Traditionally Modern

Text and photography by Elodie Bellegarde

Singapore’s growing vibrant local café scene is an illustration of the city-state’s diverse communities where locals meet expats and modern embraces traditional. While some cafés specialise in serving a quick caffeine shot on the way to work, others focus on providing their loyal clientele with homemade food inspired by the past. A growing number of establishments take great care in creating a menu or an experience that merges traditions with modern touches. The value in the convergence of old and new staples is that they give spaces an aesthetic of their own.

Mr Keng’s Tong Mern Sern Antiques Arts & Crafts on Craig Road is one of the few places in Singapore where café owners can find original artefacts to celebrate our heritage. A man with an acute taste for collecting junk and turning them into valuable antiques, Mr Keng‘s love for old artefacts traces back to his early childhood, at a time when owning an antique business was considered madness. First established 40 years ago on Tomlinson Road and having been at its current location for nearly 20 years, Mr Keng’s shop has become an emblematic landmark and proof that antiques haven’t gone out of fashion. On the contrary, the renewed interest in objects inherited from previous generations that carry a sentimental value adds to the dichotomy between junk and antiques.

Famous for its slogan, suggested by an American expat customer, “We buy junk and sell antiques. Some fools buy some fools sell”, the shop is an Aladdin’s cave of antiques with its three floors of treasures and dust. It offers an eclectic mix of items from porcelain chopstick rests to imposing solid wood furniture, silver dinnerware to old travel suitcases. Anyone with a taste for old things is certain to unearth wonders from the shop’s dusty shelves. When used to serve food, these gems bring a timeless and reassuring feeling of comfort that contrasts with—yet perfectly complements—the modern concept of cafés in Singapore.

One café that has successfully embraced tradition and modernity in the creation of its dessert menu is The Plain, which is coincidentally next door to Mr Keng’s. As its owner Vincent Teng highlights, the baked goods are “chosen with love with my baker. This makes the sweets very personal and meaningful.” The delectable selection of homemade desserts baked by The Plain’s in-house baker, Jane Ng, is a blend of traditional recipes reinvented over generations. A classic butter cake is brought to another level when enhanced with hints of rose water the same way a brownie is revived with the addition of salted caramel. A local staple like the pandan cake feels at home when unusually displayed on a cake stand. The choice to display desserts on a trolley also reminds one of the way freshly made dim sum is traditionally served and pushed around on trolleys in older Chinese restaurants. By mixing traditional Asian flavours with Western recipes, the desserts served at The Plain bring together the expat and local crowds into a communal space designed for conversation.

Read more in The U Press N˚3 (Singapore edition).