There's a new vibe at Jalan Besar

SINGAPORE - Nestled among the hardware and machinery shops is a small, green lawn that stands out from the greys and blacks of the Jalan Besar area.

The lawn marks the entrance to The Tiramisu Hero cafe in Tyrwhitt Road. Opened in September, the whimsical joint is the latest in a string of cafes that have popped up in Jalan Besar over the past three years.

Located between Little India and Lavender, Jalan Besar - which means "big road" in Malay - was one of the first roads to be constructed in Singapore, some time in the 1880s. Since World War I, it has been known mainly for the large number of industrial properties and shophouses that pepper each lane.

But these days, it is yet another area in Singapore whose landscape and profile are evolving. Groups of fashionably dressed young adults and families, as well as pockets of tourists, are now a familiar sight in a neighbourhood dotted with workmen clad in singlet and shorts.

PropNex Realty's associate team director, Lucas Chan, said the increased human traffic and buzz are due to the rising number of residential and commercial properties in the form of condominiums, hotels and hostels.

The area even has a French restaurant and patisserie, Antoinette.

And, since it opened its first outlet in Penhas Road in June 2011, other cafes have followed suit. They are attracted by the area's proximity to bustling Orchard Road, a short 10-minute drive away, yet with lower rental costs.

Ivan Kuek, the retail manager of popular coffee joint Chye Seng Huat Hardware, said that the bigger space was a key reason that it chose to be located in Tyrwhitt Road.

The 8,000 sq ft space houses the coffee bar as well as a roastery, a coffee retail shop and a coffee school on the second floor.

"The rent is cheaper compared to that in town, too," he added.

According to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Realis system, the average rental price of a shophouse in Jalan Besar is $3.12 per square foot per month, compared to $13.66 for a shop in swanky Orchard Road.

The increase in the number of food outlets in the area has residents rejoicing. "Any cafes are good for residents. The more, the merrier," said Cellia Chew, 38.

But the other businesses in Jalan Besar are less sanguine about the burgeoning number of cafes.

Sales executive Benny Lim, of electrical appliance shop New Song Guan, thinks the recent increase in the number of cafes is "just a trend".

"I don't think all of them will last, and some will close in two years' time," he said.

Others are resigned to the fact that with the area now gaining popularity, rents will increase.

"The rentals will go up, but it is to be expected," said Dave Singh, the owner of car workshop Speedway Tyres.

Noted Mr Chan: "Jalan Besar shophouses have been enjoying rental increases of between 10 and 20 per cent in the past two to three years."

Prior to Jalan Besar's transformation, Tiong Bahru was the classic example of gentrification in Singapore. Decades-old businesses were replaced with hip bars and cafes such as Tiong Bahru Bakery and modern eatery Open Door Policy.

However, the greater traffic in the area led to residents complaining about noise and parking woes. The Government has since tightened the number of licences it hands out to turn shop premises there into eateries.

The potential loss of the neighbourhood's tranquillity is a worry for some Jalan Besar residents, too.

"It is good that the cafes will liven up the area, but I wouldn't like it to be too crowded," said travel consultant Christine Santos. "I prefer to go home to a more quiet atmosphere."

Get MyPaper for more stories.