History of the Singapore Kopitiam Culture

Do you know, in the month of May (2022), NTUC members can enjoy hot kopi or teh for just 50 cents at all 80 Kopitiam and NTUC Foodfare food courts and coffee shops across the island, at any time, every day!

This is perfect because many of us start our day with a cup of coffee. The caffeine just adds the extra pep in our step, especially now that we’re all back working from the office.

No one knows precisely how or when coffee was discovered. Still, everyone knows that if you want an authentic cup of coffee, the place to go would be the kopitiam.

The word kopitiam echoes the multilingual culture of Singapore — “kopi” is the Malay word for coffee, while “tiam” is the Hokkien word for shop.

Kopitiam is the center of life for many Singaporeans.

It is often a picture of the idyllic state, a place where time slows down, and all that you need to think about is whether the next cup of coffee should be taken now or later?

We will often see elderly men and women, what Singaporeans know as Kopitiams’ ‘uncles and aunties.’

Many will sit for hours drinking, reading the papers, and chatting, while some will idle their day away playing a game of chess. The spirit of comradery is easily felt.

Where it all began…

Historically, the kopitiam has always been an important center for exchanging information. For example, in the 15th century, public coffee houses were called ‘Schools of the Wise’ in the Middle East.

So how did the Kopitiam culture start in Singapore?

The earliest kopitiams had their humble origins as small-scale businesses led by the Hainanese community who struggled to find their niche.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese had become the majority population in Singapore; however, among the various clans and dialect groups, the Hainanese formed the minority. They were latecomers to Singapore, coming only after 1870.

By that time, the Hokkien Cantonese, Hakka, and Teochew had already found and formed niched trades backed by their clans.

So, the only jobs available to the Hainanese were the unpopular ones, such as cooks or domestic servants to wealthy Peranakan and European families or the military bases.

At the end of WW2, the changing economic and political conditions forced the Hainanese to take on new jobs. So, they tapped on what they knew best- foods and services, which led to the setting up of many kopitiams in Singapore.

While kopi was not new to Singapore at that time, the Hainanese gave their own spin on how it was made. First, the coffee beans were roasted with margarine or sugar over a wood fire. Then, to extract the maximum flavor, they would place ground coffee beans into a long muslin sock and pour hot water through it several times.

The Hainanese would usually pair kopi with kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs. This combination was derived from their culinary backgrounds working in European households.

Over the years…

The kopi has gone through an evolution of flavors to accommodate different preferences. Now ordering coffee in a kopitiam is not for the faint-hearted.

Here’s a simple guide:

  •  Kopi – Coffee with condensed milk
  •  Kopi O – Coffee with sugar
  •  Kopi C – Coffee with sugar & evaporated milk
  •  Kopi Gu Yu – Coffee with butter
  •  Kopi O Kosong – Coffee with no sugar
  •  Kopi C Kosong – Coffee with evaporated milk and no sugar
  •  Kopi Peng – Iced coffee
  •  Kopi Siew Dai – Coffee with less sugar
  •  Kopi Ga Dai – Coffee with more sugar
  •  Kopi Gao – Coffee Thick

Although many home-grown coffee chains, hipster cafes, and international chains like Starbucks appear in all corners of the island, buying a cup of piping hot kopi from the kopitiam may continue to be our go-to.

The smell of roasted coffee beans is comforting. The shot of caffeine is ‘gao,’ and most importantly, the price is value for money.

However, with Singapore’s core inflation rate at its highest in more than nine years, the cost of a cup of kopi can no longer be regarded as ‘small change.’ The cost adds up, especially if you’re the type who drinks at least 3 to 4 cups to remain functional at work.

Unless you’re an NTUC member because a cuppa is only 50cents throughout May!

Just take note that it’s 1 cup per day per transaction, okay, and it’s only available throughout May (1 to 31 May 2022).

If you’re an NTUC member or NTUC Link Member, make sure you download the NTUC FairPrice mobile app because there are more savings for you.

As part of a new initiative under NTUC FairPrice Group, NTUC Members and NTUC Link Members will enjoy 10% savings, in the form of cash discounts and Linkpoints, on transactions via the NTUC FairPrice app.

This programme was recently piloted at two Kopitiam food courts (Kopitiam Food Hall at Jurong Point and the Cantine by Kopitiam at Northshore) but will progressively roll out at all stalls in all 46 Kopitiam food courts and at all drink kiosks in 80 Kopitiam outlets by the end of 2022.

If you want to know the deets and other a-May-zing deals click here!