The Disappearing Chee Pow Kai and Hum Chim Peng

It takes years of effort and determination to build a reputable brand. But sometimes, luck plays an important part too. There are many decades-old local famous and popular names that, for certain reasons, find it difficult to carry on their trades in this modern era.

The Union Farm Eating House, located off Clementi Road beside Maju Camp, goes all the way back to 1953 when Clementi was still very much a rural place. It was started by Chia Sek Hong who had his own poultry farm. He later created the eating house’s signature dish of chee pow kai (paper wrapped chicken), made popular for more than five decades!

Come mid-February, the 59-year-old kampong-styled eating house will walk into history. The reason is due to the expansion of the nearby campus of Singapore Institute of Management (SIM), where the land has been unknowingly used by Union Farm as a kitchen for decades.

Fans of this makan place love the rustic and undisturbed surrounding, with a nostalgic kampong touch that reminds them of the past. Others would criticise the steep prices and the oiliness of the chee pow kai. Whatever the reasons, the eating house is definitely considered successful after operating for so many decades. I’m sure many will miss this unique place when it eventually closes down.

And who can forget the famous hardworking old uncle at Maxwell Market’s Hum Jin Pang stall? For 6 or 7 pieces of deep fried doughs, a packet of these sweet or salty snacks, some stuffed with bean paste, cost only $1 each. Despite the inflation, their prices remained stagnant for many years. And the fun part is that customers can choose to fry their hum jin pang (or hum chim peng) themselves, using long chopsticks to stir the doughs in the large wok filled with boiling oil.

Maxwell Market started in the 1950s as a wet market but became a hawker center in the eighties to house the hawkers from China Street. The old uncle was likely to have started his business there (according to his signboard).

Today, the hum chim peng uncle is no longer around, but luckily his legacy is passed on to his daughter. The images of the hardworking uncle doing his work quietly will likely be remembered by many of his regular customers.

But in a world of rising cost and rents, it makes one wonder how long will such businesses with low profit margins survive?

Some other trades are not so lucky. Unable to find suitable successors, or due to declining revenues, some old brands and shops in Singapore have already walked into the history books.

Traditional Teochew confectionery store Thye Moh Chan at Geylang Lorong 27 decided to call it a day in September 2011 after operating for 68 years. Established in 1943 initially at Liang Seah Street, the shop had been run by three generations. And even so, the last owner, grandson of the shop’s founder, found it difficult to keep it going. He and his team of workers were already in their sixties and seventies, and the issues of manpower and successor had been bothering the boss in recent years.

The famous Sunset Grill & Pub located at a rustic and quiet corner of Seletar Airbase East Camp was something different from a typical makan place in Singapore.

Although the direction to this well-hidden place was challenging, the simple restaurant of Western food still attracted many patrons, especially on a cool evening during the weekends.

The ulu Seletar Airbase and Camp have remained largely unchanged for some 70-plus years since it was completed in 1928. However, its quiet and peaceful environment finally came to an end in 2010 when it was designated to be redeveloped as Singapore’s new Aerospace Hub. More than half of its iconic black and white colonial houses had been identified to be demolished. Sunset Grill & Pub, needless to say, was also affected. It was closed down in late 2011.

In late 2011, old fashioned bookshop Clementi Bookstore has decided to close down after 30-plus years of existence at Clementi central. In fact, the whole area bounded by Clementi Avenue 3 has been drawn for redevelopment. The shops, as well as the iconic sparrow sand-based playground, have been emptied since October last year.

With wide selection of textbooks, reference materials and stationary, the bookshop was extremely popular among many generations of students studying nearby. But even for that they could not compete against the online book stores and the availability of reading materials on the internet.

Even the much larger Page One, specialised in art and design books and established in 1983, could not maintain its stronghold at home. The 29-year-old homegrown brand has decided to give up its flagship store at Vivocity in early 2012 due to soaring rents, and shift the focus to its other retail shops in China, Hong Kong and Thailand.

From cassette tapes to CDs, music lovers will not be too unfamiliar with Sembawang Music Centre. Operating for more than 20 years, it had been one of the leaders in the local retail music industry. Many students would save up their allowances to buy his or her favourite music albums from the store in the eighties and nineties.

Started from a humble shop at Sembawang Shopping Centre (hence its name) to several prime outlets at Raffles City, Thomson Plaza and Plaza Singapura, Sembawang Music Center could not avoid the popularity of digital music, resulting in their bankruptcy and eventual closure in 2009. During its heydays, it had some 26 outlets in Singapore.

