There is a place in Singapore that accepts you for you. Your flaws, fancies, and failings are no more than condensation on a baby blue table. It’s an institution that is safe from judgement. A religious experience that can be overwhelming at times and peaceful at others. A safe haven away from the hustle and bustle, where the din inside warms like a bowl of hot noodles on a stormy evening. In a desert of concrete and twisted metal, rises a shining oasis that is unpretentious but proud.
I’m talking about the Kopitiam.
Every time my eyes fall on one of Singapore’s working class coffee shops, I can’t help but see God in the bright fibreglass boards bartering food, or the plastic posters promoting beer. I’m not a religious man, but I can’t count the times my mind has fluttered to a particular line from the bible when I’m present in one of these establishments.
“Come to me, all ye who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Mathew 11:28.
The quote says more about the vibe of a Kopitiam than I could ever put into words, but I’ll give it a shot.
The word Kopitiam comes from the Malay word for coffee, “kopi,” and the Hokkien word “tiam,” which means shop. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes but are usually open planned clusters of food and drink stalls on the ground floor of residential and office buildings. Your standard Kopitiam is usually open-air, slightly too bright, and often dense with the smell of cigarettes, coffee, and oil.
That is not an issue for the throngs of Singaporeans who flock to them by the thousands every day. Known for their cheap, homestyle food, kopitiams became popular in the early 20th century when there was an influx of immigrants who came to work blue-collar jobs in Singapore and Malaysia. Here, young and old alike were welcomed, regardless of racial or religious alignment; you could all share a table over Kopi, soft boiled eggs, and kaya toast, a sandwich with coconut jam filling.
The humble Kopitiam hasn’t earned its way to local legend on the basis of serving food alone, they’re also a beloved place for locals to get exceptionally drunk. The combination of cheap beer, outdoor seating, and an ashtray, makes it a better alternative than the usual, small, stuffy, smoke-free bars that litter the gentrified city-state.
I can get three bottles of beer at a Kopitiam for the same price I would shell out for one in some bar. When the sun goes down and every other store pulls up their shutters, out come the steely-eyed beer aunties. Donned in mini skirts and tight dri-fit t-shirts with beer logos on them, they make their presence known by squawking colloquialisms in your general direction.
“Boy! Tonight want beer ah, now have Tiger beer, cheap cheap!”
My eyebrows furrow and I inhale sharply, careful not to reveal any signs of weakness. I yell back, “Don’t want aunty! Tonight want ice lemon tea!” The look of discontent on her face tells me I’ve slipped up.
“Why you call me aunty!” she cackles, as she rushes over. “I your older sister! Don’t call me aunty, ah I slap you!” She gives my ear a quick tug, not too hard that I take offence, but not too soft that I forget the lesson.
The beer aunty (forgive me, beer sister) is an indispensable component of the Kopitiam drinking scene. Ranging from as young as 19 to as old as 55, the experience wouldn’t be authentic without their titanic personalities. They hover around you, top up your beer, clear up your empty bottles, and do everything they can to enable your drinking habit. They’re known to be a notoriously persistent bunch, offering you another bottle of beer the moment you empty your last. Each bottle sold earns them a commission, so it’s in their best interest to get you absolutely pissed. My friends and I are always happy to play along.
Apart from the cheap beer and the vendors’ endearing quirks, I also like Kopitiams because they’re so unpretentious. No “craft beers” or “artisanal cocktails,” the Kopitiam is purpose-built with practicality in mind, not personality. That’s not to say they lack character. On the contrary, they’re overflowing with it.
The personality comes from the customers who look to its tiled, off-white walls for sanctuary. With some Kopitiams open until the next morning, you meet all kinds of people stopping by for refreshments. There are the leery-eyed old-timers playing poker, shuffling decks late into the night. In another table are food delivery riders slouched in clouds of cigarette smoke, eager to make their next buck. Perhaps most interesting of all are the growing groups of young adults, mostly university students, who choose to come here for a drink, giving the newest concept bars a miss.
That includes me and my friends. We frequent a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Kopitiam, tucked away in the heart of one of Singapore’s swankiest residential areas. After ruining ourselves financially at the start of the month, I and others of my demographic (the terminally irresponsible), take asylum under the rusted aluminium roofs of our favourite coffee house, biding the time until our next paycheck peeks its head into our barren bank accounts.
I would argue, though, that even if we did have an extra buck or two in our pockets, we would still be patronising our local hideaway. Sure, it’s always nice to guzzle craft beers in a velvety taproom or sip tailor-made cocktails at a plushy speakeasy, but at the root of it, all a bar really is, is a place to meet your friends. All drinks are mere catalysts for kicking back. When I strip down the experience and look at the elements of what makes a good time, there’s really only one place I know that checks all those boxes. No points for guessing where.