I love kopitiams. If there is anything more Singaporean than Singaporeans themselves, this is it. Back when Singapore was still littered with kampongs, these coffee houses already served as gathering points for people to socialise, chat and exchange news. Even as people were relocated into spanking new housing estates, the kopitiam continued to be a central place for neighbours to meet and get to know one other. I’m not sure how much of this old kopitiam culture remains, this idea of going to a local kopitiam to have a nice conversation with neighbors, or close friends and family. So I set out towards the oldest Hainanese kopitiam in Singapore — Killiney Kopitiam at Killiney Road. It is really one of the oldest around, having been established in 1919 as “Kheng Hoe Heng Kopitiam”.
When I first got there, I wasm’t surprised to see how new it looked. After all, this kopitiam has gone through much since 1919, and in seven more years, it would celebrate its 100th birthday.
Of course it would have been renovated. But I was struck by how charming it looked on the inside, with nostalgic white marble-topped wooden tables and tiled flooring. The place was crowded, but it was a scene that was familiar to me. A gathering of different people from different places, enjoying a cuppa and having slow, pleasant conversation. A young man walks towards the counter and waves his hand in greeting. The waiter nods and shouts “一个 Kopi-O 对吗? (A cup of coffee without milk, am I right?)”. He smiles and nods before moving to a corner to wait for his coffee. I feel like I’ve stepped into the past.
I sip my kopi and eat two perfectly-cooked softboiled eggs with toast slathered in kaya and melted butter, and I’m reminded of my uncle who works in the US. Every time he returns home, he skips out on the new attractions like the Singapore Flyer or the Marina Bay Sands. Instead, he hunts for the kopitiams of his younger years, to see how they are, and whether they have remained the same since he last left them.
As I’m outside the kopitiam taking some photographs of the place, I am greeted by a jolly looking Malay man. “It’s a nice kopitiam isn’t it?” he asks. We chat, and he tells me of how he used to run about the kopitiam when he was young and how the old “Ah Pek” would be there grinding coffee and filtering it with a sock. He also points out where the old kampongs around the area used to be and talks about how people used to shop at Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket.
I try to keep up, but mostly I’ve never heard of the long-gone things and places he refers to. A while later, we exchange contacts and he drives off to work. I am left marveling at how all these buildings had been kampongs once. It’s a bittersweet feeling; I feel somewhat nostalgic for a past that I never knew, and yet I love the easy conveniences of modern Singapore and am thankful for the future.
Kopitiams are really amazing places. Some are less memorable and meaningful than others, but their purpose remains the same. It is a place for a traditional Singaporean Breakfast, but more importantly, a place where the old kampong culture burns brightly.
This post is part of a specially curated series of guest entries from our friends at Connexion.SG, who will be refreshing their site with fresh new content! Don’t forget to pen your coffee shop stories at the Singapore Memory Portal!