One piece at a time
Entering Cheong Ann Watch Maker is like stepping back in time. Just about every inch of the shophouse is crammed with vintage timepieces: from octagonal schoolhouse clocks adorning the walls to imperious grandfather clocks taller than the average person.
In the afternoon heat, the air in the shop is thick and still, save for the gentle whirring of a fan and the occasional languid chime of a clock. Here, David Lim sits at a desk and pores over a dismantled timepiece, his face a study in concentration. Pushing his spectacles back into his hair, the 56-year-old pauses his tinkering to tell me about Cheong Ann.
Despite its name, the shop trades and repairs antique clocks – and David reckons it is the only specialised shop in Singapore to do so. They used to service watches too, but after taking over the business from his father in 2000, David decided to focus on clocks. “Unlike watches, which only became popular at the turn of the century, the history of clocks goes back hundreds of years,” he explains.
Partway through our conversation, his son enters the shop. With his wire-rimmed spectacles and slick hair, 24-year-old Shawn looks like any other millennial. But just like his father and grandfather before him, he’s an expert at repairing timepieces.
Having honed his skills at the shop since he was a teenager, Shawn is poised to take over the business when David retires. “I’ve never thought of doing anything else, really,” he muses. “I love all things vintage, so I’m lucky to have been born into this trade.”
However, it isn’t always easy to run a business together. “Sometimes, it can be stressful to work under Dad’s eye,” Shawn confesses with a laugh. Indeed, David’s standards are high. “Shawn still has a long way to go before I can retire,” he says candidly.
Nevertheless, David is glad that his youngest son has come on board. “Without Shawn, I would probably close Cheong Ann and call it a day. After all, I’m just a custodian of these clocks, taking care of them for the next generation. I’ll be happy to hand that responsibility to him when he’s ready.”
It’s barely lunchtime, but there’s already a queue of customers in front of Coffee Break, eager to get their midday caffeine fix. At this unassuming hawker stall, 33-year-old Jack Sai bustles about purposefully, brewing mugs of thick, creamy kopi using a traditional coffee sock – just like his father and grandfather did before him.
Coffee Break traces its roots back over 80 years. Its previous incarnation was San Hai Yuan, a coffee house at Tanjong Pagar that was started by Jack’s grandfather in 1935. When Jack’s father took over the business in 1999, he renamed it Coffee Break (a moniker coined by Jack himself, who was then a teen) and shifted it to Boon Tat Street. In 2008, the shop was relocated to Amoy Street Food Centre, where it has been operating ever since.
Jack came on board in 2011, after spending several years dabbling in teaching and freelance writing. “I was getting jaded writing articles about other people. After all, with my family’s business, I felt that I had a story of my own to tell,” he says thoughtfully. Today, he runs Coffee Break full-time, with the help of his sisters, 30-year-old twins Faye and Anna. Faye left her job in sports marketing to join the business in 2012, while Anna gave up a career in pre-school education to follow suit in 2015.
Thanks to the trio’s efforts, Coffee Break has come a long way from its humble beginnings. For instance, besides traditional kopi and kaya toast, its menu offerings have expanded to include newfangled variants, such as sea salt mint latte and black sesame toast – inspired by the siblings’ travels to Iran and Japan respectively.
These have found favour with customers; in fact, business has been so good that the siblings now operate three outlets across the island. Jack mans the Amoy Street stall, while Anna helms a second store at Science Park. Faye runs a third outlet in the Central Business District, which opened earlier this year.
Their success hasn’t come without hard work. “We get up at 5am and don’t wind down till about 7.30pm. What’s more, the day-to-day operations can get quite mundane,” admits Jack. Thankfully, the siblings know that they have one another to rely on. “Unlike bigger corporations, family businesses hinge on empathy, compassion and sacrifice,” he reflects. “Here, we know that we have each other’s back.”
Keeping the fire burning
Situated in the far west of Singapore, Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle certainly lives up to its name. Fringed by greenery, the ceramics workshop exudes a bucolic kampung (village) vibe that’s far removed from most of the metropolis. It’s a jungle, too, in the sense that it’s home to many things curious and colourful – in this case, finely wrought vases, bowls and other ornamental wares, both made in-house and sourced from across China.
Taking pride of place in the workshop is a 36m-long traditional dragon kiln – so named for its sinuous shape, and for the way it breathes smoke during the firing process. “It was made from brick and clay in 1940, and is the oldest remaining dragon kiln in Singapore,” Tan Teck Yoke explains.
The affable 61-year-old is the second-generation owner of Thow Kwang, having taken over the reins from his father in 1980. “As the eldest son, I felt that it was my responsibility to carry on the business. My father put a lot of hard work into it, and it would be a waste if his efforts amounted to nothing.”
For the past four decades, Teck Yoke has been managing Thow Kwang with his wife, 59-year-old Yulianti. Besides sculpting, importing and exporting ceramics, they also conduct pottery workshops to fuel appreciation for the craft.
They’re now supported by their niece, 26-year-old Stella Tan, who joined full-time in 2013. As a child, Thow Kwang was her playground. “I have so many fond memories of this place. I grew up moulding clay into toy figurines,” she reminisces.
Stella stresses that it is important for the business to stay within the family. “This is a legacy that my grandparents passed down, and only family would fully understand the significance of sustaining this tradition,” she says.
As a third-generation ceramic artist, Stella looks to inject fresh ideas into this traditional trade. Besides helping her aunt and uncle run pottery workshops, she also manages Thow Kwang’s social media channels and sells her own wood-fired creations at flea markets and bazaars. “There are so many opportunities to explore,” she says. “I want to reach out to more people and promote this traditional art.”
The perfect roast
In a little shophouse tucked along Balestier Road, the Tans have been plying their trade for the past 50 years and counting, making traditional coffee powder the best way they know how: first roasting the beans with sugar and margarine, before passing them through a vintage steel grinder. The resulting powder produces a robust, heady brew that is often referred to as Nanyang-style coffee.
Lam Yeo (Hokkien for “Nanyang”) was founded back in 1959 by Tan Thian Kang, a former newspaper editor who started out selling coffee beans door-to-door from the back of a van. In 1960, he managed to secure a shophouse in Balestier; the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Lam Yeo is one of the last family-run traditional coffee roasters in Singapore. Helming the store are 69-year-old Tan Bong Heong, who took over the business from his father in the 1990s, and his wife Hon Moi Chai, also 69. Their son, 45-year-old Benny, joined in 1995, when he noticed that his dad needed more help.
“I used to be in the T-shirt printing business. When I first started helping out at the store, I treated this as just another job,” admits Benny. “Over the years, however, I’ve developed a greater interest. Recently, I started introducing more gourmet coffee beans to cater to a wider range of tastes.” Lam Yeo’s catalogue now runs the gamut from traditional blends to specialty beans sourced from countries like Ethiopia, Colombia and Brazil.
Modern coffee iterations aside, Lam Yeo still retains its nostalgic charm. A pair of vintage grinders and an analogue kitchen scale form a tableau of sorts in the middle of the shop; old-school plastic mugs, long-spouted pots and framed burlap coffee sacks line the walls and shelves. “I would say that today, 90% of the shop looks exactly like it used to,” says Benny.
Despite the rise of trendy third-wave cafés and modern brews, Benny feels that Nanyang-style coffee will always have a place in Singapore. “In Singapore, we grow up drinking kopi. It’s part of our culture,” he muses. “It’s not so easy to change taste buds. At the end of the day, there will always be a demand for traditional coffee.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.