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Appreciating the rustic charm of the Singaporean coffee shop and an inspirational sonnet

Updated on August 13, 2013

The homey, comfortable coffee shop. A place where we can get almost anything to eat, from a slice of toast accompanied by eggs to mouth watering Indian Prata and curry.

Not forgetting their wonderful teas concocted lovingly with condensed milk.

Their ambience would never be considered chic, but these places are gems to be treasured. Coffee shops are places in neighborhoods in the heartlands of Singapore where a quick meal can be enjoyed, and most importantly, where residents in the neighborhood can bond. Many a friendship has been formed under the influence of its rustic charm.

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The history of coffee shops in Singapore

Coffee shops, or kopitiams as they are known in the Hokkien vernacular, are found in residential neighborhoods all over Singapore and Malaysia. Perfect places for locals to eat and get together, I have spent (and still do) many of my growing years in these places, enjoying a hot bowl of won ton noodles or roti prata lovingly smooched by curry prepared by a friendly Indian hawker.Most famously, coffee shops in Singapore are known throughout the region for their soft,delectable toast layered with kaya (egg jam). Coffee shops have become an innate and undeniable part of Singaporean culture.

So, how did the tradition of the coffee shop begin?


Famous coffee shops in Singapore

Tong Ah Coffee House

Credited for being the oldest Hokkien kopi tiam in Singapore, Tong Ah Eating House was founded in 1939 and named after Chinese businessman Tan Keong Siak. Keong Siak Street, where it is located, was not just famous for its coffees in the 1960s. It was also renowned, then, for the presence of the ladies of the night.

Killiney Kopi Tiam

Credit for being the oldest Hainanese kopitiam in Singapore, Killiney Kopi Tiam is located - where else - at Killiney Road. Originally known as the Kheng Hoe Heng coffee shop started by
Hainese family going by the surname of Foo. The coffee shop was an ordinary, non-descript Haninese locale, but served excellent coffee and toast.

In 1993, broker Woon Teck Seng bought over the coffee shop because he loved its cheery, hearty brews and welcoming toast. Turning it into a successful franchise, it is now known as the Killiney Coffeeshop and has branches all over Singapore.

Ya Kun Kaya Toast

Best known for its coffee and Kaya Toast, this coffee shop started at the Telok Ayer Basin in the 1930s as a single coffee house, founded by businessman Loi Ah Koon. He made the tasty egg jam that Ya Kun is famous for, and began roasting his own coffee beans. After several transitions, Ya Kun now comprises many branches located throughout the island of Singapore.

A typical menu at a coffee shop in Singapore

So welcome to Singapore’s coffee shops, where you can find good food and good company. I thought that it would be a good idea to introduce everyone to the Hokkien vernacular used to order food and beverages in a typical kopitiam in Singapore.



The - Tea with Condensed Milk and Sugar

The Peng – The with Ice

The Siew Dai – The with less Sugar

The Gar Dai – The with more Sugar

The Kosong – The without Sugar

The Or - Tea with Sugar, but without Milk

The Or Peng –Tea, without milk, with Ice

The Or Siew Dai – Tea, without milk, with less Sugar

The Or Gar Dai – The Or with more Sugar

The Or Kosong – Tea without Milk and Sugar

The Si - Tea with Carnation Milk and Sugar

The Si Peng - The Si with Ice

The Si Kosong – Tea with Milk, Without Sugar

Diao Her (“Fishing” in Hokkien) – Tea with Teabag

Jio Kia (Mirror” in Hokkien) – 1/3 Tea, 2/3 Hot Water

The Tarik (“Pulled Tea” in Malay) – Foamy Tea with Milk (usually found at Muslim stalls)

The Halia – Tea with Milk and Ginger Water (usually found at Muslim stalls)

The Masala – The Tarik with added Spices such as Cinnamon, Cardamon, Fennel and Ginger

(usually found at Muslim stalls)

How to order coffee or tea in Singapore


Kopi - Coffee with Condensed Milk

Kopi Gao – Thick coffee

Kopi Di Lo - Extra Thick coffee

Kopi Po – Less concentrated coffee

Kopi Peng - Coffee with Ice

Kopi Or – Black Coffee without Milk

Kopi Or Siew Dai - Black Coffee with less Sugar

Kopi Or Gar Dai – Black coffee with more Sugar

Kopi Or Kosong – Black coffee without Sugar

Kopi Si – Coffee with Evaporated Milk

Kopi Si Siew Dai – Coffee, with evaporated milk and less Sugar

Kopi Si Gar Dai – Coffee, with evaporated milk and more Sugar

Kopi Sua – Indicates an extra order of coffee.

