Popular Tiong Bahru roast meat eatery, Hong Kong Jin Tian, will shut its doors after this weekend - in the continuing exodus of old-timers from the now hipster estate.
The eatery's owners, a couple who moved from Hong Kong to Singapore in 1986, say they are moving after the landlord upped the rent for the 1,100 sq ft to 1,200 sq ft shop in Eng Hoon Street from about $8,000 to $12,000 a month.
Owner Yip Kwok Ching, 62, says he is still hunting for another location to continue his business. The nearby Redhill market is one possibility.
His wife, who wanted to be known only as Mrs Yip, says: "Of course, we are not happy about leaving because we have been here for many years."
The couple started their eatery at a Tiong Bahru market stall in 2000 before moving it to the coffee shop five years later. It has been there since.
Mrs Yip, 56, says: "Newcomers don't know the going rate for the place and spoil the market for us. It affects traditional food such as ours."
Jacking up prices will not help pay the rent, she adds. Jin Tian charges $3 for a plate of roast meat with rice. Add 20 cents to the cost and customers will not come, she says. "It's very strange because customers are willing to pay $6 for a slice of cake across the road," says Mrs Yip, gesturing to the nearby Tiong Bahru Bakery.
Jin Tian's is, by now, a familiar story in the now popular retro enclave with its pre- and post-war flats.
Housewife Ang Soo Leong, a longtime resident, hopes another hipster joint is not sprouting up in its place.
Mrs Ang, 84, moved to the area after she was displaced during the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961. She says in Mandarin: "It is a pity that the old businesses are gone because they hold a slice of history. The new places charge such high prices, I dare not step inside."
The influx of new ventures began around 2010 when artisanal coffee joint 40 Hands opened in Yong Siak Street. Since then, chic boutiques, cafes and bookstores have sprouted.
Long-time business owners in the area are receiving sizeable offers.
Mr Rodney Goh, 59, of provision shop Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co in Seng Poh Road, says he gets offers to rent or buy his 1,500 sq ft space "every other day". Offers go as high as $2 million to buy or about $10,000 a month to rent.
Mr Michael Chan, 66, who owns hardware shop Hock Eng Hin in Seng Poh Road, says he has received six serious requests to buy or rent his 1,300 sq ft space in the past two years, with offers reaching up to $1 million.
Mr Cheng Mook Boon, 65, who owns Cheng Delicacies, a 24-year-old Hainanese homestyle food coffee shop in Yong Siak Street, says he gets offers of between $6 million and $12 million for his 1,800 sq ft space.
The grapple for space seems fierce but there may be a sign of the market cooling down. The light purple doors of the coffee shop located opposite Jin Tian have been shuttered since January.
A previous tenant, Mr Loo Kia Chee, 55, who had been running his Hainanese curry rice stall since 1990 in the neighbourhood, says he left when the landlords asked him to rent the entire coffee shop for $20,000, up from $3,200 for a stall. He decided to move down the road, renting a stall for $3,000, while another tenant, a Teochew braised duck stall owner, has moved to Ubi.
Mr Loo says: "The coffee shop needs renovation. Taps are rusty and ventilation is poor, which would easily set me back by $10,000 to $20,000."
It has been nearly three months since the coffee shop closed and there is a "problem looking for tenants", says senior marketing director Jane Lee, in her late 30s, of property firm ERA Realty Network, who is marketing the space. The landlord wants a 50 per cent rise in rent, she says, jacking up the price to more than $20,000. The landlord declined to speak to SundayLife!.
Regular foot traffic in Tiong Bahru, unlike Housing Board estates such as Ang Mo Kio or Clementi, is also slower.
Ms Lee says: "It can be a dead town on weekdays. When the asking price is so high, it is difficult to find tenants."
This could be a signal of the softening of demand in the heated Tiong Bahru market. But it is more likely that the asking rent is "too high", says Associate Professor Sing Tien Foo of the National University of Singapore's department of real estate.
"The landlord might have made the call based on a high offer from someone before the current lease expired, but potential business owners may find the high rent is not sustainable," he says.
Older businesses in the neighbourhood may be taking a hammering in terms of rent and takings, but old-time stalwarts are unfazed.
Pin Pin Piau Kay provision shop's Mr Goh says residents still go to him for necessities such as rice and toilet rolls.
And Mr Chan of Hock Eng Hin has moved with the times, displaying vintage crockery outside his 21-year-old shop. "Very popular with young people these days", he says. He also stocks home-fix tools to cater to new expatriate residents who prefer to do up their homes themselves and go to Tiong Bahru to look for tools.
It would be interesting to see how the neighbourhood transforms when these old businesses fade away, says Assistant Professor Walter Edgar Theseira of the division of economics at Nanyang Technological University.
He says: "The charm of Tiong Bahru comes from the mix of old and new, so would people still value the area when the old businesses disappear?"
This article was published on April 27 in The Straits Times.
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