Christmas Eve at my neighbourhood coffeeshop, and the place was heaving. A group of men – mostly Indian and Malay, with a couple of Chinese – leaned back around a table littered with beer bottles, and bickered amongst themselves about whether it was time to dig into their curry dinner. The drink stall assistant shuffled by, hollering the next order – “Coke! Teh si ping! Lemon tea!” – and waving a Tiger beer-branded tray in sync with the slap of her thick blue plastic slippers on the oily pale pink plastic floor. Stern fluorescent spotlights irradiated the rapidly emptying aluminium food trays at the economy rice stall. Almost every table was occupied with folks who looked like they’d just popped down from their homes upstairs to grab dinner, and near the cze char stall several customers loitered along the walkway with folded arms, clutching crisp white receipts for their ta pow (takeaway) orders.
I joined the latter group to order my dinner. This cze char stall’s not particularly famous – I don’t think anyone drives here from the other side of the island to buy chilli crab or anything – but I’m partial to their sweet and sour pork and “house special” beancurd. I’ve been eating from here a lot lately, partly because in my current living situation I don’t have a full kitchen at my disposal, and also because the stall assistants’ smiley affability has grown on me.
This ain’t no hawker centre
Most places that I’ve lived in Singapore, it’s the coffeeshop rather than its revered, confident cousin the hawker centre that’s been my lifeline to a decent meal at almost any hour of the day. For one thing, coffeeshops are ubiquitous. There are about 700 coffee shops in HDB estates alone (according to the Straits Times in 2010) and many more in the rest of the island, as compared to 109 hawker centres altogether. Also, if it’s the middle of the night and you get hungry, or you’re simply looking for a chilled-out, no-frills place to have a drink, you’re more likely to come across a coffeeshop rather than a hawker centre that will still be open and ready to whip up a hot meal.
Historically, coffeeshops and hawker centres sprang up quite differently. Coffeeshops (or kopitiams) began as many other small businesses do: to fill a straightforward need. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Singapore’s male-dominated population of immigrant workers needed cheap, palatable food and a place to hang out. Enterprising individuals who had some kitchen experience, a little capital or perhaps just pure gumption got together, rented shops and got cooking.
Hawker centres, on the other hand, were born of the colonial government’s determination to control public health and congestion on the street, so as to ensure social order. As Lily Kong writes in Singapore Hawker Centres, following the Hawkers Inquiry Commission of 1950, the government moved itinerant hawkers into government-built “hawkers’ shelters”, or markets and shelters built by the hawkers themselves. Singapore’s independent government continued in the same vein, cracking down on illegal (i.e. unlicenced) hawkers and, from 1971 to 1986, purposefully constructing markets and hawker centres so that street hawkers could be resettled there.
No doubt the successive governments’ efforts to get itinerant hawkers off the street over the years also pushed some of them into coffeeshops, and it may seem pedantic to draw a line in the sand between coffeeshops and hawker centres when they seem to share a raison d’être and a hallowed place in the popular imagination as a linchpin of authentic, “heartlander” Singapore identity. Eating chicken rice in a coffeeshop is pretty much the same thing as eating chicken rice in a hawker centre, isn’t it?
But a kopitiam is not a hawker centre. A hawker centre is decreed into existence, owned and administered exclusively by the government, in the guise of the National Environment Agency. It’s a communal space, but one that is deliberately constructed and managed, literally and metaphorically, by the state. Since 1985 Singapore hasn’t had a new hawker centre because the government stopped building them; now it’s decided to build 10 more in the next decade. Either way, the final say rests with the authorities, not explicitly with the people who depend on hawker food to survive (both hawkers and consumers).