Kopi Tarik (“Pulled Coffee” in Malay) – Foamy Coffee with Milk (not common in Singapore)



Tak Giu (“To kick the ball” in Hokkien) – Milo, a popular cocoa drink, named Tak Giu

because of the image of the football player on a

can or packet of Milo.

Tak Giu Peng – Milo with Ice

Dinosaur – Milo, with ice, with an extra scoop of Milo powder on top

Godzilla – The Dinosaur with a double scoop of Milo powder on top

Lao Hor (“Tiger” in Hokkien) – this indicates Tiger Beer, a popular

Ang Ji Gao (“Red-Tongued Dog” in Hokkien) – Guinness Stout (thank the dog image on the stout can)

Kim Boon Tai – The Hokkien name for Clementi, a district in Singapore. This is actually

a Hokkien phonetic pun for tea with lemon

Lai Kor (“Underwear” in Hokkien) – This is a Hokkien phonetic pun on Coke Light.

Buay Si Gor Lark (“8456″ in Hokkien) –Translated phonetically, this is none other than

Pepsi Cola!

Xiao Bai Tu (“Rabbit” in Mandarin) – Carrot Juice (do you get the rabbit association?)

Siao - A Barley Drink, prepared in the coffee shop and does not come in a can.


Zar dan (Bomb in Hokkien) – Half Boiled Eggs

Kaya Toast: Toast layered with egg jam, the most famous breakfast component in any coffee

shop in Singapore.


The symbolism of the coffee shop

To many Singaporeans, the good old kopitiam is a place where they practically grew up in and where many a hearty meal was eaten. Its presence definitely holds a wealth of meaning.

History and rustic charm

The coffee shop, to most of us in Singapore, would be a symbol of our history, culture and the rustic charm of Singapore in the days of old.

It also holds childhood memories for most of us, being where our parents or grandparents took us to for a meal after a long day!


The coffee shop was, and still is a place where many go to to bond with friends. It is definitely a heartwarming representation of friendship.

A sense of belonging/rootedness

For many Singaporeans, the kopitiam is a place where they belong, represents their roots and is very much a part of their being. It is truly the one place where they can be themselves.


The rustic charm of the good old coffee shop - a sonnet

Embracing comfort of the coffee shop

A place of grace, and rustic charm

Sipping coffee of mind's balm

Brew that touches so.the spot

Concoction shared by many friends

A toasty drink, nourishing bond

Then friendships made, friendships fond

Place in heart that knows no end

Haven where warmth of heart resides,

Place to imbibe the beverage of life;

Place of belonging, none aside

Where there is no enmity or strife,

Anchorage where the soul abides

Where Spirit, assured, does arrive.


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    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      They have their rustic charm, Kathryn! Thanks for sharing with us!

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image


      7 years ago from Windsor, Connecticut

      I really enjoyed reading about the coffee shops in Singapore! They sound different from the shops I'm used to, but as comfortable and familiar to those who frequent them.

      Thanks for sharing this with us!

      Voted up and sharing.

      Have a wonderful day!

      ~ Kathryn

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Cheers with a the, Travmaj!!

    • travmaj profile image


      7 years ago from australia

      Just stopping by for a The - and much cheers -

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Lurana! I would be extremely happy to host you for a cup of the masala!! Or halia too. Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you for a warm, welcoming, and interesting introduction! I love coffee, all kinds of tea, and chai. I think the teh masala would be my first new choice from your list. Lovely sonnet too! :-) ~Lurana

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Eddy!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks for sharing, Girishpuri.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Truth for Now! They are essential places for bonding everywhere we go. Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Girishpuri!

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      A briliant hub as always Michelle and here's to so many more for us both to share on here.

      I vote up,across and share all around.

      Enjoy your day.


    • janetwrites profile image

      Janet Giessl 

      7 years ago from Georgia country

      This is a wonderful presentation of the coffee shops in your home country. I have been to Singapore only once. This was many years ago when I was about 10 years old. I would like to visit Singapore some time again. I love your hubs as they are all so unique. Also love your poems.

    • truthfornow profile image

      Marie Hurt 

      7 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      Great, detailed information. Coffeeshops are great in any land and you have do a good job of describing some of the cultural aspects of those in Singapore. Very inviting.

    • girishpuri profile image

      Girish puri 

      7 years ago from NCR , INDIA

      Singapore is a dream destination to me, i am planning to visit this awesome country.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Just bring the list with you when you come to Singapore, Leslie, and I would be glad to be your host for the duration! Serving you a hot coffee, my friend!

    • ImKarn23 profile image

      Karen Silverman 

      7 years ago

      Very interesting, Michelle! Their coffee shops - other than their origin - are very much like north american counter-parts in one respect - to socialize and 'gather'..

      i can remember the and capi...other than that - no guarantees.. and sharing on..

