Tag Archives: purvis street

Cafe Hopping Wednesdays

Hardware Cafe on Tyrwhitt Road

Hardware Cafe on Tyrwhitt Road, Jalan Besar – convivial fuss free ambience and some seriously good coffee

For the past couple of weeks I, in the company of some talented artist friends have been cafe hopping. Yes, it’s a thing here that you can now engage in without seeming flippant. And why not? Singapore’s F&B greenhouse has been spawning some big blooming cafes for the past couple of years.

Curious Palette cafe (on the right) & Dumpling Dinner at Tim Ho Wan (on the left)

(L) Dumpling Dinner at Tim Ho Wan ; (R) Cappuccino at the spunky and hip Curious Palette cafe on Princep Street – try their waffles!

Boutique outlets serving artisanal coffee and sundry (which is more than a sidebar in this context) ranging from handcrafted ice creams, creatively conjured waffle dishes, Instagram worthy pastries, cakes, fusion burgers with clever fillings to an exhaustive range of breakfast, lunch and dining options, have been springing up all over the island.

AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar

The wonderfully colourful AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar as you can see here is a treasure trove of cleverly upcycled tchochokes. They whip up some hearty yet classy meals too.

Be it hipster enclaves, sprawling heartlands or the culturally rich districts , you’re never too far from these all pervasive cafes that offer not just coffee and food but far interesting ambience compared to the cookie cutter spaces we are used to.

Pralet Cafe in Tiong Bahru, which is also a Cooking school

Caffe Pralet in Tiong Bahru, which is also a Cooking school dished out one of the best Aglio Olio I ever had

In a bid to distinguish themselves from their competitors, because truth be told everyone sells the same schtick, the cafes’ mommies and daddies dress them up in costumes they think would garner the most candies..umm..customers. Each space is a reflection of personal taste and temperament, therefore unabashedly original.

Bravery Cafe in Jalan Besar

The Bravery Cafe in Jalan Besar has Lavender Coffee!

Some are loud, cluttered, whacky, nonsensical and over the top, reminiscent of say a theme party in an antique dealer’s home or a crafts fair even, while others are unexpectedly austere, minimalistic and pedestrian like a Zen monk’s cave with spartan interiors, exposed brick lining, monochrome wall paint and a sombre looking money plant guarding the entrance.

Park Bench Deli on Telok Ayer Street

Troop to the Park Bench Deli on Telok Ayer Street to gourmandize upon sandwiches and subs with melt in the mouth fillings. The cafe’s cerulean doors always remind me of Santorini!

Whatever the design may be, from an artist’s perspective they’re almost always interesting because we like to observe and until the novelty lasts there’s a lot take in, be excited about and record in our sketchbooks. There’s air-conditioning also, which helps and sometimes a deal breaker, but you can’t judge us for that, not in Singapore.

Grain Traders (on the left) & Tiong Bahru Food Court (on the right)

(L) Grain Traders Cafe has sublime Summer Berries Crumble ; (R) Sketched this at Tiong Bahru Food Court over a chilled lime juice

Therefore every Wednesday afternoon ( Q: Why Wednesdays? A: one of us is free only on that day) we descend on a cafe, grab a table with the most flattering view and comfy seating (easily available because every corporate bigwig and their army of underlings is safely chained to their workstation at such ungodly hour) and once the waitress scoots off with our hurried orders, out comes the art-illery – sketchbooks, paints, brushes, water bottles and what not. We get to work, almost immediately.

The Daily Press Cafe (on the left) & Shophouses on Purvis street (on the right)

(L) The Daily Press Cafe ; (R) Shophouses on Purvis street

There is no small talk, no pressure of asking how astounding or meh the other’s coffee is or what he/she has been planning for the weekend. No foreplay whatsoever. We hunch over our sketchbooks and simply get on with our businesses until it gets done which brings about either a fleeting sense of smugness or lands us in a deep cesspool of self pity depending on our performance, adjudged by the harshest critic around i.e the person who’s work it is. Then we talk about sketchbooks, paper quality, drool over colours and new drawing tools, trying to sound as important and geeky as the next guy on the other table talking about commodity trading.

Creamier Cafe (on the right) & Kopitiam Dinner (on the left)

(L) Korean Dinner of Kimchi fried rice at a Kopitiam in BrasBasah (R) Creamier Cafe in Toa Payoh

Occasionally a patron on her way to the cash counter would hover, make eye contact and say nice things about our sketches. Or the cafe owner confessing his ineptitude at drawing a straight line would become maudlin after watching his precious enclave ( often injected with his entire life savings) being etched in permanent ink and would want to take a picture of our work as a keepsake, which in modern context means for instagramming purposes. Not long after basking in our brief moments in the spotlight we decide on the upcoming venue and adjourn for dinner. Until next week!

AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar

AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar






Seeing anew

Three years ago, Pico Iyer, whose travel writings and essays I’m immensely fond of shared one of his travel habits at the Singapore Writer’s Festival. He said that he carries a pocket notebook with him at all times, in which he jots down everything he sees, smells, hears or feels in the destination he arrives at.

The Symposium name tag now decorates my bookshelf

The Symposium name tag now decorates my bookshelf

This makes sense because, first impressions are the freshest opinion of our new surroundings, our immediate reaction, and they as I have found out on my travels, are stark, honest feelings with frighteningly short shelf lives. If not recorded in some way, the initial shock, joy, disgust, intrigue, wonder, distaste, humility upon arriving at new shores gets diluted with each passing day to their watered down versions. The longer we stay, the initial discord with our surroundings which birthed such emotions in the first place gets ironed out, persistently, until one day we numb them and call ourselves acclimatised or acculturated.

View of Purvis Street from Killiney Kopitiam

I’ve sketched Purvis Street a million times, but never this inside out view from Killiney Kopitiam – which by the way is my favourite haunt for lime juice and french toast with a ‘view’. I like how trying to see the same place differently forces you to think outside the box! This view of Purvis street framed by the arch of the five foot way is now one of favourite sketches.

I have a copy of the 50th anniversary edition of MFK Fisher’s Art of Eating, that has a quote by Ruth Reichl, a former restaurant critic of the New York Times. She wrote to someone who was about to familiarise himself with the legendary author’s writing, “I can’t tell you how much I envy you the joy of reading Mary Frances for the first time”. 

Whether good or bad, joyous or gut-wrenching, there is always this innate sense of ‘feeling alive’ found in first impressions. And a sense of loss, lament and envy when it passes us as swiftly as it came and moves to the next person fresh off the boast, whose eyes you can see are glinting, vision focussed, ears pricked and spine upright. Only a few days ago, Singapore was inundated with people of this kind, who’d flown in from 36 different countries with their clean slates (minds and sketchbooks, both) to participate in the annual Urban Sketchers Symposium.

Waterloo Street

This beautiful building on Waterloo Street was cordoned off and workers were restoring it. Though nobody I asked could say what it was used for, I was happy that instead of getting bulldozed it’ll be repurposed.

As you can see from the picture of my symposium name tag, I was part of this interesting motley, but more than witnessing their supreme artistic talents which I already knew about, I was interested in knowing their first impressions of Singapore. ‘How do you find it?’ is what I repeatedly asked everybody I met, yearning to see what these people saw, hear what they heard and try to feel what they felt, even a little bit to dust off the ennui that comes from living in a place for long.

‘You live in a paradise and don’t even know it’; ‘It’s so futuristic’; ‘..no political tension, clean, safe, peaceful, what else does one need’; ‘the heat and humidity is killing me’, ‘when it rains, it really pours’, ‘what comes through is the generosity of its people’, ‘for a country so young, I didn’t expect to witness such rich cultural heritage’ and so on is what I heard.

View from the Kampong Glam Cafe

Bussorah Street, in Kampong Glam probably gets one of the highest footfalls in Singapore. Most photos and drawings of this street are of the front on view of the Sultan mosque. Here I tried to tell the story from a different angle by seeing differently. Sure there’s a hat tip to the mosque on the right, but the focus is on the sketchers in the foreground who form a part of the scene itself. This was drawn from the Kampong Glam Cafe.

What I saw was hundreds of interpretations (there were about 400 participants) of the very sights we pass by on our way to work, schools, cafes or foodcourts and each one of them – from drawings of clothes drying on bamboo sticks sticking out of HDB buildings, elderly uncles eating noodles, religious motifs of the Hindu temples to the ‘New Moon’ branded red and yellow umbrellas on Waterloo street – jabbed at my metaphorical blinkers.

The final blow came from watching a symposium participant crouched on the floor of the Bras Basah building, making an extraordinary drawing of an ordinary stationary shop I never spared a thought for only because I had depleted my well of wonder.

The Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam

The Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam. Every visitor in Singapore probably has this view locked in their camera or recorded in their sketchbooks. I have one too but didn’t stop me from sneaking in another one!

The three days of the symposium, packed with workshops, lectures, demos, activities and mass sketchwalks with international artists should’ve left me motivated and inspired, which it did, amply, but that’s not it. My little stint as faux tourist in the place I live has armed me with the ability to see things anew or at least believe in its possibility! The sketches I’ve posted here are of sights I had blatantly ignored before but starting to notice like the building on Waterloo Street or those I’ve seen, visited and drawn aplenty, only now I try to see them differently and draw them from different angles like the ones on Purvis Street and Bussorah Street.

