Colbar: A Kampong Eatery

Colbar, officially Café Colbar, is neither a hipster café nor a trendy bar. Indeed the only coffee offering on its no nonsense menu is the decidedly unglamourous “Nescafe”, costing just $2. And the Colbar doesn’t serve any alcohol beyond just beers and cider either.


Artwork by Eve Tan

A non air-conditioned eatery reminiscent of the kampong restaurants of old (“kampong” means “village” in the local vernacular) and ensconced in the bohemian Wessex Estate, Colbar is a quaint and nostalgic hideaway, serving food that is a holdover from our time under British rule.


The Original Colbar at Jalan Hang Jebat

Once described as something of a “glorified tin shed locked in a time warp” by TimeOut, what this place really is though, is an institution.



Colbar Eating House, as it was originally called was opened by a Mr and Mrs Lim in 1953, making it 62 years old this year. Located in the Portsdown area which was a British army barracks site in the 1900s, the eating house once served as a canteen for the huge military complex. Colbar stands for “colonial bar” in fact.

What’s interesting is that Colbar was originally located on the small wonderfully named road called Jalan Hang Jebat. In 2003 due to the construction of a flyover to link the AYE (Ayer Rajah Expressway) to Queensway, Colbar and a couple of neighbouring shops were earmarked for destruction. A petition to save Colbar surprisingly succeeded and the eating house won a reprieve. The authorities however relocated Colbar to its current Whitchurch Road site about 300m away, and the owners and fans painstakingly recreated the original establishment piece by piece.

ColbarThe nosh Colbar has been dishing out all these years has apparently not changed much either – a mishmash of simple local favourites alongside a curious offering of localised Western food; specifically Hainanese-styled British fare. The early Chinese cooks for the British were mostly immigrants from Hainan in China, and were taught by the British to cook British staples. Over time their dishes evolved into what might be considered an early form of Singaporean fusion cuisine.


When I was working in the Alexandra Road area Colbar provided a nice escape from the humdrum of office life during lunch. Housed in a standalone building surrounded by lovely tall trees, the Colbar is a retreat from modern Singapore. On balmy afternoons and weekends the cafe is popular with expat wives, with or without their families, enjoying the tranquil surrounds. And after office hours the Colbar’s small selection of bottled beers and ciders is particularly good for a wind down with colleagues.

ColbarI still visit Colbar occasionally, usually when I want friends and visitors to experience a different side of Singapore. Truth be told the food at Colbar is mediocre at best though, and service while efficient is delivered perfunctorily.

A favourite on Colbar’s menu of local and “Western” dishes is its Chinese style chicken curry rice, and pseudo-British menu gems include “Ox liver chips and peas”, “Ox Liver Sandwich”, “Chicken Merry Land”, “Boiler Prawn and Chips”, “Spaghetti on toast” and other odd-sounding delights. I usually stick to the local safe bets however such as fried hor fun (flat broad rice noodles), or fried bee hoon (thin rice stick noodles).

What the Colbar lacks in food and service it more than makes up for in ambiance though. Sitting amid the lush foliage with cicadas chirping in the background, Colbar is a wonderful rustic escape and a great stopover if you are in the Alexandra Road area, especially if you’re exploring the lovely Black and White bungalows in the neighbourhood.


9A Whitchurch Road
Wessex Estate
Open: Tues to Sun, 11am – 10pm (closed on Mondays)


A quick meal can be had in under 45 minutes, but far better to enjoy a leisurely meal in the relaxing setting, with friends and family or just a good book.


  • Many of the immigrants who came over from the Chinese island of Hainan in the late 1800s-1900s ended up as cooks, either in the British military camps in Singapore and Malaysia or in the homes of wealthy colonials. The earlier Chinese immigrants who came from Fujian, Canton and other regions had snared the good jobs, leaving the late-comer Hainanese with little choice but to serve as cooks.Colbar, Masjid Hang Jebat
  • The original Jalan Hang Jebat still exists today, just off Portsdown Avenue. A road which time seems to have forgotten, there is a small cluster of old colonial terrace houses lining the leafy road. Built to house the British officers in the early 1900s, the houses are now owned and rented out by the Singapore government (Singapore Land Authority).
  • At the end of Jalan Hang Jebat is a small mosque, the Masjid Hang Jebat. Built in 1952, the zinc-roofed mosque also appears seemingly untouched by time.
  • Hang Jebat was a revered warrior and one of 5 legendary heros in Malay history and culture from the 1500s. Hailing from the Malaysian town of Malacca (or Melaka), he and another well-known hero Hang Tuah were famous besties.


