Laid-Back Tanjong Katong stirred up with change

A cool breeze from the coast is not all that is sweeping along Tanjong Katong Road these days.

The winds of change are stirring the placid neighbourhood, a largely residential area familiar to generations of students who have attended schools there.

Gleaming mall OneKM opened in November last year at the top of the road and, since then, new cafes have been springing up further along the stretch.

A historical area known for its laid-back charm, Tanjong Katong Road winds its long way seaward from Sims Avenue to East Coast Parkway.

Blocks of condominiums give way to rows of shophouses, behind which lie the peaceful grids of residential neighbourhoods. In the early 20th century, the area was a suburb for wealthy Peranakans, Chinese and Europeans.

Its proximity to the coast made it a popular seaside retreat, and many roads in the area, such as Boscombe and Poole, are named for English seaside towns.

The road’s name, Tanjong Katong, translates from Malay as “turtle point”. The katong is thought to be a species of sea turtle which is now extinct. Many of the area’s landmarks have vanished like the katong.

Among these are 1970s icons Lion City Hotel and popular cinema Hollywood Theatre, which once occupied the land where OneKM now stands.

As a boy of 11, Mr Bhupinder Singh helped his father, a doorman at Lion City Hotel, open taxi doors for tips.

Now 51 and in a wheelchair after losing his leg to diabetes, Mr Singh said: “I earned so much pocket money from tips. I would bring my dad beer before he started work, and he would sit here drinking. Those were good days.”

OneKM, which is run by UOL, has more than 150 shops, which include anchor tenants Cold Storage and Food Junction, and clothing brands Uniqlo and Esprit.

Higher footfall in the area, however, has brought little benefit to the ageing malls near OneKM, such as Tanjong Katong Complex across the road. Known for Malay boutiques and textile shops, the mall’s business continues to stagnate outside of Hari Raya season.

Ms Alison Hwang, 58, who owns 26-year-old Soon Fung Boutique, said in Mandarin: “We see a lot more young people walking over, but they don’t buy from us.

“It is good the area is expanding, but we may not be part of that as time casts us aside.”

The novelty of OneKM finds echoes in the stretch of shophouses down the road, with at least four new cafes popping up in the past two months alone.

This coming weekend will see two more new eateries, Western cafe F&Bulous and Vietnamese teppanyaki restaurant Vicki’s, opening their doors.

Mr Alan Cheong, senior research director of property agency Savills, said: “With the phased development of the Geylang Planning Area with Paya Lebar Central at the heart of it, the Tanjong Katong district will experience an even greater intensity of commerce and residential activity.”

Some newcomers, such as Mr Christopher Tan, 24, hope to tap the area’s growth and affluence. Mr Tan, who opened fusion Japanese- Western cafe Laneway Market last month, said: “This is a neighbourhood with high spending power.”

Artisanal French bakery Do.Main, which opened last December, seems to have already found its niche. Owner Frederic Deshayes, a Frenchman of 45, said: “It was quiet at first when we opened, but our revenue increased by about 10 per cent every week in January.”

It remains to be seen if the new kids on the block will remain.

A recent casualty is hotpot restaurant Tian and Tian in Swanage Road, whose owners are moving out after one year.

Owner Peter Chua, 52, said in Mandarin: “At first, we were confident but, after half a year, our business went down by 80 per cent because parking was not good and the construction of the nearby petrol station affected us.”

Meanwhile, old-timers such as Katong News Agency and Shanghai Chen Hin Dry Cleaning, which have been around for more than half a century, have had to adapt to changing times.

Katong News Agency used to be bustling with schoolchildren looking for textbooks and stationery.

As nearby schools such as Haig Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Technical School moved to Koon Seng Road and farther up Haig Road respectively, the shop has turned to selling groceries.

Owner Mohamed Ansari, 54, said: “Schoolkids these days go to Popular or buy things online. I miss them. It’s very quiet now.”

For Mr Cheng Fock Chai, whose father started Chen Hin Dry Cleaning in 1951, there is more business as people started spending more on laundry, but also more traffic regulations.

Said the 62-year-old in Mandarin: “Last time, we didn’t have these yellow lines and road dividers outside. Now customers don’t dare park here.”

Mr Cheng, who has lived above his shop since 1963, reminisced about growing up in the area: “We used to catch fish in the river and steal jambu from the trees in rich people’s houses. Later, I would go paktor (Cantonese for dating) at Hollywood Theatre. That’s gone now.”

For Ms Sophie Khoo, 36, old and new can co-exist along Tanjong Katong Road. The Dakota resident grew up buying pencils from Katong News Agency and helping her parents take laundry to Chen Hin.

Little did she expect to end up opening CarryOn Cafe with business partner Kathy Nubla between these two neighbourhood icons.

Said Ms Khoo: “There’s a lot of warmth and mutual respect when new places come up. This neighbourhood is like a family.”

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