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Kopitiam Culture is Not Only Kopi & Kaya Toast. History of Singapore Coffee Shops

Thean Chun kopitiam in Ipoh, Malaysia
Kopitiam culture is deeply ingrained in the lifestyle of people in Singapore and Malaysia (as well as parts of Indonesia and Thailand).

When I am overseas for any extended period, going out for a morning caffeine fix, I can see Starbucks everywhere but my heart literally aches for kopi O gao - that pitch black bitter brew of Singapore and Malaysia. Those of you from Singapore and Malaysia will know the feeling.

Nan Yang kopitiam in Segamat, Malaysia
The term "kopitiam" is made up of two words - "kopi" which means coffee in Malay and "tiam" 店 which means shop in Hokkien Chinese. The name kopitiam itself reveals its multicultural, inclusive nature.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Kopitiam culture in Singapore is usually attributed to Hainanese migrants.

The Hainanese were latecomers to Singapore, coming only after 1870 when the Hainanese port of Haikou was opened for trade and travel. By that time, the Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka clans were already well established in Singapore in their respective enclaves and professions. The clans jealously fiercely guarded their territories and trades, often forcefully.


The late comers had no choice but to settle in no man's land - banished to the opposite bank of the Singapore River away from their other Chinese compatriots. The Hainanese set themselves up in the narrow margin between European Town and Arab Campong (the British way of spelling kampung).

Today, these are Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street which were then named Hainan First Street or Haikou Road, Hainan Second Street and Hainan Third Street respectively.

Jobs wise with almost all trades already dominated by other Chinese clans, the Hainanese took whatever work was left over. Many became domestic help in the homes of colonial officials and wealthy Peranakan families, cooks in British military bases, restaurants, hotels and ship galleys.

When I was serving in the 1980s, there were still Hainanese "Ah Ko" cooks, waiters and bartenders in Tengah Officers Mess. I still remember "Ah Ko" vividly - at TOM, I had my first taste of French toast and Gunner cocktail from "Ah Ko".

Singapore rubber factory in 1930. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
When the shocks of the Great Depression of 1929 hit Singapore, many fortunes built on trading rubber and tin etc were lost.

Middle Road in 1935. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Many shop units fell vacant as their owners fell on hard times. Some Hainanese saw the opportunity of the financial crisis, quit their jobs as cooks and threw their savings into buying the shops in and around the Hainanese enclave.

And, thus birthing the Hainanese kopitiam out of adversity in Singapore.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The shop owner cum kopitiam towkay (boss) typically sold drinks (kopi, teh or tea and bottled fizzy drinks), kaya and butter toast, poached eggs, and cigarettes.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Kopi wasn't new to people in Singapore then. Bengali coffee hawkers were already selling kopi from baskets slung across their shoulders long before the advent of Hainanese kopitiam.

Ah Hong Kopitiam in Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Hainanese style kopi is brewed by putting ground coffee beans into a long muslin sock and pouring hot water through it. This is repeated a few times to extract the maximum flavour from the coffee beans.

Kopi is made with a unique long spouted kettle that drains coffee from the bottom of the pot where the beans in the sock are well steeped.

Empty condensed or evaporated milk tins were re-purposed into containers for takeaway kopi. These were carried around with a raffle string strung through a hole made in the lid.

Image credit: Tai Chiang Coffee
It was common for kopitiams in Singapore to hand roast their own coffee beans over wood fire (up to the 1970s).

Kim Guan Guan Traditional Nanyang Coffee
Most old timer kopi were brewed with Robusta beans. Depending on the quality, some were roasted with just sugar and margarine. The cheaper roasts had bulk fillers like corn, barley etc added to the coffee beans during roasting.

Compared to Arabica beans, Robusta is more bitter but packs a stronger caffeine kick. Sweetened with sugar, condensed or evaporated milk it is quite addictive once you acquired the taste for it. Many locals cannot function without that caffeine perk up from their morning kopi.

Modern day higher quality kopi is usually a blend of Robusta and Liberica, and sometimes there's even Arabica in the brew.

Heng Wah Traditional Coffee Stall in Singapore
Kopi was usually paired with kaya toast - coconut jam and chilled butter sandwiched between toasted bread slices. This, of course, came from the British employers of Hainanese cooks as most wouldn't have encountered such a dish fresh off the boat from Haikou, Hainan.

Toh Soon in Penang, Malaysia
Bread was toasted over charcoal.

Making kaya at Nan Yang kopitiam in Segamat, Malaysia
Kaya or coconut jam was hand made daily at the shop with coconut milk, eggs, sugar and fragrant pandan leaf plus a lot of elbow grease. So, the sweet smelling kaya at the kopitiam was always fresh.

An urban legend (which needs further investigation) claims that kaya was invented by a Hainanese cook on a ship. One day, when the galley ran out of jam, he made some using coconut milk.

Wei Sheng Yuan in Ulu Tiram, Malaysia
Poached eggs in a saucer eaten the Singapore (and Malaysian) way is one of the kopitiam trinity. The runny soft boiled eggs are given a dribble of light (or dark) soy sauce and a puff of white pepper powder. To eat, mix it all up by stirring with a tea spoon.

Wee Hoi kopitiam in Gelang Patah, Malaysia
Put that tea spoon down.

The proper way to eat those poached eggs in a kopitiam is to slurp it all up, straight from the saucer like a thick soup.


Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Space in the kopitiam was rented out to food stalls which sold a wide range of dishes such as roast meats, braised meats, noodles, rice etc. Typically, most kopitiam will have around five to eight independent food stalls.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Every food stall was a privately owned business and the stall owner paid rent to the kopitiam owner to operate inside his shop unit.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
It was common to find Indian roti prata, Malay mee rebus, nasi lemak, Indonesian nasi padang stalls etc together with Chinese stalls inside a kopitiam.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The kopitiam owner selling drinks, toasts and eggs has a symbiotic relationship with the stall owners inside his shop. When business is good they grow and prosper together. It's a virtuous cycle - better food stalls, attract more customers, sell more kopi, collect more rental.

The reverse, of course, is equally true. So, it is in interest of the kopitiam boss and his tenants to co-operate and support one another.

History of Singapore chicken rice. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
So, the enterprising kopitiam bosses would constantly scout for the best hawkers and entice them to set up in their coffee shops. That was how in the 1940s, a chicken rice seller who was plying the streets with two baskets on a bamboo pole slung across his shoulder set up a stall in a Purvis Street kopitiam. That stall by "Commie Uncle" became the first Hainanese chicken rice stall in Singapore and the rest is Singapore national dish history.

After the People's Republic of China was declared in 1949, some Hainanese coffee shop owners returned to Hainan as they felt peace has been restored in their homeland. Most sold their kopitiam to Hock Chews. In 1950s Singapore, there were over 2,000 kopitiam - 80% were owned by Hainanese and Hock Chews.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Kopitiams were the natural multicultural, communal meeting spaces.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The kopitiam was much more than just an eating place. It was the community club of sorts where people gathered to relax, to catch up with happenings about town and with each other. In social science-speak, the essential "third space" everybody needs (the other spaces being the home and workplace).

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
And, what a colourful "third space" it was. 1950s Singapore was a tumultuous time. The Communist insurrection was raging in British Malaya while the negotiations for independence from Britain was well underway. Newly formed political parties fought for the masses' hearts and minds.

Kopitiams willy nilly became soapboxes for agitators, provocateurs, character assassins and rumourmongers; listening posts for informers and spies; prospecting grounds for con men; dens for gamblers, and other creepy crawlies who huddled around the white marble top tables. Most people were oblivious or turned a blind eye while enjoying their daily kopi, kaya toast, egg and smoke.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Some kopitiams were like hobby clubs such as this one where lovers of singing birds gathered to eat, chat and listen to bird song together.

Oh..., this is too beautiful.... 😢

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In a time of no mobiles, not even telephones at home, borrowing the kopitiam's telephone was a much appreciated "value added service" before the era of payphones.

Who remembers borrowing the kopitiam phone?


The kopitiam trinity.

Once ubiquitous, the traditional kopitiam is disappearing in Singapore, replaced by international chains like Starbucks, home grown chains, and independent "hipster" cafes.

Heap Seng Leong a Hock Chew coffee shop is one of the last handful of traditional kopitiams left in Singapore. It's a shadow of the golden age of kopitiams but still has the atmospherics of the original experience.

We love to hear your kopitiam memories 😊

Kopi C kosong at Hwa Mui in Johor Bahru, Malaysia

Ordering coffee in a Singapore kopitiam can be intimidating for the uninitiated 😱 Have no fear. This simple guide is everything you need to survive ace your first kopitiam experience in Singapore.

Kopi - Coffee with condensed milk ("Kopi" in Malay means coffee)

Kopi O - Coffee with sugar ("O" in Hokkien means black)

Kopi C - Coffee with sugar & evaporated milk ("C" in Hainanese means fresh)

Kopi Gu Yu - Coffee with butter ("Gu Yu" is butter in Hokkien)

Kopi O Kosong - Coffee with condensed milk and no sugar ("Kosong" in Malay means empty)

Kopi C Kosong - Coffee with evaporated milk and no sugar ("Kosong" in Malay means empty) [This is my usual order.]

Kopi Peng - Iced coffee ("Peng" in Hokkien means cold)

Kopi Siew Dai - Coffee with less sugar ("Siew Dai" in Hock Chew means less sweet)

Kopi Ga Dai - Coffee with more sugar ("Ga Dai" in Hock Chew means more sweet)

Kopi Gao - Coffee Thick ("Gao" in Hokkien means thick)

Kopi Tit Lo - Coffee Extra Thick ("Tit Lo" in Hokkien means pour straight in all the way)

Kopi Poh - Coffee Thin ("Poh" in Hokkien mean thin)

Kopi Sua - Double order of same coffee ("Sua" in Hokkien means follow on)

Tiao Herr - Tea bag ("Tiao Herr" in Hokkien means fishing as the motion of dipping the teabag in hot water is like fishing with rod and line)

Tart Giu - Milo ("Tart Giu" means soccer in Hokkien, referring to the soccer design on traditional Milo tins).

👆 Get to know Singapore through its food. Image credit: Wikipedia 



Date: 9 Jun 2020


  1. So nostalgic for me. My grandfather owned the Hainan kopitiam Lim Poh San 林宝山at the corner of Balmoral road and BT rd. My father was born upstairs. I have fond memories of it and can remember my uncle roasting kopi beans at the 5 foot way. The govt in the guise of road development acquire the whole row of shophouses paying the owners a pittance (no such thing as mkt rate in those days) Razed the building and Left the land undeveloped for years before selling it to Pte developers to build that soulless Balmoral Plaza! My uncle who had inherited the property died a kopi Kia working for others as he came from China and wasn’t educated. 😢

    1. Hello Vince, I lived at 1 Chancery Lane 1978-1981 and remember the shops there including Lim Poh San and Chop Hock Chye. If you have any photos of the old places I would love to see them. Thanks!


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