  • There is free parking along the road and in the Wessex Estate parking lot.



Colbar Menu – courtesy of Cavin Teo


Golden Mile Complex: Step into Little Thailand

With Thailand’s political unrest culminating in its coming under martial law in May of this year, Singaporeans have been putting off visits to one of their favourite destinations. For anyone having Thai withdrawal symptoms however there is always Golden Mile Complex, a.k.a. Little Thailand, for a quick fix of all things Thai.

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Photo by the Straits Times


Amid an endless stream of gleaming new shopping malls in Singapore lie a few older, derelict almost shopping centres, untouched by time and development.

One such centre is the Golden Mile Complex, which over time has evolved into an ethnic enclave for the Thai community in Singapore.

Golden Mile Complex - Little ThailandOpened in 1973, the mall boasts none of the trappings of its young, glitzy Orchard Road brethren. Dark, dingy even and dotted with small shops and eateries, many with signage only in Thai, the centre looks like a provincial Thai shopping mall. And it certainly sounds and smells like one too, with the strains of Thai pop music and the scent of Thai cooking and spices wafting throughout the centre.

Golden Mile Complex - Little ThailandThe Golden Mile Complex did have its glory days when it first opened however. Back in the late 1960s the strip of land between Nicoll Highway (completed in 1956) and Beach Road was conceived as Singapore’s “Golden Mile”, a wonderfully romantic name for a shopping and residential high-rise belt fronting the Kallang Basin. The 16-storey Golden Mile Complex (first named Woh Hup Complex, then the Golden Mile Shopping Centre) opened soon after, a grandly touted integrated commercial and residential complex with full bay views, and boasting of an innovative stepped architecture that was a first of its kind in Singapore.

As to how Golden Mile Complex became a Thai hub: The stretch of Beach Road in front of the complex has long served as a terminal for coaches operating the Singapore-Haadyai (Southern Thailand) route. As business grew the travel company opened a Thai eatery in the complex. They gradually expanded their travel and dining services, and also opened a provision shop, all catering to their Thai clientèle. Soon other Thai businesses opened there too tapping into the opportunity.

Golden Mile Complex - Little ThailandFast-forward to recent times however and the increasing crowds the centre draws has unfortunately created a problem for the complex. With the Thai community in Singapore largely made up of blue-collar manual workers, the complex gained a reputation as a sleazy haunt particularly on weekends, with rowdy intoxicated men and working girls frequenting the complex. In 2006 a member of Singapore’s parliament went so far as to describe the complex as a “vertical slum”, a “terrible eyesore” and a “national disgrace”. Residents and owners have since made several attempts to cash out and sell their building “en bloc” to a developer to tear it down, however all unsuccessful.

In spite of its rawness Little Thailand does have its charms though, especially if all you want is authentic Thai food in an unpretentious setting. Just look past the grittiness and tuck in.


My friends and I go to the Golden Mile Complex every so often when a craving for “cheap and good” Thai food strikes. There are numerous small eateries offering all manner of Thai cuisine that are popular with the Thai nationals, however the non-Thais usually go to Diandin Leluk, prominently located around the open centre of the mall and the most fancy of all the restaurants at the complex. The eating place my friends and I go to however is the other sizeable restaurant in the complex, the BeerThai House Restaurant tucked away in the back. The food here is no-frills, but definitely authentic. There is an English menu and some of the servers do speak a smattering of English. The restaurant’s extensive menu is interesting and offers uncommon regional Thai fare, in addition to all the usual favourites.