The demand for space is also a headache for many businesses in land-scarce Singapore. Orchidville, Singapore’s largest orchid farm, faces the dilemma when the land it currently occupies is needed by Land Transport Authority (LTA) to build a depot for the upcoming Thomson Line.

Originally specialised in pig farming at Punggol, Orchidville’s towkay switched to orchid farming when they were relocated to Mandai in 1993. Now, after almost 20 years, they face the same problem again. If there are no suitable alternatives in finding the new site, Orchidville may have to close down or shift to the neighbouring countries.

The cluster of fish farms at Seletar West Farmway also faces the same problem of relocation. With the land needed for redevelopment in near future, the fish farms have little choices but to find their way out. Some, though, may have to shut down for good. Many of the farms have been doing their businesses at Seletar West Farmway for decades.

Wholesale and retail flower-selling Sinflora, which has established its trade along Jalan Kayu as early as 1979, will also be shifting to Tampines in March 2012.

At Hougang lark kok jio (six milestone), there is this old kopitiam called Nam Heng Restaurant, famous for its orh luak (fried oyster omelette) and Hokkien mee. The area now known as Kovan has seen tremendous changes especially in the past decade. Simon Road Camp was demolished in 2003, whereas the popular Simon Road Market (1948-1999) has been replaced by Kovan Residences. Even the iconic 50-plus-year-old kopitiam, situated at the junction between Simon Road and Upper Serangoon Road, could not escape the fate of urbanisation and was torn down recently.

Good things come and go. Guess that’s the way of life.

Published: 31 January 2012

Updated: 01 October 2012

This entry was posted in Nostalgic. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Disappearing Chee Pow Kai and Hum Chim Peng

  1. SK says:

    I’ll miss Thye Moh Chan…
    Always there to get the Teochew moon cakes every year.
    Went there one last time last year to savor the original flavor and durian flavor… Wonder where to go next to get it this year? Back to Mui Lee at Chin Swee Road perhaps???

    Any ideas where the orh luau and hokkien mee at Nam Heng move to?
    That area certainly going through a revolution!

    Hum Jin Pang is still great today!
    Hawkers whip up dishes/food that are different from run-of-the-mill food courts.
    And that’s also the reason why more are canvassing to keep the hawker centers going.

  2. Dan says:

    I was not aware that the Simon Rd orh luak coffeeshop has closed. Any idea where the stall might have moved to?? Seems like good iconic S’pore food will be going the way of the dodo.

  3. The delicious and oily orh luak stall is shifted to where the Punggol Nasi Lemak is located (just a short distance away from Simon Road kopitiam)…
    but not too sure about the Hokkien mee stall, maybe the owner decides to retire for good

  4. The Pariah says:

    Yep, Singapore has sold her soul long ago.

    Tongue-in-cheek – Why don’t we en bloc The Istana to The Iskandar? Why only pack our old folks to JB nursing homes?

    Land is cheap there. Unlock the economic value of prime Orchard Road and vicinity (ever notice that only Meritus Mandarin Hotel is the only high-rise and everything else is less than 25 storeys – for somebody’s flight path apparently). No more traffic jams when all traffic (vehicular and pedestrian) is halted because some VVIP need to go in/out of The Istana.

  5. abao says:

    hmm.. maybe u can try thye lee for your teowchew biscuits

    http://www.hungrygowhere.com/singapore/Thye_Lee_Confectionery/

  6. Tim says:

    I think facing land scarcity and an increasing population, space may inevitable be needed to be more maximised to ‘save’ the space. I think kampungs are still possible to be found still in the late 80s but now is just not possible. When things are torn or thrown away, it will never be the same again.

  7. bunny tang says:

    If anyone knows where the nam heng hokkien need stall shifted place let me know!! I ate it since I was a kid n I miss it!!

  8. bunny tang says:

    Hey all, I just found out the hokkien mee stall is still there. They just renovated the coffee shop n it’s open!!!

  9. I rem the hum chim peng sold by the uncle is even chepaer before the renovations of the Maxwell Food Centre.. think only one piece 5 cents or 10 cents? I remembered visiting it when I was much much younger… the stall is kinda open-concept and he has this big big wok, where customers can fry the dough themselves… The uncle was tall and quiet and hardworking…

  10. scouty says:

    I missed the food at the kopitiam at Kovan – along Simon Road. The food there were nice. Had tried the Hokkien Mee, Orh Luak, the Wu Xiang Xia Bin….
    Ironcially they tore down the old kopitiam (last few buildings with such old school look) to build a new kopitiam, without the nice food.