Truth be told, I’d never have a second ‘first impression’ of Singapore, but I’m glad I figured ways to reinstate some of that curiosity and wonder I felt when I first arrived at her shores.

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.



Why I didn’t bake the cake..

Every year, on my husband’s birthday I prepare an elaborate meal that I am really proud of, and a very basic chocolate cake that somehow scrapes by. Now I am not much of a baker and it’s a breeze to order a fancy, much superior cake from the store. But I don’t do the obvious, however tempting that is. There’s an undeniable masochistic pleasure in attempting something I am averse to for someone I care about! Hence the arduous whipping and whirling.

This year however, my conviction was intercepted. Gifts were wrapped, the meal was prepped and planned, the dessert was setting in the refrigerator and I almost had the cake in the bag. That’s when I heard about the monthly urban sketching event occurring at and around one of the grandest buildings of Singapore – Raffles Hotel. Hanging out with fifty art enthusiasts sketching, sharing ideas, getting inspired or solitary whipping and whirling in the kitchen? Filling juicy double spreads in my Moleskine or watching an egg and flour concoction rise? Easy right?

Raffles Hotel

Raffles Hotel sketched from the front

The grandeur of hotel’s colonial architecture matched with the placid greenery of the travellers palms and sweet scented frangipanis, still harks back to the romance of 19th and 20th century travel when writers, historians, explorers and sojourners showed up in their schooners, eager to ‘discover’ the exotic East and booked their stay at this place.

A beautifully curated in-house museum, which unfortunately is closed now, housed vivid memorabilia of the yesteryears – handwritten postcards, luggage labels, old photographs, guidebooks, hotel brochures, advertisements, posters that gave visitors a glimpse into the lives of the boarders who romped around these corridors, waltzed in the ballroom, nursed tall glasses of Singapore Sling in the Long Bar and wrote passionately (Hint: Somerset Maugham) in the tranquility of the outdoor verandas overlooking the Palm Court.

Amid the modern landscape – which has changed heaps since 1887 when Raffles Hotel was established – this little oasis on Beach Road looks like a stubborn time capsule. It is this incongruity that excites me every time I walk into the property past the tall liveried Sikh guards manning it’s doors since the days of yore. Over the years, land reclamation has pushed the waterfront further away and instead of jinrikshaws and hackney carriages, fancy cars are pull up the driveway.

Plonked on a sidewalk, I sketch this scene for over an hour, losing myself in the immense neo-Renaissance architectural details that doesn’t meet the eye when you look at the facade but magically unveil when you try to capture on paper. The Sikh guard came over twice to check my progress.

Seah Street

Seah Street

Seah Street adjoining Raffles hotel is the example of a typical Singaporean street that I love to sketch because of its potent mishmash of extremes. The architecture segues from Straits Baroque to Art Decco, the businesses range from hipster pubs and bistro bars to pedestrian chicken rice stalls, punctuated with old Chinese clan associations and trade centers, all in one row, cheek by jowl, sharing walls, awnings, parking space and history.

The street itself was named after the prominent Seah family. Eu Chin Seah an immigrant from South China was a wealthy merchant ( he made a fortune in gambier and pepper plantations and was called the ‘King of Gambier’) and a leader of the Chinese community in 19th century Singapore. So were his sons Seah Liang Seah and Seah Peck Seah, who also have streets named after them. What’s interesting further is that the three parallel streets in the Bras Basah area : Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street used to be the original settlement site for the Hainanese immigrants (The ‘Singapore Hainan Society’ sign board that’s to the left bottom of my sketch on Seah St hints at this) and were known as Hainan First Street, Hainan Second Street and Hainan Third Street.

Considering that the Hainanese were mainly employed in the service industry (in local hotels, restaurants, bars and bakeries as cooks and domestic servants) it isn’t surprising that the famous ‘Singapore Sling’ birthed at the hands of Ngian Tong Boon, a Hainanese bartender working at Raffles Hotel in 1915. See the blatant red awnings of Sin Swee Kee Chicken Rice stall in my sketch? Well, they house the famous chicken rice, that was first adapted to its current form by Wong Yi Yuan a Hainanese immigrant and later popularised by his apprentice Mok Fu Swee, through these restaurants.

Besides witnessing layers of history, what drives me to capture such streets in my sketchbook is their dynamism, their ever changing, continuously morphing nature. If you’ve lived in Singapore you’d know what’s here on this street today won’t necessarily be there tomorrow. One of the most common sights on the road I believe is the large moving truck! At least, when this scenery changes and it will I’m positive, my Moleskine will bear testimony to a time gone by.

For now, it justifies my skipping an yearly ritual. My husband understands.





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.