It was a cooling Sunday morning, but I decided to wake up a little earlier to make a trip down to Tong Ah Eating House. It was the last day of operation for the 74-year-old iconic kopitiam located at the junction of Keong Saik Road and Teck Lim Road.
There was already a long queue of customers at the kopitiam, many of them regulars who wanted to salvage a last piece of memory of their favourite breakfast joint. Others probably wished to capture another glimpse of the place, which could be turned into a boutique hotel soon. The eye-catching triangular shaped building was apparently bought by a foreign investor in hotels for $8 million.
The Tanjong Pagar area has been a hot spot for private investors in recent years. Traditional shopowners are being squeezed out of business by the surging rental fees and property prices. Tong Ah Eating House, for example, has to pay a reported $8,000 per month for its rental.
The number 1939 listed at the top of the facade of the building stated the year of its construction. It was also the same year Tong Ah Eating House was established by the great-grandfather of Tang Chew Fue, who took over from his father in 1999. Now, after four generations of family business, the 50-year-old owner had no choice but to bid farewell to a place filled with memories. The faithful customers could no longer enjoy a laid-back meal, or simply a cup of kopi, at the familiar five foot way.
For seven decades, the kopitiam had survived the Second World War and endured the triad-infested streets and red-light district of the sixties. But even so, it could not defeat the rising rental cost and flexing financial muscle of the big players. Other traditional kopitiams are facing the same challenges too, such as the 70-year-old Hua Bee coffee shop at Tiong Bahru and North Bridge Road’s Heap Seng Leong.
The only positive thing is that Tong Ah Eating House will be shifted to a nearby location at a refurbished shophouse along Keong Saik Road, but that old charming feel of the kopitiam will probably never be the same again.
Published: 14 July 2013
Little by little, places that people not just learn about heritage but feel a sense of attachment are being squeezed out by capitalism.
sad to hear this. what an iconic place!
No choice. We have a 100% capitalist PAP government who has only eyes for $$$ and more $$$.
Sad 😦 Goodbye… To another part of our Singaporean heart and heritage…
Lucky i snap a film b/w for this building last year.
Goodbye to this building .. sad man
Thanks for feathering this article , I really love this place.
Hey really great articles you write here, I always come here when i get bored, so that i can surprise my self with some interesting history. Keep up the good effort. Also I was wondering whether you would consider doing an article on how the nightlife in Singapore has changed over the years.
I am coming to Singapore in April 2014 and was researching old time Kopi houses. I wanted to go to this one. Guess it wont be there in APril!!
Sigh… a similar story happens in Penang
After nearly 100 years, popular Penang coffeeshop forced from original home
26 September 2016
Monday (Sept 26) is Kong Thai Lai Coffeeshop’s final day of operations at its home for the past century in Hutton Lane, but onlookers would never be able to tell.
Its wooden tables are packed to the brim with customers who have been streaming in for the past several weeks to enjoy their final cup of coffee and toast before the coffeeshop is forced to move to a new location about 300m away.
The coffeeshop — best known locally as the late magnate Loh Boon Siew’s favourite coffeeshop — was evicted by its new landlord and will close its doors for the final time here around 4pm.
Normally bustling, there was an added poignancy on Monday as customers posed for keepsake pictures and scribbled short messages on its tiled walls that ranged from “I love their toast and kopi” to “I will miss this place”.
Its third generation owner, Mr Tan Jeng Seow, was saddened by the relocation, but is resigned to the fact that he must move since he is only a tenant. Mr Tan, whose grandfather started the coffee shop back in 1920, grew up in the living quarters above with his parents and siblings.
“All my memories will be lost after this,” he said with melancholy as he prepared what will be the last cups of coffee for his customers here.
When the shutters are lowered on Monday evening, Mr Tan will start packing up in preparation for the move to 38 Leith Street.
While the new location is also a heritage building, the history is not be that of Kong Thai Lai Coffeeshop, known for its kopi-O, or black coffee made with Robusta beans roasted in their own inimitable manner, and crunchy toasts slathered in kaya and butter.
One regular, Mr Phoon Kok Cheong, 73, said he has been frequenting the shop since he was a child.
“I grew up across the street from the coffee shop and used to come here with my koleh to buy kopi-o,” he said as he reminisced. He even remembered the day Mr Tan was born and how he thought the latter had “such a huge head”.
“We all grew up here, I watch the Tan family grew up here, even remember seeing Boon Siew coming here for his coffee,” he said. The bonds that went beyond shopkeeper and customer were apparent as Mr Phoon helped Mr Tan to pack for the coming move.
“This is the place where my group of friends would come for breakfast, maybe we will go to the new place but it’s not as convenient any more,” Mr Phoon said.
The coffeeshop along with four others in the row were served eviction notices back in March. They were ordered to vacate the premises by June, but were given an extension until end of this month after appealing to the new building owner, a Singapore-based company.
The tycoon affectionately called Boon Siew ate his breakfast here every day until the final years before his death in 1995. Loh was the first sole distributor of Honda motorcycles in Malaysia and was known in Penang for his rags to riches story.
Tong Ah kopitiam in the 1980s
(Photo Credit: Tanaka Yutaka)