Coffeeshops like Heap Seng Leong might be a distant memory for some and stuff of legend for others. Most Singaporeans would have probably heard of the uncle in pajama pants making kopi. Some might not even know what a pair of pajama pants look like. For Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, they bring back fond memories of a Singapore when there was no COE and buses had no doors. Those were the days when blackouts were an opportunity to play with candles and kids were still catching spiders. For Gen Yers, what I just said are just grandfather stories of a mythical past.
Stepping into Heap Seng Leong is like stepping into a time portal. I was immediately transported to a Singapore in the 70’s when I was growing up. This place seems to have been trapped in a time warp while the rest of Singapore is surging toward “happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”.
Not only has time stood still, the passage of time in this kopitiam also seems to have slowed down. While the rest of Singapore is in a perpetual rush, the pace of life here is like a leisurely stroll with grandma on a walking stick. Here, you will find old men who would buy a cup of kopi for 70 cents and spend the next two hours reading the papers while being lulled by the rhythmic gyrations of the ceiling fans. The tranquil scene only betrayed by the occasional ringtone of a handphone followed by the broadcast of a private telephone conversation for all to hear.
Here, it is fashionable to be old-fashioned. All the things that you might be a little embarrassed to do at Starbucks, you can do here with impunity. So go ahead and sip your coffee from the saucer! Try some traditional Kopi Gu You (Coffee with melted butter). I know it makes a lot of people cringe but it is no worse than a Coffee Vienna. It isn’t something that I would advocate you do at home or anywhere else. But when you are at Heap Seng Leong, you have permission to do it, just for the sake of preserving our culinary heritage. Just don’t do it too often.
This is one of the few places left in Singapore that one can catch a glimpse of Singapore past. It is a living museum which I hope will continue to resist the onslaught of progress. As of now, the owner of the premises is happy to let it remain as it is. But all it takes is for someone to buy over the shop and before you know it, it will be selling Italian pizza.
What can we do to preserve this? Can we not confer some form of National Heritage status so that it receives some protection? We need places like this so that our kids know where we came from and what it was like in the past. When all of these places disappear, we will lose a part of us that makes us truly Singaporean. We will become generic citizens of a generic city, just like that generic cup of kopi you find at the generic food court.
Oh, by the way…. our forefathers really knew something. The kopi with butter here is super good! 4.5/5
Heap Seng Leong