  11. Nam Heng kopitiam (Simon Road) in the nineties…


    (Photo Credit: National Archives of Singapore)

  12. aa says:

    the “hum chim peng” at Maxwell market was 10cents each, not $1.

  13. Sean Tay says:

    Simon Road Camp wasn’t torn down in late 1990s. I was a NSF from 2000 to 2002 serving 1st Transport Battalion Alpha Coy. Our HQ & Bravo coy was at Simon Road Camp then. The whole unit was shifted to present day Sembawang Camp in mid 2002. I still remember we used Simon Camp as the central dumping ground when we were clearing out our quarters at Ayer Rajah Camp in early 2002. If I remember correctly Simon Camp was demolished in only 2003.

    • Thanks! There isn’t much info about Simon Road Camp.
      With the exception of some old fences and gates, there is not much left at the site that reminds us of the existence of a former army camp

  14. Likewise in Hong Kong, Lung Moon Restaurant, the 60-year-old Wanchai landmark and nostalgic time capsule, was finally shut down in 2009 after its building was sold for redevelopment.

    The dim sum restaurant, which had stood at Johnston Road since 1949, was a place of memories for three generations of Hong Kongers and represented a piece of dining history of the former British crown colony.

    http://travel.cnn.com/hong-kong/eat/gallery-lung-moon-restaurant-last-look-legend-275639



  15. Phew… looks like the good old Chin Mee Chin Confectionery will be soldiering on for many more years!



    http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/east-coast-confectionery-chin-mee-chin-not-closing-staff-insist

    The staff and owners of Chin Mee Chin Confectionary today refuted rumours circulating online that the decades-old coffeeshop was due to close down. An employee of more than 15 years, who wanted only to be known as Ah Eng, said: “I don’t know where the rumours came from. We don’t use the Internet and we haven’t heard about it until people told us.”

    The staff expressed frustration at the number of people who had asked them about the matter in the past few days. Almost all employees in the kitchen declined to be interviewed.

    When TODAY visited the East Coast Road at 1.30pm, it was business as usual, the shop packed and certain pastries already sold out well before the coffeeshop’s 4pm closing time.

    Established in the 1960s, the old-school confectionary is a landmark in eastern Singapore draws patrons from across the island. “Their kaya is great,” said a patron who wanted only to be known as Terry, who lives in Thomson and was at Chin Mee Chin with his mother. “I come here once a month just for the kaya.”


  16. (Photo Credit: The Straits Times)

    Famous Lim Seng Lee Duck Rice in Buona Vista to close in three months

    After 45 years in the business, Lim Seng Lee Duck Rice Eating House, famous for its boneless braised duck, will be closing shop. The coffeeshop at South Buona Vista Road is likely to close after June 20.

    Founder Mr Lim Ah Too, 67, and his wife were reluctant to speak to Life!, saying they feared a deluge of customers if news got out that they would be closing. But he eventually said he wanted to retire because he has a bad back.

    http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/lifestyle/story/famous-lim-seng-lee-duck-rice-buona-vista-close-three-months-20130326

    Wonder will that row of old shophouses along South Buona Vista Road be demolished eventually to make way for private development?

  17. Another old bookstore is struggling due to high rentals….

    EMF moves out of Holland Village
    Select Books is also leaving its downtown spot as bookshops battle rising rentals and other disruptions

    The Straits Times
    Published on Feb 20, 2014

    Two long-established book nooks are taking a break from next month. After 27 years selling and renting out books at Holland Road Shopping Centre, EMF Bookstore is downing shutters there next Thursday, citing increased rentals.

    The nearly 40-year-old Select Books is moving out on March 2 from Armenian Street, where it has been since 2011, as construction on a new building for the Singapore Management University is expected to disrupt business.

    Both bookstores are selling their stock at discounted prices. Customers at EMF Bookstore can buy new and used books at up to 50 per cent off, while Select Books is offering its titles at up to 70 per cent off.

    Mr Tan Dan Feng, 44, one of the three owners who took over Select Books a decade ago, says he and his partners are seeking new space to re-open by the end of this year. Their related business of publishing and distributing South-east Asian scholarly and literary titles is unaffected.

