Tussle for shop space in Tiong Bahru

PHOTO: Tussle for shop space in Tiong Bahru

Every now and then, Mr Cheng Mook Boon, 65, is offered millions of dollars by people who are keen on buying his coffee shop in Tiong Bahru.

He and his wife, Madam Lim Toi Ang, 62, have been selling Hainanese curry rice at Yong Siak Street for 23 years.

Back then, the 1,800 sq ft corner unit was worth less than $250,000, a far cry from an offer of $12 million several months ago. There have also been those willing to pay him $20,000 a month to rent the place.

Old and new kids tussle over Tiong Bahru

  • Mr Cheng Mook Boon and his wife Lim Toi Ang started their Hainanese curry rice restaurant in Yong Siak Street in 1990 and are happy to spend their sunset years running the business, with the help of eldest daughter Dawn Cheng.
  • Back then, the 1,800 sq ft corner unit was worth less than $250,000, a far cry from an offer of $12 million several months ago. There have also been those willing to pay him $20,000 a month to rent the place.
  • But the couple is not swayed by these generous offers. They have three children and their eldest daughter, Ms Dawn Cheng, 39, helps with the business.
  • According to the director of PropertyBank, Ms Edith Tay, who is in her 40s, monthly rental for shop space in Tiong Bahru ranges between $6 and $12 per sq ft. A three-storey, freehold 887 sq ft commercial unit in the area was sold for $4.3 million late last year.
  • Mr Goh Wee at his provision shop Hup Seng in Tiong Bahru. He says his customers buy fewer things now than before – a bottle of soft drink, compared with sacks of rice and milk powder in the past.
  • Hua Bee coffee shop, nestled in a corner of Moh Guan Terrace will close in mid-June 2013. The coffee shop which has only two stalls - one selling drinks, the other noodles has been operating for more than 70 years.

    Earlier this month, Hua Bee coffee shop in Moh Guan Terrace was leased out to hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, 41.

  • 40 Hands, a 50-seater speciality coffee shop, at Tiong Bahru.
  • Given the hot property prices in Tiong Bahru, old businesses there are sitting on a goldmine. A slew of old businesses have closed down to make way for new tenants in the past few months. Owners of the old shops have been getting offers almost every month to rent or sell their space.
  • In the last three years, provision shops, an egg seller and a coffee shop have made way for new tenants.
  • The wave of new ventures began around 2010, when artisanal coffee joint 40 Hands, opened by Australian barista Harry Grover and the Spa Esprit Group, opened in sleepy Yong Siak Street. Since then, clothing boutiques, cafes, patisseries and bookstores have sprouted up all over the neighbourhood.
  • Hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng: "I have been thinking of Tiong Bahru for a while now. One of the unique things about it is that heritage element which I am a big fan of."
  • There are currently 22 food and beverage outlets among the 64 HDB commercial properties in Tiong Bahru
  • Last month, Mr Goh Chwee and his wife, Madam Ong Lee, both 75, closed Hup Seng, their 58-year-old provision shop. For about $8,000 a month, they are renting out the space to a new venture, Kisses Bakery, which will open next month. It is owned by Ms Wendy Koh, 25, Mr Phil Choo, 27, and Ms Wang Ting, 26.
  • Close to six decades ago, Mr Goh rented the space for less than $50. He bought the shop for about $20,000 in 1965. In the past few years, he has been able to make ends meet but has not made a profit.
  • He says: "It was not very hard work to run the shop but everyone has been advising us to rent out our space. We finally decided it was time to retire."
  • Mr Cher Kee Chiang, of Ah Chiang's Porridge, chose to sell his porridge business in Tiong Poh Road for a six-figure sum in 2005, but he continues to work at the coffee shop and is paid a monthly salary that is a mid-four-figure sum.
  • Although he has taken a pay cut - he used to earn a five-figure sum when he was his own boss - Mr Cher has no regrets about his decision. Most decades-old businesses in Tiong Bahru have handed their shops over to entrepreneurs drawn to the hip neighbourhood.
  • Brothers (from left) Peter Chan, Desmond Chen, Michael Chan and Simon Chan, are the co-owners of hardware store Hock Eng Hin in Seng Poh Road. They are not taking advantage of the hot property market just yet, even as most other decades-old businesses in Tiong Bahru have handed their shops over to entrepreneurs drawn to the hip neighbourhood.
  • Mr Yeo Kee (centre), who runs the 33-year-old Tiong Bahru Yong Tau Fu store in Eng Hoon Street, has been leasing out his coffee shop in the evenings to Western eatery Two Face Pizza & Taproom. He opens his shop from Mondays to Saturdays for half a day. After he closes at about 2pm, Mr Victor Tan and his staff take over.

But the couple is not swayed by these generous offers. They have three children and their eldest daughter, Ms Dawn Cheng, 39, helps with the business.

Mr Cheng says: "Money cannot talk to me, what is more important is what I wake up to every day and how we spend our sunset years."

