Friday, 19 September, 2014

Published July 12, 2014
Old estates, new buzz
More new business owners are staking out forgotten, greying neighbourhoods in the belief they will be the next hipster central. But will their efforts pay off? BT Weekend looks at the the race for the 'next Tiong Bahru', spotlighting four edgy lifestyle postcodes
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Tian Kee Cafe, in Dakota Crescent, takes over from a 50-year-old provision shop of the same name, and is a draw for its foodie favourites. - PHOTO: TIAN KEE

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STRAY cats yawn, before stretching out parallel to the racks of laundry that rust in the setting sun. A block away, two aunties in pyjamas fan themselves as they chit-chat in the public exercise corner, their eyes tracing the younger intruders that trundle by, like guardians of the ground-floor HDB flats.

These are scenes you'll invariably see as you make your way to Sin Lee Foods, a cafe that quietly set up shop in the sleepy Havelock Road neighbourhood a week ago.

Save for a traditional signboard marked with "Sin Lee" in Chinese characters (a hand-me-down from the unit's former coffeeshop tenants that their nostalgia-minded landlord insisted should stay), everything else about the business bear marks of a downtown cafe. Pixie-faced waitstaff wear high ponytails and black t-shirts that read 'Rad!'; a rack of imported Kinfolk and Time magazines feed the worldly appetites of its trendy patrons; and sandwiches on the menu average $15 - 10 times as much as the kaya toast from the coffeeshop down the road.

Are they a misfit? But that is entirely the point, says Sin Lee's founder Sean Lee. Despite growing up in nearby Tiong Bahru, Mr Lee decided to cast his net further afield when trawling for a suitable venue earlier this year. "Tiong Bahru has become too busy and there are too many cafes there now, we wanted to create something more contrasting in a quieter neighbourhood."

Like Mr Lee, a growing brood of F&B and lifestyle entrepreneurs are eschewing trendy clusters in the likes of Haji Lane and Jalan Besar to take up units in long-forgotten residential neighbourhoods such as Dakota Crescent, Bukit Merah and Bedok North. An unfashionable postcode, it seems, has become the latest fashion. Besides advantages such as lower rents, less competition, ample parking and congestion-free streets, these business owners are also hoping to get first dibs on the next hipster hotspot.

Off the eaten track

"We were not looking for a fashionable area to begin with. As designers, we prefer to initiate something and rebel against the norm, rather than go with the flow, and we love Dunlop Street for its unexplored possibilities for new local businesses," says JR Chan of fortnight-old boutique ThreeSixFive on Dunlop Street. The previously scruffy backpacker strip has seen new injections of cafes, pop-up retail stores and even co-working space The Tool Room aimed at creative start-ups in recent weeks.

Citing other cosmopolitan cities such as Hong Kong and Seoul, where cafes can pull in crowds even if they are on the seventh floor on a nondescript building, Fann Hui Ling of nearby Flee Away cafe adds: "Popular areas in Singapore like Holland Village are slowly being taken over by big commercial companies that churn out cookie-cutter chain outlets every month."

Couple this tedium with the burgeoning cafe-hopping culture here, and you get droves of people fanning out across the island in search of the unexpected.

Never mind if the address sounds unfamiliar, Singapore is small enough, business owners say. And there's always Google Maps. Or Facebook and Instagram, the 21st century equivalent of word-of-mouth marketing. Rouse cafe on Dunlop Street, for instance, snowballed over 2,000 followers on Instagram even before it opened to the public in April, thanks to an online video marketing campaign.

Other times, it is not about being fashionable. Some businesses were started by well-meaning residents to plug gaps in the neighbouhood. "We have always found that the East side of Singapore has everything except excellent speciality coffee places," says Alvin Tan of Percolate cafe in Bedok North.

Tian Kee Cafe in Dakota Crescent, which takes over a 50-year-old provision shop of the same name, was started by interior designer CK Foo and his wife Jessie, who moved there in 2011. The couple hope more people will discover the charms of their laid-back, breezy neighbourhood framed by old low-rise Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flats from the late 1950s.

"One of our objectives is to inject new life into this area and bring back the kampung spirit. In our one month of operation, we've already gotten to know more neighbours than we have over our three-year stay here," says Mr Foo of the cafe, which also pulls in expatriates from nearby condominiums with their homemade pies and modern takes on classic kopitiam drinks, such as a double ristretto-infused bandung. Month-old The Tastemaker Store in Havelock Road likewise serves as an informal community centre of sorts. "Our cafe adds a bit of excitement for long-time residents. We get aunties coming in because they are curious about how an Americano would taste compared to kopi-o, and we're quite happy to explain to them how a mocha is made," laughs co-founder Alvin Peh. He took over the space from his retired grandfather who ran a bookstore there for over a decade. "It's nice when you see several generations come together to dine in the same space."

Revitalising ageing estates

But out-of-the-way areas aren't without their drawbacks too. HDB retail shops tend to have more stringent rules on kitchen layout and the types of food that can be served, and higher price sensitivity among residential patrons translate into slimmer profit margins, business owners point out.

And then there's the perennial dearth of labour that plagues the entire service industry. "Being away from town makes the area less attractive to work in, for reasons such as accessibility and perceived prestige," says Jerome Siew of Pan Delight's in Bukit Merah. The upside, though, is that most of his employees are residents in the area who walk to work, he adds.

There's also the question of how well these forward-thinking ventures sit in old estates. When restaurateur Loh Lik Peng took over the tenancy of Hua Bee coffeeshop last year, for instance, Tiong Bahru residents petitioned him to retain the 50-year-old mee pok stall tenanted within, bemoaning the erosion of heritage icons in the quickly gentrifying estate. Mr Loh eventually settled on a dual-shift use of the space between the stall and his Japanese yakitori bar, Bincho.

Over at Sin Lee, curious residents and passers-by pop their head into the cafe every few minutes, prompting Mr Lee to admit that fitting in wasn't all that easy. "We do get people in the neighbourhood asking why we open here, and that this is not the kind of food that people in the area will eat," he says. But he doesn't let it get to him. "We were prepared for such feedback. When one is not usually exposed to this kind of cuisine, it is natural to initially dislike it. It will take time. We don't want to dilute our brand image and original business plan by following every suggestion we get to serve Western pork chops or lor mee. We should stick to our guns," he adds.

On how to determine when these emerging neighbourhoods will reach their saturation point, The Tastemaker Store's Mr Peh adds: "It's not up to me to determine how much is too much - it's up to everyone within the community to decide. After all, I'm only here when the cafe is in operation, but for residents who live here, its an area that they'll have to be in 24/7."