Tag Archives: killiney kopitiam

What’s been cookin’ ?

Actually a lot. The innocent Antipodean summer spell I was under at the beginning of the year got quickly replaced with Hong Kong’s mendacious haze and leaking skies in March. I was there for a week and had plenty of time to wander, sketch, chat with strangers, and watch Sex and the City on a loop late into the night because Carrie Bradshaw’s social life outshone every drivel on the hotel’s cable TV. But more about Hong Kong in a different post.

Let me fast forward to Singapore, where I along with other local artists were tasked with the submission of sketches to two different books that are both going to be published before this country turns 50 in August this year. Hurray! Urban Sketchers Singapore: Volume 2, will carry our memories of places in Singapore that are special to us and the other book Let’s Draw Singapore! is about the neighbourhoods we live in and the sketches of our favourite spots in them.

Surely I didn’t go scouting for subjects to sketch on Purvis Street again? Yes I did! I am that predictable. Killiney Kopitiam along with another sketch made the cut for the first book. I have scores of good memories at this kopitiam and also wrote an anecdote to go along with the sketch, which I think is with the editor. However, here’s the sketch :

Killiney Kopitiam on Purvis Street

‘Killiney Kopitiam on Purvis Street’ is going to be published in Urban Sketchers Singapore: Volume 2

For the neighbourhoods book, I didn’t have to think much. Belly rumbles shot the idea straight to the brain one day. Indian Palace, a hole in the wall eatery in Newton Food Centre is on my speed dial. They are at a 10 mins (Okay, 6 minutes when I’m really hungry) walk from my home and I’ve pigged out on their aloo paratha and chicken tikka countless times. While sketching their stall, the gentle owner, his wife and daughter in matching orange T-shirts with the name of their shop printed at the back, came up to check what I was up to.

The curtain of business formality vanished as soon as they met a fellow Bengali from Kolkata. What are the chances! Within minutes, I was listening to their life story of struggle, survival and success in Singapore, while sipping lime juice and vigorously scratching lines on my sketchbook.

A favourite Indian joint near my house. I'm addicted to their better slathered aloo parathas baked in a traditional tandoor. This goes into the Let's Draw, Singapore! book.

A favourite Indian joint near my house. I’m addicted to their butter slathered aloo parathas baked in a traditional tandoor. This goes into the Let’s Draw, Singapore! book.

Indian Palace’s portly matron took it upon herself to dispense neighbourly advice to me, that ranged from shifting to a low rental apartment to becoming a Permanent Resident. “Otherwise what’s the point in moving to a foreign country?” she said. Apparently I wasn’t scrimping and saving enough to justify my life out of India.

In exchange for her tips, she implored me to find a husband for her daughter. “I don’t care if he’s poor or less educated, I want a guy who’d be willing to immigrate from India and settle here with my daughter”, she demanded as if I could furnish him from my rucksack as soon as she filled out the withdrawal slip. “We’d be giving him a better life! Think of that.” Apparently her elder daughter is happily married to ‘such’ a guy. Discomfited by the sudden matchmaking role thrust upon me, I squirmed and stuttered, while she dunked her biscuit in the tea. “Doesn’t your husband have unmarried friends back home?”

As I was about to leave, I asked her why insist on importing when you could go local. Didn’t she care about carbon footprint at all? “You know…the ones here”. I didn’t know, really. “Some of them gamble and drink and..(long pause)..have girlfriends”, she’d lowered her voice to a whisper. It was an eventful afternoon.




He came, He sat, He left

Purvis Street

This row of colonial shophouses on Purvis Street was sketched from the Killiney Kopitiam

Everytime I visit the Central Library in Bugis, I drop by Killiney Kopitiam on Purvis Street for a cup of coffee or lime juice. Mostly lime juice, and sometimes french toast with butter and kaya. Parked on Killiney’s functional chairs and tables set on the five-foot way, for less than 2 dollars, I get to brush up on my dolce far niente while enjoying an unobstructed view of a narrow street hosting rows of colonial shophouses on either side. If you discount the fact that these conserved historical relics work as hotels, swanky restaurants, bars, and boutiques in the current scenario (instead of being obliterated, I’d say that’s a good compromise), and just focus on their restored exteriors displaying Chinese Corinthian style* – the facade bejewelled with Chinese symbolic features such as vases of peonies, fire breathing dragons, bat-headed keystones;  colourful louvred windows with fanlight and the wide arched entrances  – you’d know that they’re still a great sight to rest your eyes on in this uniform black and white concrete and steel jungle.

