Lifestyle

A really old school coffee shop

Heap Seng Leong coffee shop on North Bridge Road still serves butter coffee and bread toasted on charcoal grill

Butter coffee may be the hippest thing in Australia now, yet, one of the only places left to get the traditional drink in Singapore is Heap Seng Leong.

Located at Block 10, North Bridge Road, the old-school eatery is a time warp to the 1970s.

An orange public telephone a few decades old sits on the counter with plastic jars of biscuits (50 cents a piece).

Instead of a cash register, an abacus board is used to count money.

Mr Shi Pong Hsu, 78, still potters around the place, pouring out steaming cups of coffee and flipping slices of toast on a charcoal grill.

His usual uniform is a singlet and pyjamas pants.

It comes from the tradition of coffee shop helpers being made to wear clothes without pockets so that money will not be stolen and hidden away.

Mr Shi Pong Hsu is independent and continues working even after his kids asked him to stop.TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

He says he inherited the business from his father and the shop on North Bridge Road has been around since 1974. Before that , they were in the Bugis area.At Heap Seng Leong, they stick resolutely to traditional ways, continuing to serve butter coffee, which is nearly extinct in modern-day Singapore.

His son, 50-year-old Shi Ting Chow, helps him run the shop and will also inherit the business from him. He does not plan to change the way things are done.

Butter coffee, which is becoming rare in Singapore. TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

"Charcoal-grilled bread is fresher, more fragrant and tastier," the younger Mr Shi explains. He adds that they are more familiar with such methods, and new appliances are expensive and difficult to learn.

He rapidly cuts thick slices of bread with surprising accuracy. Instead of using butter knives to scrape off the burnt bits of bread, he uses the metal lid of condensed milk cans. The bread crusts are kept in a bag, to be given to customers for free to feed their pet fish and birds.

Madam Sandra Yee, 53, has the fondest memories when she sips coffee in Mr Shi's shop.

Madam Sandra Yee is a regular at the coffee shop.TNP PHOTO: CHAI HUNG YIN

Similarly, Mr Law Peck Min, 51, frequents the coffee shop about twice a month for its butter coffee.

He tells TNPS in Mandarin: "In the olden days, they used to sell butter in pieces. Sometimes it was triangular in shape, sometimes it was a square. People would stick a toothpick in and eat the butter just like that."

They might not earn much from the business as rentals keep increasing, but the Shis would like to preserve the heritage and pass the shop to the next generation.

My kids ask me to stop working. But I can still work, so I’d rather work. I can depend on myself. My children give me money but I ask them to take it back.
Mr Shi Pong Hsu

The younger Mr Shi says his son, 14, and daughter, 16, don't show much interest: "They do not come to the shop to see me work, the way I used to watch my father. But I hope they will eventually inherit it, too.

"It reminds people of a simpler, purer and more comfortable time. I want to preserve our heritage through the shop."

As for the older Mr Shi, he doesn't see himself stopping any time soon. He says: "My kids ask me to stop working. But I can still work, so I'd rather work.

"I can depend on myself. My children give me money but I ask them to take it back."

TIME WARP: The eatery still has the iconic orange public telephone and plastic jars of treats.TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

He says he prefers the status quo.

"There's no use renovating (the shop). It has been like this for over 30 years," he says.

Throughout the three hours we were there, the older Mr Shi never sat down. He was constantly moving about fulfilling orders. And finally at 5pm, he sat down, albeit briefly, and ate from a styrofoam box.

When asked whether that was his lunch or dinner, he grins and says: "Simply eat, lah."

TRADITIONAL: The Shis use an abacus to count. Butter coffee, which is becoming rare in Singapore. TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

 

Old-school flavour

In The New Paper on Sunday (June 29), we visited a coffee shop that seemed to be trapped in time.

Heap Seng Leong, just off North Bridge Road has not changed since it opened in the 1970s.

Everything about it is old-school, from the orange public pay phone to the cabinets to the charcoal grill used to heat the coffee and toast.

The speciality of this place is  Kopi Gu You, or butter coffee.

Currently it is all the rage in the hip enclaves of Australia, but here, the drink is almost extinct.

BUTTER COFFEE 
Price: $1.10

Butter coffee, which is becoming rare in Singapore. TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

It looks like a normal piping hot cup of fresh coffee. Well, it would but for the square slice of butter slowly melting into a layer of oil on the top.

I was hesitant to drink it, but since it is the “almost extinct” butter coffee, how many more opportunities would I get to try? 

The first gulp was shocking, as I reeled from the oily sensation lingered in my throat. Not my cup of coffee.

But then I hit upon the idea of stirring. I mixed it into an emulsion. This gave my coffee a very rich, sweet taste.

Enough flavour to turn me – a resolute tea-drinker – into an instant convert.

Some of the regular customers told me that the butter helps to soothe the throat.

That may be possible, but I doubt a doctor would recommend it.

BUTTER KAYA TOAST
Price: $2.30 for 2 slices

The difference here is that it is made by toasting thick slabs of soft, white bread on a grill over charcoal.

This scorches the toast, so the burnt bits are scraped off using the metal lid of a condensed milk can – I guess that you could call that old-school up-cycling.

A slab of chilled butter is placed andkaya is spread liberally on two thick slices of white toast, streaked with brown from the grilling.

When I sank my teeth into the thick crisp-then-soft toast. This is very crumbly bread.

As I swept away the bread crumbs, I then bit into the cold, thick butter slab of butter.

A combination of hot and cold sweetened by fragrant kaya in one yummy bite? It may be simple food, but that was perfection.

TEA
Price: $0.90

Hands down, one of the best teas I have ever had in a coffee shop.

Definitely better than some of those franchise “old-school” outlets.

Neither overly sweet or milky, yet with a distinct sweet fragrance, I could drink multiple cups and still want more.

The perfect drink for a to help pass a quiet afternoon away from the crowds.

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