An everyday experience
In contrast to hawker centres, coffeeshops come and go, rise and fall according to the rhythm of economic and social desire. They’re also a different breed from food courts, those air-conditioned, plastic simulacra of street life. Coffeeshops are very much a visceral, unfiltered experience, open to the vagaries of tropical city life: the blare of road noise, the buzz of insects, the inconvenient heat, humidity or thunderstorm. The coffeeshops I remember well are the ones where there were always some regulars at their usual tables, slouched over a tepid cup of coffee or well-iced glass of beer, yet the place felt like anyone could walk in to buy a meal or a drink and they wouldn’t feel unwelcome. At the coffeeshop, you can sit in fan-cooled respite from the heat, and watch Singapore go by on the street or the world go by on the 50-inch widescreen TV set. You can kibbitz with complete strangers about how Singapore or the world is changing all too quickly, yet rest assured that if you shout kopi siew dai ping at the drink stall assistant, he or she (even if non-Chinese) will faithfully bring you the exact concoction of coffee, condensed milk and ice that your encoded order requests.
It’s that comforting predictability of the coffeeshop that’s easy to underestimate. They pop up organically around a community, more or less look alike, and have a similar range of food stalls. By and large they lack the legendary appeal of hawker centres such as Tiong Bahru or Chomp Chomp, and more closely resemble what the British call a ‘local’, the place close to home or work where you nip down for a drink, a quick meal and/or a chat with other folks in the neighbourhood. The sameness from one coffeeshop to the other accentuates for me its placedness – the rootedness of seemingly generic qualities (replicable plastic furniture, chintzy stall signs, ragtag bunch of workers) in a specific place. It’s not necessarily appealing to someone who isn’t from around there, it may not even serve very good food, and the people selling the food may not be terribly charming either.
But it’s where you go because it’s easy and it’ll give you the cheap food you need. It won’t try to convince you that it “offers” “an experience” that you “want”, you won’t have to contend with too many outsiders to get your meal (or cigarette, or a good viewing spot for the TV), and if you drop by often enough, you’ll eventually be on at least nodding acquaintance with the stallholders and some of the regulars – even though you may never quite find out where exactly they live or what else they do when they’re not at the kopitiam. Several years ago, a Caucasian Australian woman told me that shortly after moving to Singapore and living in an HDB flat, her first moment of feeling at home was when the gaggle of middle-aged men and women who inhabited a particular table at her coffeeshop – “you know, the uncles and aunties, who saw me sitting alone with my Tiger beer every day” – waved her over to join them, even though they spoke only a smattering of English.
Beyond the functional and the sentimental, I like to think of the kopitiam as the kind of convergence point that its non-Anglicised name invokes: kopi (“coffee” in Malay) and tiam (“shop” in Hokkien). Not only a meeting place between cultures in the sense of happy-clappy picture-perfect multiculturalism, but an interstitial space between workaday experience and the swirl of globalism, sitting on the edge between building and outdoors, home and commerce, kampung (village, neighbourhood) and the world. Away but not entirely detached from the routines of home and work, more than a rest stop or a shelter, the kopitiam is a living, breathing, busy space where we can nonetheless lean back, soak it all in (or vent it all out), and take a moment to make sense of what’s going on inside and outside.
We need our kopitiams in order to eat, to breathe, to lounge and loiter. I think we need to keep them near our homes and workplaces, and away from the imperatives of tourism and heritage. The kopitiam is everyday, but essentially, not forgettably, so.
After moving house several times in the last few years, it’s reassuring to know that wherever I live in Singapore, there’ll almost always be a kopitiam close at hand. Doesn’t matter what time of day it is: I walk in, I pick a seat and hail the drink stall operator to order, or maybe I order first, then find a seat. I lean back in the plastic chair, knowing that I can sit there for as long as I like, even if I finish my drink. I know where the toilet is (and that it’s probably dodgy). I can order another drink, or food, or I can dash off if I need to, without offending anyone. Or I can just sit there, as long as I like, as long as I don’t bother anyone. I know where I am, even if it’s a coffeeshop I’ve never been to before. I know where I am.
Words Yu-Mei Balasingamchow
Illustrations Norman Teh