So I come here often. Mostly during late afternoons when we  – the retirees and I – can have the kopitiam to ourselves. From time to time, cheerful flocks of students and suave, important looking  people in dark suits and starched dresses that don’t seem to wrinkle, swing by like migratory birds – always in limbo, sitting alone in a corner, minding their business and never staying too long. Untill the other day, the very subset of this group, approached me from behind in a deep baritone voice – Is somebody sitting there? ‘There’ meant the empty chair opposite me. I was knee deep into this sketch and just waved my hand saying no, without even looking.

‘Well, can I sit there?”. An early 40-ish man of athletic build, with a tapered face sporting long sideburns, slick hair combed back and set in place with hair gel, dressed in a dapper grey pinstriped suit and thick framed glasses was standing in front of me, holding a can of chilled Tiger beer and a pack of cigarettes. I may have mumbled an indecisive ‘sure, go ahead’ out of politeness, because the next moment he was shuffling himself opposite me and putting his knick-knacks on my table. Had he approached few minutes early, this guy – probably on a gluten-free, carb-less, high-protein diet that requires him to eat exactly five and a half times a day in precariously measured quantities – would’ve witnessed me hogging my greasy french toast with a cube of butter in quick mouthfuls. Glad I saved him that image. I moved the empty plate and cutlery by an inch to make room for him, or may have just nudged the plate to give an illusion of my intent as well as re-iterate who’s the first occupant and who’s the ‘tag along’.

He lit his cigarette and was quiet. He may have been staring at my sketch but I didn’t look. I kept drawing thin lines, thick lines, curvy lines, wavy lines, squiggly lines but I didn’t look. I kept looking at the shophouses right past him, across the street for reference but not at him. He cleared his throat and took a long swig of the beer. My peripheral vision figured him shifting in his chair, feeding spiral cigarette smoke to the small potted plants on the steps. I casually swept my eyes across the kopitiam’s corridor to check if the other chairs were taken. None was. Well, what do you want? I screamed. In my mind.

More wavy lines, curvy lines, squiggly lines, this time with greater diligence and feigned honesty. I was like a mean drawing machine working towards an irresistible piece-de-resistance that would somewhow prevent apocalypse.  The weight of the world was on my shoulders. How could I deflect? I dug deeper into my sketchbook and didn’t look up.

He said, ‘Hello’. So I looked up. He was turned away from me, and was balancing his phone between his ear and the shoulder, while his hands caressed the cigarette and thecan of beer. What followed was not one but several calls, one after the other- advising, pleading, negotiating, sweet-talking existing and potential clients on investment opportunities with the bank that employed him and probably helped finance the Armani frames balanced on the bridge of his nose. Talks of floating and fixed interest rates, and millions of dollars escaped his lips in casual banter.  ‘Have a great weekend’. I looked up again. He was still on the phone.

Then just as discreetly as he’d come, he left. I’ve never witnessed anyone leave like that. Effortlessly. Without the sound of footsteps. Like a frightened gazelle. If vanishing into thin air seems hyperbolic, I’d say he glided into thin air – the posture of getting up, adjusting the body and taking the first step to walk off merged into one single mellifluous move, almost like a nubile dancer.

He even took away the acerbic smell of his perfume mingled with the cigarette smoke that I loathed in the beginning but was beginning to disregard.


* I gathered more information about this particular architectural style ( commonly mistaken for Straits Baroque architecture) seen on Purvis street, from an exhaustive exhibition on Shophouses at the URA centre : “Interestingly the working drawings for these twin arcades of two storey shophouses which were designed by Almeida & Kassim for local worthy Seah Peck Seah in 1902, gives no indication as to how the facade was to be ornamented. The elevations simply defined the principle dimensions of the building, but the detailing was left completely blank – no cornice, no architrave (the moulding round the windows), no secondary pilasters, no fluting, not even a keystone, let alone one with a bat’s head on it! Evidently, the style and choice of imagery was left completely to the artisans who carried out the work, who, in this instance, have opted for a remarkable synthesis of Chinese and Baroque aesthetic sensibilities to arrive at a very singular Chinese ‘Corinthian’ style of ornamentation. “

Coffee in a historic shophouse, anyone?

Killiney Kopitiam

An artist’s impression of Killiney Kopitiam

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.

Alice ushering guests in with a smile

Alice ushering guests in with a smile

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.

Coffee inside a shophouse

Coffee inside a shophouse

“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.

Kopi O and a French toast served with kaya and butter

Kopi O and a French toast served with kaya and butter

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 chatting away with me

Chatting away with Alice

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.

Alice and the Purvis Street boys

Alice in pink and the Purvis Street boys

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.