SINGAPORE, May 11 — The island state was recently named one of the best coffee cities in the world by international TV news channel CNN.
Locals are said to favour latte art as the defining criterion for what makes a good café. Hipster décor must surely run a close second given the number of cafés popping up all over the island with faux vintage or industrial furnishings.
Not many can claim a real slice of history as the foundation for their coffee shop though, but that’s exactly what the enthusiastically-named My Awesome Café in Telok Ayer has to offer.
French owner Franck Hardy – a mountain of a man but friendly like a gentle bear – used to be a globe-trotting model and a five-star hotelier before settling down in Singapore.
He says, “I have made hotels, restaurants and cafés successful for others. I decided this was the right time for me to open my own. Singapore has been my home for the past nine years and the perfect place for My Awesome Café. I hope to bring back the history of this country inside this old shophouse.”
The shophouse in question is the former Chung Hwa Free Clinic at 202 Telok Ayer Street. Hardy and his two business partners – a Swiss and a Malaysian – discovered the place when one of them was working with clients in the adjacent Amoy Street and immediately felt that the site held great promise.
As Hardy puts it, “This shophouse came to us.”
The Chung Hwa Free Clinic has a long history. Its current owner, the non-profit Singapore Chinese Physicians’ Association (SCPA), was first established as the Singapore Chinese Medical Society in 1946 in order to promote traditional Chinese medicine on the island. Practitioners even offered free medical consultations to the needy and poor.
In 1952 SCPA set up the Chung Hwa Free Clinic with support from the public and moved to their permanent premises at Telok Ayer Street four years later. In time, Telok Ayer became part of a thriving commercial district and the clinic stopped operations in 2005.
Today the neighbourhood has been designated as a conservation area by the authorities.
Once Hardy and his partners decided that the shophouse was ideal for their café, they embarked on a challenging and long process of securing the site.
He says, “Dedication, patience and passion are definitely attributes needed to start a café in a protected shophouse. First we had to make a bid to SCPA and submit a proposal.”
Theirs was the winning bid despite not being the highest as they presented a concept that made the best use of the space while conserving much of its historical heritage. Once the lease was signed, the next step was applying to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for the change of use to a café.
Hardy explains, “Any changes inside the shophouse, such as new partitions, had to be approved by the URA. So we decided to simply return the shophouse to its earliest state circa 1952, including the two original staircases.”
Thus the café retains its original 1952 façade with old black Chinese characters on the twin pillars. Look up and observe three yellow beacon lights that came from an American airport, representing the three owners and welcoming customers.
Inside, the tables have been built by artisans: the table tops by a local carpenter who hunts down aged wood from China; the table and stool legs by a Malaysian who repairs broken fire pipes in Singapore. One of the tables is made from hundred-year-old elm doors that were rescued from a private home in North China.
To restore some of the shophouse’s original charm, Hardy created a little Chinese clinic corner. He says, “Our water dispenser used to be an old Chinese medicinal tea warmer. Below the dispenser is a beautiful turquoise traditional Chinese medicine cabinet for our cutlery.”
No effort was spared; even the light bulbs were created from scratch. Hardy flew to Guzhen in Guangdong, known as the City of Light Fittings in China, to order custom-made LED light bulbs that resemble a Christmas tree. He explains, “The idea is for our customers and our crew to celebrate Christmas at My Awesome Café every day. We even have folks telling us they come in to get inspired for their creative work!”
Of course, what’s a café without bites and brews? Hardy, who hails from a small French village near the wine region of St Emilion, has been surrounded by good food all his life and understands the value of using the freshest ingredients possible.
He says, “Our food is baked and cooked in-house and prepared with love. I go to the market daily to source for great produce. I have tried a few wholesalers before we opened but they didn’t have a consistent quality – tomatoes came in boxes with half of them still green; the avocados were not ripe. It’s also a joy to help local uncles and aunties at the market; they smile each time they see me.”
Coffee here is made from a blend of Colombian, Brazilian and Sumatran beans, while Mexican Coke in old-school glass bottles offers a more natural taste as it is sweetened using cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup.
My Awesome Café also carries a range of Chinese medicinal wines, including Ning Xia Hong wolfberry wine made from carefully hand-picked berries and herbal ginseng wine that has been used to improve overall health for thousands of years. Hardy says, “This is part of our East-meets-West concept to promote peace, discovery and harmony.”
Dishes are served on amber glass plates, a very 1970s style of tableware. He says, “Our search for old amber plates, glasses and cups had us drive around many villages in Malaysia, including our beloved Malacca. We feel so happy when we hear customers telling us they remember using such amber dishware at home and how this brings back fond memories for them.”
Indeed, nostalgia is a big part of My Awesome Café’s appeal. Hardy and his partners are so fond of the shared history of their host country and her closest neighbour that they converted the café’s backyard into a mini Malacca, complete with Stadhuys-red walls, restored old fans, a vintage ais kacang machine and 1950s conference chairs with a little heart on their backs.
“It’s our way of paying tribute to Malaysia and the fact that so many Malaysians work in Singapore.”
Some of those Malaysians work at the two-year-old creative agency Mangham Gaxiola, recently voted as one of the Top Three Best Independent Agencies in Asia by Marketing Magazine. The agency is situated on the second and third floors of the shophouse.
Hardy shares, “This is a very New York concept that we have brought to Singapore. The staff from the agency come down for their coffee and client meetings here. This is exactly what we wished to create: a second home for others, the way Singapore has become a second home for us. The idea is for all of them to share the same feeling of ‘This is an awesome place, a place where I belong!’”
With passion this strong, how could we disagree?
My Awesome Café
202 Telok Ayer, Singapore
Open Mon-Tue 7:45am-9pm; Wed-Fri 7:45am-12am; Sat-Sun 10am-3pm