In recent years with the popularity of “Mookata” combination Thai barbecue and steamboat dining in Singapore, the eateries offering Mookata at wallet-friendly prices in the centre of the complex have also been drawing the crowds.

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Sai Ooah Northern  Thai Spicy Fermented Sausage

After a satisfying meal you can amble up the stairs to the large well-stocked supermarket on the second floor. Even if you don’t cook and have no use for the abundant fresh and packaged native Thai produce (they actually also stock Vietnamese and Filipino produce), chances are you will find some tantalizing Thai munchies to take home. There are also fresh fried banana fritters, grilled sausages and the “kanom berng” mini crepes on sale, all popular Thai street snacks.

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

There are different brands and types of Sriracha hot sauce apparently

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Ready-packed green preparations

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

I have no idea what this is – some kind of tripe??

If you are male and enjoy the charms of Thai ladies then you might be tempted to linger at any of the cafe/pubs after dinner over a few bottles of Singha, the ubiquitous Thai beer. If you are a party animal to boot then check out the action late night/early morning at the Butterfly Thai disco. Thai discos have become “hot” in Singapore in recent years, and the Butterfly Thai Disco at the complex (previously named Pure Thai Disco, and before that Thai Disco 2) is one of the biggest and oldest. Open till 4am and sometimes later, you can listen to a live Thai band belt out cover songs, as well as sponsor garlands of plastic flowers or more expensive sashes to shower your appreciation on your favourite singers. This is clearly for generous (and gullible) free-spenders only.

Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Kanom Berng mini crepes


5001 Beach Road (Near Crawford Street)
Open:  Late morning till late night


About an hour and a half for a meal and a quick stroll through the ethnic supermarket.


  • Golden Mile Complex was designed by local architectural firm Design Partnership, which has since grown to become Singapore’s preeminent architectural firm DP Architects.
  • Conservationists have started to clamour that the building, viewed by most as an ugly monstrosity, is actually an architectural wonder with too much historical merit to be torn down.
  • Songkran, the Thai/South East Asian new year “water festival” is also celebrated in Little Thailand each April. Revellers douse each other with water in a symbolic cleansing ritual that is fun if a little messy. The celebrations this year were muted however as Singapore experienced one of its worst droughts earlier this year.
  • The Golden Mile Food Centre across the road has a few notable local food stalls. Upstairs, the Army Market is also fun to trawl through.


  • The complex is super crowded on Sundays when scores of Thai foreign workers get their day off and throng the shopping centre. Visit during the day or early evening, before the atmosphere turns rowdy.
  • Don’t get confused with the neighbouring Golden Mile Tower, a far more prosaic looking office and retail building. Although there are some Thai cafes in that building too including Beer Thai Restaurant’s more upmarket outlet, the tower is better known for its Golden Digital Theatre which screens Indian movies.
Golden Mile Complex - Little Thailand

Water Mimosa – great stir-fried



Haw Par Villa: Haunting Memories

There’s nothing quite like this anywhere else in the world – a wildly bizarre, macabre even theme park devoted to ancient Chinese legends and fables. The park has been described by some as “grotesque”, “gruesome”, and “garish”, a fantasy world borne of a trippy imagination perhaps.


Many a middle-aged Singaporean would remember a trip as a kid to the then Tiger Balm Gardens during its heydays in the ’70s and ’80s. Few however ever returned to the park, so disturbing were their memories of their childhood visit.

I re-visited the theme park recently, some 30 odd years after my one and only visit to it in the 1970s.


The original theme park was built as part of a large residence by the wealthy Myanmar-Chinese Aw family in 1937, on a prime hilltop plot of land overlooking the Pasir Panjang harbour. Haw Par Villa, named after the brothers Boon Haw and Boon Par, was a huge circular motif mansion featuring 7 domes with gold-plated ceilings, and was quite the architectural delight of the time. Larger-than-life elder brother Boon Haw was a fan of Chinese culture and history, and decided to build a garden featuring life-sized statues of famous Chinese figures in the grounds of the mansion. He envisioned the park as a way to impart Chinese morality and values. He opened the gardens to the public in 1937, calling it Tiger Balm Gardens after the famous camphor-menthol rub his family made their fortunes on.

