Top image: Zachary Tang / RICE file photo
This story is part of RICE Media’s Storytellers initiative, a mentorship programme for budding content creators to learn about the art of creative non-fiction. This piece is a product of a partnership between RICE Media and Singapore Management University (SMU) for a Professional Writing module.
“There’s no place to sit; the same few uncles and aunties are taking up the seats again. Why can’t they finish their food quickly and go off?” I mutter to myself.
While my dad joins the long queue at the prata stall, I look around for a table and approach an auntie sitting alone.
“Is anyone sitting here?”
She’s by herself. I take a seat at her table.
There’s at least one, if not a few, humble coffee shops in each neighbourhood—mine has six. These are spaces where the heartlands come to life.
They serve as a ‘third space’ where people of all ages, cultures, and religions come together. Usually, you find uncles catching up with buddies over a cup of kopi or a game of chess. The aunties are usually having breakfast with bags of groceries beside them.
Growing up with my grandparents, I used to accompany my grandma to the wet market, where I would see the aunties and uncles greeting each other warmly like old friends. I didn’t think much of it then, but it seems even more valuable now that I have outgrown many friendships.
As I turn to look at the elderly folks engrossed in conversation, I can’t help but feel a sense of yearning. I wonder if I could be like them when I’m older and meet my friends at the coffee shop almost every day.
Older and Lonelier
After I finish my breakfast, I approach Auntie Tan, who’s busy talking with her friends at the table next to us.
Auntie Tan is 65, but still very young at heart. She and her friends have lived in the neighbourhood for decades and met at a community centre singing class. I wanted to ask them about their friendship, but Auntie Tan’s friend had to leave to buy something.
“There’s no one home, so it’s like that lor. I buy groceries and pass the time [talking to my friends]. When I get home, I just watch television and then cook dinner for my husband, who is working.”
Many elderly Singaporeans don’t have many people to talk to, and there’s little to do at home to keep them busy. One by one, the people who used to be part of their lives—their children, grandchildren, life partner, and friends—slowly drift further away or eventually disappear.
People like Auntie Tan deal with this by going to a nearby coffee shop to people-watch and socialise.
“I have many friends and relatives who live nearby… I don’t need to bring my wallet when I come out to eat,” she jokes.
But others are reluctant to leave the house. Their struggles go unseen, hidden within the walls of the house, muffled by the sounds of the television.
When my grandpa was still around, my grandma would go with him to Chinatown and meet her friends. Now that she isn’t so mobile, she rarely leaves the house—she’s worried that something might happen to her if she goes out alone. These days, she only leaves the house on weekends when my family takes her out to eat.
Like my grandma, Auntie Tan looks forward to the precious weekends when she can spend time with her family. Her husband drives, and they will go “coffee shop hopping” to those further away, such as Jurong and Ghim Moh. I guess older folks have their own version of cafe-hopping too.
It Just Isn’t the Same Anymore
The more I speak with Auntie Tan, the more I learn about her, with each discovery more impressive than the last.
She is truly a global citizen. Aside from friends in the neighbourhood, she has friends in Korea, Australia, Indonesia, and China—all of whom she met at her previous job. She keeps in touch with her friends via their WhatsApp group and meets up with them a few times a year.
That’s not all; Auntie Tan also has professional culinary qualifications. She cooks delicious desserts and kuehs which her family and friends love. “Have you tried my wife’s cooking?” her husband boasted to his friends, “She can anyhow cook, and it will still taste good.”
But things aren’t what they used to be.
Auntie Tan used to love inviting her friends to her place to cook for them, but not so much these days.
“I can’t stand for so long; it’s too tiring for me.” Those who love her kueh even offered to wash the dishes, but she turned them down.
“I sit too long; my legs are weak,” she remarks as I help her up from the seat.
Old age takes a toll on us; it’s frustrating and even distressing. Your mind and body don’t work like they used to. Against the effects of time, it could feel like life is spiralling out of control.
For many elderly people, hanging out at coffee shops helps them escape the stresses of ageing and feel more in control of their lives. When they see their old friends in a familiar setting, it’s as if they’ve gone back in time to the good old days when life was simpler. There’s a sense of comfort.
From Strangers To Friends
For my next stop, I went to the coffee shop my dad says has the best kopi. It’s 3 PM, but there are still a lot of uncles lounging about. As I soon learn, some of them even drove over from far away to patronise the coffee shop.
Uncle Lim opened the coffee shop 40 years ago, and his family has been helping him ever since.
In Uncle Lim’s words, “The coffee shop is like a 联络所 (place to meet and interact).”
Even the shape of the tables enables social interactions. It’s less common to find round tables in coffee shops these days, but Uncle Lim has a few of those.
In Chinese culture, roundedness (圆) carries the symbolic meaning of ‘reunion’ (团圆) as well as ‘completeness’ (圆满). Round tables also facilitate communal dining and conversations among diners without leaving anyone out.
That’s why discussions are also referred to as round tables.
Uncle Lim’s coffee shop brims with customers throughout the day. In the morning, retirees and those working nearby stop by for breakfast to start their day. Afternoons are quieter because the aunties are busy taking care of their grandchildren and doing household chores at home, so it’s mainly the uncles who gather. At night, the place fills up with people who come to have dinner and chat after work.
There’s nothing fancy in the decor, the furniture, or the food, but that’s exactly what draws people to coffee shops. The unpretentious and relaxed atmosphere makes people feel at ease, encouraging them to open up and chat with each other.
Over time, customers naturally develop a sense of closeness and form connections with other regulars and the people who work there.
“Some of the uncles and aunties have been frequenting the coffee shop for 10, 20, and even 30 years. Long enough, they’ve become like friends. Because they come regularly, we see them more often than our relatives and friends.”
Uncle Lim chuckles when I ask if he remembers his regulars’ orders.
“Yes, as long as they don’t change their order.”
Not Instagrammable Enough
As someone who only goes to coffee shops with my family, I couldn’t resist the urge to ask Uncle Lim about the younger generations.
“Yes, there are young people who come to the coffee shop to eat, but most of them eat alone. Only a few meet their friends here, maybe because they stay nearby.”
Reflecting on myself, I find it strange that I seem to reserve coffee shop meals with my family. Places that are trendy, popular, or have good food are usually for our friends.
Social media plays a big role, of course. As the younger generations are active on various social media platforms, we’re always on the lookout for anything Instagrammable. We jio our friends and hang out at places shared on social media because we assume they must be great or trendy.
But at the same time, whether subconsciously or not, we’re also trying to prove ourselves. We want to prove that we’re trendy and be accepted by our online friends and those in real life.
The concept of modern friendship plays a part too. When we take the time to look up new, interesting spots, it communicates that we’re putting in the effort for quality. In comparison, dining at coffee shops comes across as an everyday activity. It’s not an event.
I bring this up to a friend. She recalls a time when she chatted with her friends for hours at a coffee shop and said it actually felt very shiok.
Come to think about it; it’s nice to trade trendy places for coffee shops once in a while. We can hang out with our friends in our old t-shirts and FBT shorts without worrying about being chased away for hogging a table. Not to mention saving quite a few bucks.
Struggling for Survival
I notice a young chap who looked a few years older than me skilfully brewing coffee at the drinks stall.
“That’s my son. He saw that we were very busy during the pandemic, so he helped out… my wife taught him how to brew coffee,” Uncle Lim says before complaining that his workers are getting older and that it’s difficult to hire young ones for the job.
We enjoy spending time at coffee shops at hawker centres—but as customers rather than the ones working there.
Work comfortably in an air-conditioned office or spend long hours in a hot coffee shop brewing kopi? The choice is pretty clear for the younger generation.
The flourishing cafe scene in Singapore may offer a different perspective on such jobs as the pursuit of passion, but it doesn’t extend to neighbourhood coffee shops.
Cafes are often seen as symbols of social status, and when you think of cafes, words like ‘atas’ and ‘trendy’ typically come to mind. In contrast, coffee shops are associated with being traditional and affordable, and thus the jobs there tend to be less respectable.
“When people think of coffee shops, they expect cheap kopi and food.”
Despite the struggle for survival, coffee shops will remain a constant presence to provide affordable food options in the heartlands.
To Singapore’s elderly citizens, they are more than just budget-friendly options. These places are also where they forge friendships, share stories, and make memories.
But they will not hold the same appeal for the younger generations.
Surrounded by technology and social media, the way we interact and catch up with others goes beyond physical spaces. If they hang out with friends, traditional venues like coffee shops won’t appeal much.
Will today’s young adults be the last generation to grow up with hawker centres and heartland coffee shops? It’s a question that RICE has reckoned with before.
Yes, these places offer convenience and affordability. But Singapore’s youth won’t fully understand their emotional and social significance.
Maybe when I’m old, there will be so many empty seats that no one will grumble at me for hogging a table.