    Last month, the university broke ground for its new School of Law building behind the Select Books store. Construction is expected to be completed in 2017.

    EMF Bookstore’s sole proprietor, Mr Eddie Zhang, 63, also says his business is not closing down. “We are moving out because of high operating costs but we will focus our expansion on roadshows and the Internet,” he says, declining to reveal the revised rentals that have forced this move.

    An online property listing is asking for $8,000 monthly rent for a 474 sq ft space on the floor above EMF. The bookstore occupies one of 14 units on the second floor with individually held strata titles, and the current owner could not be reached for comment by press time.

    Staff such as bookstore manager Mary Ong, who has been with it since 1989, will still be selling books at islandwide roadshows. The remaining EMF Bookstore outlet at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital will accept returns of most books rented from the Holland Road store.

    “If we can manage a better location with easier rental and more locals willing to take up retail jobs, because manpower is also an issue, we are definitely willing to come back,” says Mr Zhang, who also runs cleaning and sanitation company De Hygienique with his wife and son.

    Their 500 sq ft EMF Bookstore outlet in Holland Road Shopping Centre opened in 1987. At its height in the 1990s, the business had seven outlets around the island, offering popular romances and thrillers to thrifty readers who could rent the books and recoup most of what they spent if the titles were returned within about a month. A $16 fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett can be returned for $13, for example.

    Regular visitors such as playwright and novelist Ovidia Yu, 52, are mourning the loss of a cherished haunt. She lives in the West and has visited the store for most of its 27 years since she was a student at the National University of Singapore. EMF Bookstore staff introduced her to some of her favourite authors including mystery writer Kerry Greenwood and fantasy novelist Kylie Chan.

    “It’s awful. The staff know enough of me to know what I want to read. They seem to like their books and know their books,” says Yu.

    Poet Alvin Pang, 41, is more affected by the temporary closure of Select Books. He appreciates the store’s selection of scholarly and literary titles pertinent to South-east Asia, plus its regular talks, book clubs and discussions, which host thinkers such as iconic Indian architect Charles Correa.

    “They’ve always had a special role to play in our literary and cultural life, with their unique range of South-east Asian books, especially non-fiction, and their hosting of talks,” he says.

    “I hope they come back,” adds Mr Kenny Leck, 35, co-owner of indie bookstore Books Actually. He relies on Select Books’ distribution services, but also appreciates its part in fostering a literary culture and more book lovers in Singapore.

    He is unsurprised by news of EMF Bookstore’s move out of Holland Village, saying that rising rental is a “killer” for his store as well. In the past, he has made appeals on social media platforms such as Facebook and held storewide sales to raise money to meet the rent. Rentals at his Yong Siak Street location in Tiong Bahru have more than doubled, from $2.70 per sq ft (psf) in mid-2011 to $6.20 psf last year.

    He is now paying around $8,000 monthly in rent and is trying to put aside enough money to buy retail space outright. “If I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life, I need the space,” he says.

    High rentals have been pushing out bookstores around Singapore for the past three years. Casualties include PageOne, which was at Vivocity until early 2012; MPH Bookstores’ outlet at Velocity Mall the same year; plus Popular Bookstore’s fiction-centred Harris Bookstores in 2011 and 2012; and bookstore-cum-cafe Epilogue at Ion Orchard last August.

  18. Sunny Bookstore latest victim of rising rentals…..

    Sunny Bookshop to close down
    Rising overheads and changes in reading habits are leading to the closure of the bookshop

    Aug 4, 2014

    Sunny Bookshop, which has become an institution among local book lovers since it started in 1985, will cease operations on Aug 20. Current owner Melissa Low, 52, says she feels “very sad” but has no choice. The reasons include rising overheads, changes in reading habits and not being able to find any successors.

    She bought the business from owner Sunny Thum in 2001. At that point, she already had four to five outlets of San Bookshop under her belt. She had kept the name as Sunny Bookshop was “very popular” then and had an established customer base. She tells Life! the two brands have been marketed differently. For Sunny, it was about “personal touch and personal service”, while San was more about convenience of location.

  19. Passed by Tan Quee Lan Street today, but the good old retro stationery shop is no longer around. The one-way street is filled with spas, restaurants and boutique hotels now.

    Anyone knows if that stationery shop has closed down for good? Or moved to elsewhere?

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