While he remains resolute, elsewhere in Tiong Bahru, other decades-old businesses have handed their shops over to entrepreneurs drawn to the hip neighbourhood, which has been featured in international publications such as The New York Times.

According to the director of PropertyBank, Ms Edith Tay, who is in her 40s, monthly rental for shop space in Tiong Bahru ranges between $6 and $12 per sq ft. A three-storey, freehold 887 sq ft commercial unit in the area was sold for $4.3 million late last year.

In the last three years, provision shops, an egg seller and a coffee shop have made way for new tenants.

The wave of new ventures began around 2010, when artisanal coffee joint 40 Hands, opened by Australian barista Harry Grover and the Spa Esprit Group, opened in sleepy Yong Siak Street. Since then, clothing boutiques, cafes, patisseries and bookstores have sprouted up all over the neighbourhood.

There are currently 22 food and beverage outlets among the 64 HDB commercial properties in Tiong Bahru.

Earlier this month, Hua Bee coffee shop in Moh Guan Terrace was leased out to hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, 41.

Famed for its mee pok and coffee, the coffee shop, which is more than 70 years old, was once the set for the 1995 film, Mee Pok Man, by local director Eric Khoo.

Mr Loh plans to keep the coffee shop running in the day and introduce a new eatery that will operate alongside it during lunch and separately during dinner. A new coat of paint, air-conditioning and new furniture will be added.

He tells SundayLife!: "I have been thinking of Tiong Bahru for a while now. One of the unique things about it is that heritage element which I am a big fan of."

He also owns food and beverage outlets in other conservation areas such as Keong Saik Road. He adds: "I do not think that Tiong Bahru is getting crowded. We are not adding a restaurant to the area, we are building on an existing business and allowing people more options."

While the mee pok hawker will continue to work at the eatery when it reopens in two to three months' time, the coffee seller, Mr Tony Tiang, 58, will not stay on. He used to run the coffee shop, which is owned by his cousin.

He says in Mandarin: "We did make a profit from the business, but by renting out the place, my cousin can get about $7,000 a month. We could not make that much from Hua Bee no matter how hard I worked."

For now, he is taking a break and intends to go on vacation with his wife and 16-year- old son. He says he will look for a new job in the future.

Other old establishments in the estate have also leased out their spaces recently.

Last month, Mr Goh Chwee and his wife, Madam Ong Lee, both 75, closed Hup Seng, their 58-year-old provision shop. For about $8,000 a month, they are renting out the space to a new venture, Kisses Bakery, which will open next month.

It is owned by Ms Wendy Koh, 25, Mr Phil Choo, 27, and Ms Wang Ting, 26.

Close to six decades ago, Mr Goh rented the space for less than $50. He bought the shop for about $20,000 in 1965. In the past few years, he has been able to make ends meet but has not made a profit.

He says: "It was not very hard work to run the shop but everyone has been advising us to rent out our space. We finally decided it was time to retire."

He and his wife live near their former provision shop, in a three-bedroom flat in Tiong Poh Road. These days, they have been watching television and going on short trips to countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. They have three grown-up children.

Once in a while, a curious Mr Goh pops by his old store to check out the work in progress. As of last Thursday, his blue wooden shutters had been painted a bright shade of pink.

Another old business which recently closed its doors for the last time is a fruit stall in the more than 60-year-old coffee shop Tai Kwang Huat & Co in Eng Hoon Street.

Earlier this week, fruit seller Lim Ah Boon, 63, who is also one of the owners of the coffee shop, put up a "For Rent" sign on his stall, which had already been closed for the past two months.

The place was handed down to him by his grandfather and father. He has been working in the coffee shop since he was 18 years old and has been running the fruit stall alone since his wife died 14 years ago.

He says in Mandarin: "I am not Superman. I am growing old and it is difficult to run this place by myself."

His two children are in their 30s and they are not keen on taking over the business.

While people have shown interest in buying and leasing the entire coffee shop, with an area of close to 1,000 sq ft, Mr Yong Chui Min, 58, one of the other owners of the place, has turned them down. He runs the drink stall there alongside three other stalls, including the popular Loo's Hainanese Curry Rice.

He says: "We still need to make a living. Some of the stalls in the coffee shop have up to eight workers - that is eight families to feed. What will happen to them if we just sold the whole place?"

Mr Lim declined to reveal how much his predecessors bought the place for about six decades ago. Other individuals have no such qualms about accepting offers.

Last September, the owner of zi char store Por Kee Eating House in Seng Poh Lane, Mr Tang Phak Weng, who is in his 60s, sold a 1,350 sq ft unit for close to $2 million.

It used to provide additional indoor, air- conditioned seating for the eating house, which still operates in an 1,800 sq ft onestorey building in a carpark in Seng Poh Lane. It first opened there in 1996.

Mr Tang says: "I sold it because the price was right then. It is now worth $2.5 million."

The space is now owned by a bakery called Dough & Grains.

While some decades-old business owners are taking advantage of the hot property market, others say they are not going anywhere just yet.