Haw Pa Villa Mansion

Haw Pa Villa Mansion 1940

Although the mansion was a gift by Boon Haw to his beloved younger brother Boon Par, neither of the brothers stayed in Haw Par Villa for long. When the Japanese wrested Singapore from the British during WWII they also forcefully took over the mansion, using it as a strategic lookout to watch over the southern coast. The brothers fled Singapore, and after the war much of the mansion and its gardens were destroyed. Boon Haw did return in the later years, and painstakingly rebuilt the gardens together with Boon Par’s son.

In 1985 the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) bought over the gardens, expanding the park to 5 times its size, adding Disney style rides and making it a ticketed attraction. Over the years however the popularity of the park waned, seeing fewer and fewer visitors as the park fell into disrepair.

In March of this year the park saw a comeback of sorts, part of a larger campaign by the STB to revive interest in local attractions some of which lay forgotten. The park’s 1,000 statues were repaired and re-painted, and free talks and tours were organised in an event called Reliving Haw Par Villa.



You climb up the slope and enter the iconic grand entranceway. Once inside, you’ll come across a little museum with some history about the Aw brothers, and the mansion that used to stand on the site. There is also a replica of the bizarre tiger-headed car the flamboyant Boon Haw used to drive through small towns in Malaya promoting his brand.

Further ahead however is the star attraction of the park, the infamous Ten Courts of Hell. After entering a cave-like structure, you walk through a sort of “House of Horrors” on a meandering path lined with tableaux depicting the punishments in hell for various sins committed in one’s life time. These range from having your “head and arms chopped off” for murders, robbery and rape, being “thrown into a tree of knives” for cursing, having your “body sawn into two” for wasting food, and your “intestines and organs pulled out” should you demonstrate a lack of filial obedience. All of this is depicted in 3D gruesomeness in the darkish cave. Shudders. If you want to scare your kids into good behaviour as parents of yesteryears did, this might be an effective method, although adults will probably find the tableaux amusing and somewhat comical even. The depictions do provide an insight into traditional Chinese ethics and moral values however – making for a morality theme park if there is such a thing.




Apart from the Ten Courts of Hell cave the rest of the park is open-air. Statues and more dioramas pepper the sprawling grounds. Unless you are well-versed in Chinese mythology, you will probably find the figurines bizarre and baffling – human-headed animals, or just humanized animals in general. And more gory scenes galore.



Other tableaux depict scenes and characters from renowned fables Journey to the West, Madam White Snake, and the 8 Immortals.





262 Pasir Panjang Road
Open daily: 9am – 7pm (admission is free)

The Circle Line MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) goes right by it and you can even alight at the (no surprise) Haw Par Villa station.


About an hour and a half to 2 to tour the whole place. If you’re really interested in Chinese mythology however and want to read all the explanatory signs, you’ll need a little more time.


  • The park is set on a slope, not wheelchair friendly at all.
  • The carpark charges $5 per entry.
  • The Hua Song Museum, off the side near the carpark, is now closed.



  • Boon Haw’s name means “gentle tiger”, and Boon Par’s means “gentle leopard”. The brothers were originally from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).
  • The original Haw Par Villa mansion was designed by architect Ho Kwong Yew, one of the leading architects of Singapore’s Modern Movement in the 1930s.
  • There was also a Tiger Balm Gardens Aw Boon Haw had set up in Hong Kong. Equally garish, this was demolished in 2004 however. Another Tiger Balm Gardens exists in Fujian province, China.
  • Aw Boon Par’s daughter, Datin Aw Cheng Hu (Datin is a Malaysian honorific title) died quietly in an HDB flat (government housing) in 2010. She was also the widow of the founder of Chung Khiaw Bank, which is part of today’s United Overseas Bank (UOB).
  • Lee May Chu, great grand-daughter of Aw Boon Par, wrote a controversial expose about the family’s fall from riches, Escape from Paradise.
Haw Par Villa

A Mannish Woman in a Bikini Reading her iPad?