THE REGULAR CROWD at Strangers’ Reunion gives the coffee joint a cosmopolitan and hipster-like feel. Step inside the refurbished peranakan terrace briefly and you would probably think you were in San Francisco or Melbourne. The prime clientele of twentysomethings with make-up and trendy accessories – bags and laptops abound – sips their cappuccinos to accompany homemade cakes. Of course, there is one marked difference: instead of the elegant overcoats, stockings and boots typically seen in crowded cafes in the Western world, the perpetual humidity calls for light blouses or tees and slip-ons in bright colours. Welcome to Singapore cafe culture.
Indeed, take a brief stroll around the block where cafes such as Strangers spring up and you do feel as though you were in one of those inner-city districts of a typical North American or European city, those which have lived through urban decay – and a subsequent urban revival and gentrification. And as telling as the architecture is, peranakan housing is Singapore’s answer, or own version, of the colonial, Victorian-era terrace houses common in Melbourne or Sydney’s trendy inner suburbs. Inspired by a mix of this colonial architecture with the unique culture of the Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, these houses have etched their place in Singapore’s early history.
These few blocks are among the last remnants of Singapore’s colonial past, as rapid development began to eat up blocks of peranakan estate. Among the first areas targeted in Lee Kuan Yew’s HDB housing program, Tiong Bahru is one of the cradles of his ambitions and Singapore’s story as a nation. Nonetheless, by the 1990s, the government began to realise the importance of upholding its heritage, and these ambitious developments sit among surviving heritage architecture, almost as if the government abruptly stopped this knockdown-rebuild program in the area once the reality of their destruction of history hit them. The result is that the present-day Tiong Bahru embodies the most eclectic contrast of traditional and modern. Nonetheless, not even the HDB flats in the vicinity are immune from this new youth wave: cafes and antique shops run by the new generation are also springing up on their facades and ground floors.
Yet, unlike the tribalism which springs up in neighbourhoods in other cities marked by widely different demographic groups, old and young live together. In fact, the odd old couple can be seen mingling with the owners of the newest hip establishment on the block. Even young-to-middle-aged expatriates, a demographic whose presence has sparked debate within the city-state, have come and blended in with locals here as they seek the cultural experience reminiscent of home. Perhaps these joints may have been inspired by the culture overseas – more than one of these café proprietors has had their fair share of time in Melbourne – yet their own life experience adds to it the unique Singaporean flavour.
What is this experience? It’s best told by the proprietors themselves, and it reflects Gen Y Singapore: after growing up in the risk averse, ultra-competitive culture groomed for careers in banking or finance, the realisation that ‘it’s just not for them’ is becoming increasingly accepted, and they embark on ventures reflecting the hipster, alternative lifestyles seen in other global cities in the West. As for the Gen Y archetype who conformed, they find themselves as the foundation of Singapore’s alternative and cafe culture, frequenting joints such as Strangers in trendy casual clothes, dreaming of such a carefree, expressionist lifestyle – a contrast that provides an entertaining insight into Singapore’s cultural future, in a neighbourhood where the presence of both peranakan and HDB housing is reminiscent of Singapore’s past.