Singapore is not all high-rises and glitzy malls. Occasionally, just like a mirage in a abounding desert, a series of pre war shop houses loom up on a side street which you would’ve missed, had you blinked twice. Beautifully restored, these historic gems seem stuck in time with their wide arches, thick columns, colourful louvered windows and ornate motifs.
Most of these are now homes to pricy restaurants, artisanal cafes, bars, patisseries, art galleries, designer boutiques and such, presumably for a clientele with aesthetic tastes and deep pockets. Therefore, paying little over a dollar for a cup of joe, while lounging inside one of these timeless spaces, seemed like an inexpensive way of experiencing history and local culture.
Couple of days ago, on my way back from the Singapore National library, I spotted a brick red awning that says ‘Killiney Kopitiam on Purvis Street; Established in 1919’, in the same breath. Kopitiams ( Kopi for coffee and tiam for shop) are traditional coffee shops, very popular in Southeast Asia, that serve simple meals like egg, toasts along with coffee and tea.
Something about this place, perhaps the convivial banter of families, animated conversations between friends and the murmur of hunched retirees cross-leggedly poised on wooden stools on the patio, sent a message that it’s okay to walk in without hurting your wallet.
Its spartan interiors look like a canteen from the 80s. The walls are white and bare saving few signboards with Killiney’s history, a photograph of its flagship store and few items from the menu. Handful of bright tube lights light the mosaic floor; ceiling fans creak above dark wooden tables with emerald green tops and round stools, making for a simple, unpretentious homely setting, where you are almost tempted to put your feet up and holler your mother for a cup of coffee.
“Don’t let your food get cold. You should eat quickly”, booms a matronly voice into my ear before trailing off to another table. Meet Alice Tan, the 70 year old aunt of Killiney’s owner who has lived her entire life on Purvis Street, and has been at its helm for 12 years, right from day one.
The warm reprimand gets me back to my half eaten french toast. I spread a layer of butter and kaya served alongside and wash it down with the Kopi O – sweetened black coffee – from an impersonal white melamine cup. Clad in bright pink trousers and a laced shirt with a satchel slapped across her shoulders, short haired, round faced Alice has the agility of someone half her age. “When I say I am 70, the kids laugh. They say – Auntie don’t bluff ah!” she says animatedly, pointing towards some of her younger patrons. ‘Now they call me “Amah“, used to address older people, you know’.
Alice is the soul of this kopitiam that flitters about like a butterfly on a roll. One moment she rushes inside the kitchen, the next she is out, patiently resolving a staff issue before joining in the camaraderie of her patrons at a nearby table, graciously slipping off to another and asking a lone woman who just walked in about her day at the office. Nothing escapes her hawk-eyed vision and overflowing warmth. Glancing over a charming group of silver haired patrons, she says, “You see, those are Purvis Street boys, who grew up here and have been visiting my shop since it opened. These days they meet for Kopi every Monday.” They wave at me and I wave back.
It seems she knows everybody, and everybody knows everybody or wants to know everybody. I am constantly greeted by patrons passing by me, with a smile, a nod that segues into short conversations. With a Starbucks loyalty card snugly tucked in my wallet, I am already bemused at the difference in scene and my experience over a simple cup of coffee or rather Kopi.
But if the modern coffee chains come with all the fancy stuff like air conditioning, plush seating, Wi-Fi and charging points, what makes such no-frill joints tick, I wonder aloud. “Personal attention”, says Alice. “I am friends with anybody who walks through that door, black or white; Indian, Chinese or Malay”. While I take a long sip of my coffee, she adds with a beaming smile, ” And now you are my friend”.
I gobble up the rest of my food and order a tall glass of lime juice to beat Singapore’s sultry weather. The Purvis Street boys are getting ready to leave and so is Alice. They wave at me and smile gleefully through their wrinkles. “Hey girl!” one calls out. I look up from my drink. ” Come back on Monday.” Maybe I will.