Many around the world know Singapore as a fast-paced, modern city, whose landscape is constantly evolving. It’s with good reason; each visit I make back home sees yet another looming addition to the Singapore skyline – a new shopping mall, a shiny skyscraper, or a multi-million dollar condominium complex. It seems that each passing year sees the Singaporean lifestyle only accelerate in its pace and busyness.
It was with pleasant surprise, then, that I found out during my last visit that the last year had seen dozens of cafes popping up across the country. Many of these cafes were serious about their coffee, selling specialty blends at high prices, and people were enthusiastically lapping it up. I wondered if this was a sign that life would finally start to slow down a little in my city.
Intrigued, I recently made my way to The Muffinry, a tiny but popular space tucked away at the tail end of Telok Ayer Street, near the Central Business District. It opened its doors for business less than a year ago, in August 2011, but has since been featured in numerous publications and food blogs. On the menu are freshly baked muffins, breads, as well as specialty coffee.I managed to talk to the founders, Shareen Song and Chris Leow, for a bit, and got them to tell me their story about how they started the café. Shareen used to bake regularly for church charity events, and at her husband’s encouragement, decided to carve a business out of her passion. Along the way, she learned that Chris, a long-time family friend, was interested in setting up his own café. Chris studied aerospace engineering at the University of New South Wales, but found that he preferred learning about coffee instead. A year before, he had set up a café in his dorm room, using his surfboard as a table. It was aptly titled Surfbox, and now continues to run as an independent business.
When Shareen approached Chris, he was in the middle of his final examinations, but decided to dive into the business anyway, and flew back to Singapore after his last paper to get The Muffinry started. A few months and a lot of hard work later, The Muffinry opened to much success.
The Muffinry is but one of the many new establishments that young entrepreneurs have set up in the last couple of years. The Plain, The Orange Thimble, 40 Hands, and The Pigeonhole are some of the other popular cafes among the 20-something crowd. I learned that many of these founders had also studied overseas, with reviewers even characterizing 40 Hands as having a Melbourne-style feel. It seems that they returned to Singapore with a little more than a graduation certificate from a foreign university – they also brought back a bit of their experience, and were excited about tweaking the Singaporean culture with what they had learned.
Ultimately, the rise of cafes will mean a few changes on the local social scene. Instead of hanging out at crowded shopping malls, young Singaporeans will now have the option of catching up at cafés. Instead of eating at hawker centres (local, open-air food courts selling Singaporean food) or chain restaurants, they can widen their tastes to gourmet sandwiches and specialty coffees. Instead of rushing about, an increase in the number of cafes means that Singaporeans will come to slow themselves down. Perhaps we might even begin to see more aspiring writers and freelance-types seated at the tables, as the crowd at The Pigeonhole suggests.
In the decades since Singapore’s independence in 1965, Singapore has accelerated economically, turning from a Third World country into one of first-world status. But perhaps we’ve moved so quickly economically that our psyche has been lagging behind, and it is only now that we’re beginning to bridge that gap. The cafes are simply a small reflection of this.