A last cup of kopi-o at Blk 398 Canteen

1 05 2013

It is always nice to drop in on a place that is reminiscent of a world we can no longer see such as the Blk 398 Canteen. Operating on the grounds of the former Seletar Camp since 1969, it was for long insulated against the winds of change which seem to sweep across much of the island of Singapore  over the four decades that have passed. Said to be one of the last “kampong kopitiam” (village coffee shop) in Singapore, it maybe is less of the kampong kopitiam many of us might wish that it is, seemingly more like a world caught in transition, but one certainly in which time does seem to have long stood still.

Having a cup of kopi-o at the Blk 398 Canteen takes one back in time.

Having a cup of kopi-o at the Blk 398 Canteen takes one back in time.

The canteen sign painted on a corrugated zinc sheet exterior wall.

The canteen sign painted on a corrugated zinc sheet exterior wall.

The canteen takes its name from its address at 398 Piccadilly. The address is itself a throwback to to days now long forgotten when the area was part of the Royal Air Force’s RAF Seletar. Completed in 1928, the former air station and its grounds was for a long while after the 1971 British pullout, well preserved – an area rich in charm, the eastern side of the former air station was used to house several Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) military units, while some 378 colonial houses on its western side were turned over for civilian use. It was in the transition that the canteen commenced operations serving first the RAF personnel before their pullout and the SAF personnel after that.

The outside of Blk 398 Canteen

The outside of Blk 398 Canteen.

A customer entering the canteen.

A customer entering the canteen.

The inside of Blk 398 Canteen.

The inside of Blk 398 Canteen.

The area the canteen is in is now undergoing yet another transition, one which will see the biggest transformation of the area since work commenced on RAF Seletar in the 1920s. The transformation will see the Jurong Town Corporation’s (JTC) Seletar Aerospace Park built over much of the area which the former RAF Seletar occupied and will see some 174 of the “black and white” houses – former homes of RAF personnel which provided the area with much of its charm, demolished. This transition is also one which will also see the 44 year old canteen go (it was supposed to have been closed last December) and with it one of the last chances to have that cup of kopi-o in Singapore today, as it might have been yesterday.

Houses left behind by the RAF provided the area with much of its previous charm.

Houses left behind by the RAF provided the area with much of its previous charm.

Another view of the inside.

Another view of the inside.

Concertina wire - a reminder of the former military site on the fence of the canteen.

Concertina wire – a reminder of the former military site on the fence of the canteen.


A cup of coffee today as it might have been yesterday

14 04 2010

Sometimes, a chance encounter with a person or a chance discovery of a place or a building can be just so delightful. This was so on one of my wanderings through the streets of a Singapore that time has left behind, when the discovery of a charming little coffee shop, nestled in an obscure corner of a part of Singapore that I know little of and set amongst quaint streets and buildings that are reminiscent of a time we have long discarded, seemed almost like a godsend to a soul longing to be transported back to that forgotten time.

A cup of kopi-O to start the day.

Seeing that little coffee shop, sitting quietly as if wanting to be overlooked, brought back memories of the wonderful kopi-tiam (coffee shops) of old, where the robust aroma of thick black coffee would greet the morning crowd who, sitting on the rounded wooden chairs by the heavy marble top tables, would greedily devour the simple fair of roti-kaya, kopi-O, and soft boiled eggs.

The coffee shop at the corner of Clive Street and Upper Weld Road.

Kopi-O served in a cup reminiscent of the coffee shops of old.

One morning, early for work, I decided to venture back, perhaps in an attempt to persuade the little shop to bring me back to the days that I so miss, sitting down at a table set amongst rickety marbled top tables of yesteryear that were a little worse for wear, sans the rounded wooden chairs that would have gone with it. Ignoring the signs of today in the newer generations of tables and plastic chairs that were interspersed with the tables of old, and perhaps the dates on that the calendars that were also reminiscent of those of yesteryear hanging on the tiled walls reminding me of where I was in time, it did seem for a while that I was back to a kopi-tiam far removed from ones that today attempt to recreate the charm of the kopi-tiam of old with sterile and air-conditioned outlets that seem so necessary in our modern world, with modern prices to go with it.

Preparing a cup of coffee in the traditional way.

There I sat patiently as the smell of roti being toasted over the red-hot ambers of a charcoal fire as is traditionally done, filled the air, mixed with the aroma of kopi-O being brewed with the help of the customary coffee sock blackened through use, into a metal pot with a long spout placed over a grill to keep warm over the same charcoal fire. Observing the insides of the kopi-tiam, I was delighted with the sight of objects that brought the charms of the old kopi-tiam back to me: coffee-socks slung next to the preparation counter with shelves lined with coffee cups and glasses; a big bowl sugar resting on the preparation area; empty condensed milk cans with holes punctured on the semi opened lids through which a loop of raffia is attached waiting to be used as take-away containers for coffee; white tiled walls with old-styled calendars resting against them ….

Coffee socks hanging by the preparation counter.

Loaves of roti (bread) lying in wait.

Eggs to be boiled.

Even calendars reminiscent of the calendars of old are displayed on the walls.

Another calendar reminiscent of the calendars of old displayed on the wall.

Very reminiscent of the days of old - when coffee is taken away not in a plastic bag, but in a washed condensed milk tin.

The roti-kaya was served as it would have been, lightly toasted and darkened slightly by the charcoal ambers, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with a thin layer of kaya (a pasty sweet spread of coconut jam) and a generous slice of butter wedged in between two slices of toast cut in two. For a while, I was back in the kopi-tiam of old, but alas, it was only for that fleeting pause from what was today, sitting there in the midst of the reminders of yesterday.

Kopi-O and roti-kaya.

One more thing that I remembered on the coffee shops of yesteryear was seeing men gathered around the tables, with shirts unbuttoned or undershirts rolled up above their tummies, slurping coffee from saucers! 🙂