In 1935, James Sai’s father began brewing coffee for Singapore Harbour Board workers in a coffee shop called San Hai Yuan at the Tanjong Pagar pier. At just 26 years old, James had taken over the business and was working tirelessly to keep it alive. Now, at 65, his three children have expanded the business to become Coffee Break.
Living in the space above the coffee shop with seven other siblings, James recounted his days as a young boy growing up in San Hai Yuan in the 1950s and ’60s. Growing up with the constant aroma of coffee surrounding him as he came of age, James couldn’t help but lament the changes in the traditional method of roasting coffee beans.
“In the olden days, we would roast our beans at the side of the road, and then bring it back to the shop to grind. We handled everything, from beans to powder. That’s why the coffee was very aromatic—because it was 100% coffee, and roasted on the spot,” explained James. He pointed out that safety concerns have since led to a more rigid and measured procedure that dulls the aroma.
James also recalled the hardship of doing business in the ’60s, particularly during the racial riots in 1964 when military reinforcements had to be called in to quell the tensions.
“There were curfews so you couldn’t be out and about. Nobody dared to walk the streets,” said James. “I still remember standing by the window and looking out at the tanks patrolling the streets. With that going on, how were we supposed to do business? It was devastating.”
When there was business, James was kept busy. Living just above the coffee shop, James said that it was only natural that he and his siblings spent their free time helping out with the family business. He was only in Primary 5 when he began lending a hand at the shop.
Among the menial chores he remembered doing was washing “spit bins”.
“Spitting was common practice,” explained James. “We would have small tins below every table for people to spit in, and they would also chuck their cigarette butts in there. So every night I had to wash seven or eight tins of spit. It was disgusting, but I had no choice. Someone had to do it.”
Back then, coffee for takeaway was poured into condensed milk cans and even beer bottles.
“Let me tell you a secret.” Leaning forward slightly with a cheeky smile, James said, “The cans were never enough. So I’d have to go back to the working grounds of the pier workers and pick up the used cans. I’d pick them up one by one and bring them back to wash and reuse.”
“All done by me, okay? Every time I had to do that, I don’t know where my brother disappeared to!” James said with a laugh.
“At the time, people weren’t so particular about hygiene,” continued James. “They were more concerned about putting three meals on the table, so everybody was a bit more chin chai (Hokkien for ‘easy-going’). As long as it appeared clean, people didn’t really care. We’d clean it to the best of our ability, and if it was rusty, you’d better not reuse it.”
James (right) at age 16, with his nephew, posing in front of the first San Hai Yuan shop in Tanjong Pagar. Photo courtesy of James Sai
The choice beverage then was kopi-o-gao—‘thick, black coffee’ in Hokkien. It was a popular drink, especially with the older generation. According to James, the old folks loved ordering that, and then adding their own special ingredient—opium.
“They would carry the opium in little matchboxes and just add them into the coffee. You don’t see that happening now of course, but it was very common back then.”
In those days when such vices were common, James had seen more than his fair share of the darker side of Singapore.
“There were a lot of secret societies and gangs. They were everywhere, on every street. They would come to our shop and demand a protection fee,” said James. “At the time, I was still very young. I remember the sight of five or six men sitting there, chewing on toothpicks in their mouths. Because I was so young, I couldn’t do anything. I could only watch as my father gave them money.”
To this day, James doesn’t know how much his father had to give. “What could we do? They came in large groups.”
In 1978, the original coffee shop relocated to Telok Blangah, as the previous location was slated for reconstruction. It was then that James left his engineering job to take over the business with his brother, as his father was getting on in years.
James (far right) with his family in front of the shop in Telok Blangah in 1978. His father is the gentleman in the middle. The name San Hai Hng, included in the second shop’s signboard as pictured, is taken from the names of James and his brothers. Photo courtesy of James Sai
The shop remained in Telok Blangah for about 20 years before reconstruction plans for the area forced James to move to Boon Tat Street in the central business district in around 1998. Due to rent hikes, however, the shop again relocated in 2000 to Amoy Street Food Centre and renamed itself Coffee Break.
Today, his three children Jack, Anna, and Faye, run the business, with two shops at Amoy Street Food Centre and Ascent. James no longer works at the shops, but helps out behind the scenes, managing supplies and logistics for all three outlets.
As for his children taking over the business, James did not plan for that.
“A university education is common nowadays. My purpose of teaching my children how to handle the business is really just to impart life skills,” said James. “With these added skills, you can decide not to work in an office and open your own shop, with your livelihood in your own hands. To me, that’s the most important thing—to be able to provide for yourself and your family. That is my ultimate goal.”
James at the second outlet of Coffee Break, in front of the refurbished San Hai Yuan signboard. Photo by Chan Kar Leng
“I don’t want them to follow me just because they were born into this business like I was. I only want to teach them how to do it. Whether they continue to do it in the future, it is up to them.”
“When your coffee is well received by the customers, they will keep coming back and they bring along their friends and families, that is the best memory for me,” gushed a proud James. “This coffee business is our strength, our identity. We have it in us to do it well. It would be a pity to give it up.”
Written by: Adam Chan
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign