Hidden Gems - 12/21/17

Peranakan Paradise at Chong Wen Ge Cafè

Written by Daniel L

Step back into a time gone by at Singapore’s most traditional brunch spot.

There’s more to Singapore cafès than just poached eggs, waffles and great coffee. Off the beaten brunch track lies a taste of time gone by at the Chong Wen Ge Cafè, a tiny bastion of tradition located in the grounds of the city’s Thian Hock Seng Temple. A Peranakan cafè with a mix of Chinese and Malay heritage, this hidden gem gives a glimpse of history in one of Asia’s most modern cities.

Located in a small building right next to the Thian Hock Seng Temple, it would in fact be easy to overlook the Chong Wen Ge Cafè altogether. Heavy gentrification in the area has turned many of the cafe’s neighbours into up-scale dining spots, whilst the relatively untouched premises of Chong Wen Ge and its hidden view from the road make its existence seem more a myth than reality. In truth, it is one of Singapore’s oldest sites that still remains standing.

Anyone with local knowledge will tell you that Chong Wen Ge is at the heart of Singapore’s historic Peranakan neighbourhood, the area inhabited by the Peranakan community of mixed Chinese and Malay heritage whose lineage can be traced back to the 15th Century. Built in 1849, Chong Wen Ge Cafè once housed Singapore’s first Chinese school, and the grounds were built under the direction of Tan Kim Seng, a prominent figure in the 19th century. Their next-door neighbour is one of the oldest temples in Singapore, and and it remains under the ownership of the Hokkien Huay Kuan association.

Having sat abandoned for 20 years, the old Chinese school found a new lease of life as a cafè thanks to proprietor Victor Lim, a collector of the traditional, distinctive and extremely decorative Peranakan tiles that adorn its wall and floors. By chance, he stumbled across the space in early 2016 and, noticing its original tiled floor and wonderful heritage feel, soon transformed it into its new incarnation. “I wanted to use this café and gallery to educate Singaporeans about their heritage, the intricacies of Peranakan culture and, of course, the food that comes along with it,” he explains.

They say the best way to teach people, is to show them. And Victor has done just that, decking out his charming cafè in traditional decor with the sorts of tiles, wooden chairs and vintage furnishings and posters that would befit a Wong Kar Wai film. Most obviously, the bright space is covered in colourful tiles that line the walls, some of which are for sale. Given its unique proposition, it’s not a surprise that Victor relied purely on word of mouth to garner his crowd. “I have done zero marketing,” he admits,“I just let the word spread naturally, and so far it’s worked out well.”

The menu boasts an impressive selection of home-cooked Peranakan dishes like Laksa (rice noodles in spicy coconut soup) and Mee Siam (rice vermicelli in sweet and tangy tamarind gravy). It’s also notable for many signature Singaporean dishes but the Nasi Lemak (coconut rice with fried chicken, anchovies, peanuts and minced fish meat) is a much loved option. Desserts take the form of an assortment of Nonya Kueh (sweet, bite-sized snacks) which are displayed prominently near the counter. As for drinks, the teh-c special (iced milk tea) is a favourite.

The next step for the Chong Wen Ge Cafè is for Victor to get it the recognition it deserves by registering it as one of the world’s must-visit cultural spots. “I’ve submitted the paperwork for this place to be designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) heritage site, and I’m waiting for their response,” he says. A quick check shows that out of the 1073 sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, Singapore only has one to call its own, and that’s the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Victor firmly believes that more places in his city deserve to be on it, especially a cafè that has so much tangible historical value. His is an inspiring story of breathing new life into a traditional space without losing trace of its history. As Singapore strives to claim more spots on the UNESCO list, surely that in itself makes the Chong Wen Ge Cafè well worth consideration.

Address: 168 Telok Ayer St, Singapore 068619

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