Mr Desmond Chen, 60, one of the owners of hardware store Hock Eng Hin, bought his 1,300 sq ft shop in Seng Poh Road for $600,000 in 1994.

He has six siblings and runs the business with three brothers. People have offered them close to $2 million for both their shop and business.

He says: "Where will we go if we sold the place? We bought it so that we would not have to worry about rental costs. We took a bank loan and lived with the barest minimum for two years to afford it. We took 10 years to pay off the loan."

For close to two decades, the shop has been where the siblings and their families meet almost every weekend. They play mahjong and have meals together in the back area. Mr Chen says: "Of course, we have a lot of affection for Tiong Bahru. It is a central location where our family congregates."

Some older establishments in the neighbourhood have found ways to accommodate newcomers alongside their existing operations.

Mr Cher Kee Chiang, 66, of Ah Chiang's Porridge, chose to sell his porridge business in Tiong Poh Road for a six-figure sum in 2005, but he continues to work at the coffee shop and is paid a monthly salary that is a mid-four-figure sum.

Although he has taken a pay cut - he used to earn a five-figure sum when he was his own boss - he has no regrets about his decision. He says: "I had to think about the future of my business. It is important for the younger generation to carry it on. It is a lot less stressful to let someone else run the business for you."

Since last December, Mr Yeo Kee, 60, who runs the 33-year-old Tiong Bahru Yong Tau Fu store in Eng Hoon Street, has been leasing out his coffee shop in the evenings to Western eatery Two Face Pizza & Taproom.

He opens his shop from Mondays to Saturdays for half a day. After he closes at about 2pm, Mr Victor Tan, 47, and his staff take over.

Mr Yeo says: "I decided to let him do it because leaving this place empty at night was a waste. But when agents come and ask me to sell the place I tell them not to bother me. I can still work. I am not that old."

THROUGH THE YEARS

Tiong Bahru is one of the oldest housing estates in Singapore with distinct curved Art Deco-style flats built by the Singapore Improvement Trust, the Housing Board's predecessor, in the 1930s.

In the early days, it was home mainly to working-class Chinese families. But in the 1950s, wealthy businessmen started to house their mistresses there and the area was nicknamed "den of beauties".

After World War II, utilitarian "matchbox-style" flats were also built there.

However, over time, it became known as a sleepy estate with many elderly residents.

In 2003, the area bounded by Seng Poh, Outram and Tiong Bahru roads, including 20 of the Singapore Improvement Trust pre-war flats, were awarded conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Property prices in the area have been rising since the 2000s and there have been several record sales for property in Tiong Bahru. A five-room flat there now averages between $800,000 and $1 million.

After an artisanal coffee joint opened in Yong Siak Street in 2010, other cafes, boutiques and independent stores quickly followed suit.

They can be found alongside the handful of coffee shops, provision shops and other establishments that are decades old.

Drawn by the new-old vibe, a younger crowd, expatriates and other "yuppie" types began to move into Tiong Bahru.

Since then, the rejuvenation of the estate has made people sit up and take notice, from locals to tourists and also international media such as The New York Times.

cherylw@sph.com.sg


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

THEN AND NOW


Mr Peter Lim, 74, writer and media consultant, who grew up in Tiong Poh Road and still lives there:

“The cost of these changes to me is that sometimes, I have to wait for eight to 10 cars to pass me by before I can get to my car that is parked on the other side of the road. But this is a minor issue. I am very familiar with the place and love what is happening now. I have become friends with many of the owners of the new cafes and restaurants.”


Mr Liew Hock Siong, who is in his 60s and works in a coffee shop. He moved to Seng Poh Road in the 1980s:

“I think there will come a time when there are no more old coffee shops left in Tiong Bahru. People might prefer high-class cafes instead. My routine has not changed, I still greet everybody that I see, from my old friends to the young people that have moved in.”


Mr Ting Ker, 74, a retiree who lived in Tiong Bahru Road from 1972 to 2006. He now lives in Boon Tiong Road:

“There are a lot of bread shops here now, such as Tiong Bahru Bakery, but they are too expensive for me to try out. For the price of a small piece of bread at these shops, I can go to the convenience store and buy a whole loaf. I still like my 80-cents-a-cup coffee from the market.”

Heritage expert Lily Kong, in her 40s, a professor at the National University of Singapore’s department of geography:

“If gentrification were a three-stage process, Tiong Bahru is probably in the second stage. The first was when the yuppie residents moved in. The second was when the retail businesses that catered to that sort of crowd moved in. The third will be when the older residents and older shops disappear and what remains is the architecture and buildings. It would be a sad day if we got to the third stage.”


Dr Chua Ai Lin, in her 30s, vice-president of the Singapore Heritage Society:

“Tiong Bahru’s active citizen groups – helmed by heritage enthusiasts – help push the culture of the neighbourhood. It is fascinating how there are people like Mr Loh Lik Peng who are working with the heritage element of the housing estate for their businesses.”

SERVICES