It seems that coffee culture in Singapore has a much longer history than usually thought. For close to a hundred years -- the late-1800s to early-1980s -- the local coffee shop, or “kopitiam” in Chinese dialect, enjoyed immense unbroken popularity. The people who owned and ran them were predominantly from Hainan, a tiny island off Southern China. The coffee shop therefore came to be known as the Hainanese kopitiam.
After Singapore became a British colony in the 1820s, there was an exodus of southern Chinese to Singapore in search of a living. The early immigrants were mainly from Canton, and included large numbers of Teochew and Hokkien. These Chinese settlers quickly occupied the more lucrative trades and economic niches, as jobs in those days were filled mainly on referral by friends or by fellow immigrants from the same province. Outsiders – those from other ethnicities or provinces – were shunned.
Late arrivals to Singapore, among them the Hainanese, found few opportunities left.
According to Mr. Wee Jee Seng, Executive Secretary of Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Association, the Hainanese arrived into a society in which entire crafts and businesses were monopolized by other clans; and to find a toehold in these closely-knit communities was next to impossible.
Most Hainanese men ended up working with the British colonial households as cooks or maintenance staff. These Hainanese domestic workers became adept at western cooking and lifestyle preferences, including coffee- and tea-drinking rituals, cake- and pastry-making, and of course, the principles of western cuisine.
Mr. Wee also added that since Beach Road – which was the sea front in those days -- was the port-of-call for arriving Hainanese, its vicinity became a major settlement zone for the group. The Hainanese enclave encompassed Beach Road, Tan Quee Lan Street, Bencoolen Street, and Middle Road. Around that time too, many hotels operated by the Japanese were set up in the area to cater to the influx of new arrivals and visitors.
From the turn of the 1900s to the Depression Era of the 1930s, Singapore was in economy slowdown, and many hotels closed. Many Hainanese who worked for the British and the Hokkien, and had accumulated some savings, decided to seize the opportunity. They took over the vacant buildings left by the Japanese hoteliers at a low rental, and set up kopitiams to cater to the average- and low-income workers.
They sold coffee and tea, cakes, breads, and half-boiled eggs. The startup costs were minimal, as the coffee shop interiors were kept fairly basic with simple marble tables and chairs, a cashier counter, ceiling fans, and a large glass display cabinet with an assortment of heavily-creamed cakes. But perhaps the most crucial appliance of all was the Rediffusion radio. This toaster-size box exerted a pull out of all proportion to its size: with a continuous stream of news in several dialects, folk tale reading, and music, it was the cable TV of its time and attracted the workingman in droves. The kopitiam “concept” took off.
The little shops soon sprouted all over the island, with the highest concentrations in Chinatown and Hong Lim. In the Beach Road neighbourhood alone, there were almost 5 kopitiams to every street.
Most migrant men remained bachelors and had nowhere to go to after work. The kopitiam thus became their gathering spot, an unofficial “men’s club” where women were seldom seen. Patrons would congregate after dinner, order a cup of tea or coffee, and chat with friends or catch up on the daily news through newspapers that were loaned free to the customers.
They would also receive “updates” from the provinces in China via visitors and the new arrivals – remember this was way before the Internet, and the postal service was not as efficient or cheap as it is today. The kopitiam was a social hub, alive and noisy with chatter and the Rediffusion blaring in the background; families who lived within earshot of the kopitiam would often just shout across their orders, and have them obligingly delivered to their doorstep!
The trademark of the Hainanese coffee shop was the sight of coffee being made with ground coffee powder and a cotton coffee bag, and “pulled” several times between two coffee pots with long snouts to create a latte-like effect. A charcoal fire was used to toast slices of bread in the coffee shop, and the coffee pot was kept warm by being placed over the grill.
Prices were cheap, and those who were on a really tight budget could even order a half-cup for economy. The tea served at the kopitiams was normally not leaf, but tea powder, and the lowest of grades disguised with the flavor of condensed or evaporated milk. Ovaltine and cocoa were beverages reserved for the rich or a luxury for special occasions. Milo and Horlicks were yet unheard of.
To operate a kopitiam was a tough calling. Long hours, low profit margins, and the constant search for suitable labour was a source of worry and stress. Most kopitiams therefore started as, or became, family-run businesses -- often husband and wife assisted by children or close members of the family. Structure and operation was typically that of a traditional family business, and therefore thin on formal planning or training. Often, the business would be handed down father to son.
These kopitiams would bake their own cakes, make their own kaya, and even roasted their own coffee beans on the premises. It was a common sight to see a metal tray of coffee beans over a bed of charcoal. The main suppliers of coffee beans came from Malaysia and Indonesia. Each coffee shop-owning family would have its own method and recipe for roasting the beans, and each would attract its own pool of regular patrons.
The kopitiam culture was so popular and widespread that at its peak between the 1930s and 1960s, the Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Association had more than 500 registered kopitiam members.
In the declining years of the British colony in Singapore in the 1950s, the kopitiam became a place for intellectuals to meet to dissect politics and plan popular movements. Many political activists also took the opportunities afforded by the kopitiams to publicize their message to the masses. This led to clandestine meetings and the organization of protests in the 1960s and 1970s. This period of unrest in Singapore’s history also saw the formation of community centers and the development of the trade union concept.
The kopitiam was also a place for celebrations. People went to the kopitiam to buy birthday cakes. In the 1960s, it was common for blue-collar workers to throw wedding dinners at the kopitiam, as it would certainly cost less than to do so at the restaurant. The bridal couple would rent the entire coffee shop and arrange for food to be catered. If the invited guests proved too many to be accommodated in a single seating, dinner would often be divided into two sessions at 4 pm and 6 pm. The average “angpow” then was around S$10!
Mr Huang Xin Man, a coffee shop helper who’s been in the business for more than 20 years and is now retired, has seen the kopitiam in its glory days and its current decline. Mr. Huang thinks that the rising affluence of Singaporeans – reflected in the rapid proliferation of the HDB estates – has resulted in changing lifestyle expectations and the gradual demise of the Hainanese coffee shop.
Today’s coffee drinker seeks convenience and choice, he says, and kopitiams are therefore driven to offer ever-greater variety in cooked food and drink. Whereas in the past, kopitiams were generally family-run businesses, today’s coffee shops are run on the business chain model with corporate-style management, thus enabling them to reap much higher profits due to their economies of scale. The traditional kopitiams find it increasingly difficult to weather these social and business challenges, and are losing out. The members of the Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Association today number barely over a hundred.
The last ten years however has seen a revival of sorts in the kopitiam culture. A number of home grown and Malaysian chains featuring kopitiam-themed cafes have opened and are flourishing. Among the most successful of these are Ya Kun and Killiney Kopitiam of Singapore, and Old Town White Coffee of Ipoh, Malaysia.
While different from actual kopitiams in furniture and amenities and food, these modern incarnations seek to retain the tradition and spirit. At these cafes, the coffee-brewing techniques and flavours may appear reassuringly familiar, but the faces at the tables are not. They are the faces of the young, the professional, the hip, and the foreign tourist.
So while the idea of the “kopitiam”, and the sepia prints of bygone days that deck the walls of these cafes, may offer some link to the past, the Hainanese coffee shop has become, irrevocably, a different animal.