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Mary! No, it isn't offensive at all, and I love your frankness. Thanks for sharing, Mary, and a cuppa for you too!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Kasman! Now that is one COOL tradition. Sitting at the everyday diners and sipping a cup of the local beverage is really the way to travel. Glad to connect with you, Kasman, and thanks for supporting the Community page too!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Audrey! Thanks...and a cup of "kopi" for you!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Here's a cup of "kopi" for you too, Jo!! Complete with Kaya Toast!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Jhamann! Here's a cup of "kopi" for you!!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Yes, it's typical coffee shop humor, Travmaj! Glad to host you when you come by!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      And I would be glad to accompany you for a cup of Masala, Kidscrafts. Thanks for sharing!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      7 years ago from New York

      I do love reading your hubs Michelle. I learn so much! Here I was thinking all Asians drank black tea...without sugar or milk. I never dreamed you would use condensed milk. I hope that doesn't sound offensive. I like my tea 'black'.

      Loved this hub and your poem was so original and fun to read.

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

    • Kasman profile image


      7 years ago from Bartlett, Tennessee

      Loved this Michelle. My wife and I are old school coffee enjoyers. To be honest with you, we have a fun tradition anywhere we go in the world. We try to find the most out of the way, down to earth, relaxing coffee shop and just sip on one for a few hours. Lol, we've found dunkin donuts in several countries around the world. Admittedly less casual, but we have fun.

      If we get to go to Singapore, I'm going to have to dig up this hub and get with the program! Voting this up and sharing all around. Thanks a lot.

      P.s. I love your coffee symbol. It made me want a warm cup of java!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Pinto!! Glad you like it!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Dancing Water, and do look me up when you're next in Singapore...will be glad to be a host! Thanks for sharing.....and connecting over a cuppa!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      You're most welcome to, Nithya, and I will be glad to host that cup of coffee. Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Who...a cup of coffee for you!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Hey, Janine! Let me know when you come by Singapore and I will be glad to be a host. Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      II think they pretty much function the same way. Coffeeshop culture here is pretty strong.....a good place for people to meet! Thanks for sharing, Mary!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      WIll be glad to catch up with you here, Carol! Let me know when you come over!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      7 years ago from California

      Very cool hub Michelle! I loved your sonnet as well!

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 

      7 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Michelle, this one is very aromatic....I can almost taste the fresh brew. Well done as always.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 

      7 years ago from Reno NV

      Michelle your hubs amaze me, we get to sit at one of these shops and order a cup of coffee in the language and enjoy our cup when it arrives with a well written sonnet. Thank you. Jamie

    • travmaj profile image


      7 years ago from australia

      I felt I was in Singapore as I read this, could smell the coffee and the cooking -

      How civilised the coffee shops are, how warm and friendly to be sitting, sipping, eating with friends or family in such a familiar atmosphere.

      I'm not so much a coffee drinker - I'm amazed by so many different The variations.

      I once tucked into Kaya Toast with enthusiasm - love the noodles too.

      What a great cultural way to spend time - thank you for taking me to your local coffee houses. (rabbit - carrot juice made me laugh) Voting - have a good day Michelle

    • kidscrafts profile image


      7 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      I love the look of the picture of the coffee shop at the top of your hub! I had definitely an approachable feel about it. I can see myself going there and enjoy a cup of The Masala as I love cardamom!

      Thanks for sharing Michelle!

    • pinto2011 profile image


      7 years ago from New Delhi, India

      I can see things happening through your words and feel the feelings you have established with this hub. A very neatly written hub.

    • Dancing Water profile image

      Dancing Water 

      7 years ago

      I rather envy your warm familiarity with the coffee shops of Singapore. I lived in Bangkok for 20 years, and there are endless things I will miss about it. Your article evokes that feeling of connection people experience in Asia. Sadly, this is all but lost in the West__most especially in the United States. Thank you for a lovely, lovely piece that takes me there with you. I can smell the coffee!

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      7 years ago from Dubai

      WOW now I want to drink a coffee out there in Singapore. Great hub.

    • whonunuwho profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      Thank you for sharing this charming work my friend midget, and much appreciated in its beauty and appeal. whonu

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      7 years ago from New York, New York

      I loved learning about what a local coffee shop in Singapore looks and feels like. Also loved learning a bit of the history behind this, too. Thanks for sharing Michelle and have voted up and shared, as well!!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      The more I read about Singapore through your articles, the more I'd like to go there! I love the idea of Coffee Shops, and I wish our area had them. We used to have what they called "Diners", but they are all gone now. They were great places to meet friends, too.

      I will be in the minority on your poll, I'm sure. I don't drink coffee, but prefer tea.

      Voted UP and shared all around.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      7 years ago from Arizona

      We can go to Singapore and comfortably have coffee and tea. My son lived there for several years. I did enjoy reading this.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      On coffee shops in Singapore and a little sonnet


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