young ones who are moving back in," she said in Mandarin as she scooped out herbs for her customers.

Further down the same block at pastry shop Niche, Mr Melvin Tang, 38, can sometimes be found whipping up a different sort of herbal remedy - a pot of ginger, lemongrass and lemon peel tea.

Mr Tang said people of all ages come to his shop, including older residents.

"At first they would come in and comment: 'You are now opening a shop in HDB area, how can you sell at this price?'"

His pastries start from $3 and a pot of tea from $6.

"But they're quite surprised after they try our stuff. The retirees are actually quite willing to spend on food," said Mr Tang.

Beside the air-conditioned comfort of Niche, a small portable fan keeps Madam Soung Meng Kum cool while she cuts cloth in her tiny tailor shop with no signboard.

For 13 years, the 77-year-old has been mending and altering clothes in a shop unit shared with a hair salon.

But she plans to close her business at the end of the year.

"Business is fine, but it's time for the old to make way for the new," she said in Mandarin.

This mix of old and new businesses perfectly encapsulates Toa Payoh's status as an estate that caters to residents, both old and new, young and old.

Freelance writer Geraldine Wee, 33, grew up in Toa Payoh, moved to Hougang for a while, but has now returned and lives at The Peak.

She said: "Toa Payoh feels like it's trapped in time. It's all grown up, but it's also still growing."

This article was first published on Sep 12, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.