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.

Colbar

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.

Colbar

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.

THE LOWDOWN

Colbar

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.

VISITING

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.

ColbarLOCATION

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

HOW MUCH TIME

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.

TIDBITS

  • 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.

TAKE NOTE

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

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Colbar

Colbar Menu – courtesy of Cavin Teo

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one-north: Talent Central

one-north

Fusionopolis – Solaris (Photo by Albert Lim)

Question: Where would you find the largest concentration of Singapore’s best and brightest?

Answer: Quite possibly at one-north, Singapore’s Research and Development (R&D) mini-city along North Buona Vista Road. Throw a stone and you will more than likely hit one of the thousands of research scientists working in the labs there.

A few years ago when I was working at a company located close to one-north, my colleagues and I would occasionally drive over to have lunch at one of its dining spots. I have to admit that coming from the decidedly low-tech transportation industry, we did feel a wee bit intimidated sharing the same lunch spaces with the Mensa types that populate one-north.

THE LOWDOWN

one-north (lower case please) is a state-of-the-art R&D hub cum business park cum education and training centre cum living space. Named for Singapore’s position 1 degree north of the equator, the self-contained mini-city is something of a combination of Silicon Valley and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. Unlike the Valley’s organic nature however, one-north has been meticulously master-planned, as is typical of most things in Singapore.

one-north

Fusionopolis – Connexis and Symbiosis

First conceptualized in 1991, the dedicated facility is the lynchpin in the government’s grand and very gung-ho plan to catapult Singapore to the forefront of science and technology, particularly in the burgeoning field of biomedical science. The hub was designed by high-profile architectural consultant Zaha Hadid, and is being developed over a 20 year time span at an estimated cost of S$15 billion. The facilities are located over a 200 hectare (2 km square) site designed to accommodate over 130,000 staffers, working in either public or private organisations focused on research.

During the work week the mini-city hums from thousands of researchers beavering away on all manner of cutting-edge projects. From cancer research to nano-technology computing to visual effects artistry on Hollywood blockbusters, the amount of talent and brain-power concentrated in the area is surely impressive.

one-north

Fusionopolis – Sandcrawler

one-north was officially launched in 2001, and the first buildings were completed in 2003. More than 10 years later the all-in-one R&D hub has already made waves in the scientific world, lauded as a success story and laying claim to a number of world-class breakthroughs.

The one-north mini-city is divided into 7 precincts, however its 3 core sections are:

  • Biopolis – biomedical and medicine related research hub
  • Fusionopolis – research hub for technology and engineering (officially termed Info-communications Technology or ICT) and media, and
  • Mediapolis – for all things digital media-related.

Other supporting precincts are Nepal Hill for training and development; Pixel, an education facility, and JTC Launchpad @ one-north, an incubator for start-ups. To ensure work life balance one-north also boasts a host of dining, recreational and entertainment facilities within the core complexes, and in the larger area there are also 2 malls, and housing options such as serviced apartments, condominiums and a hotel. With just about everything available in one-north, I wouldn’t be surprised if the research talent we’ve attracted to our shores never have to leave their labs and one-north at all.

one-north

Fusionopolis – Sandcrawler

VISITING

The buildings in one-north all sport thematic names, which while clever is more than a little confusing, especially for hapless taxi drivers. To help you navigate the area and see how the mini-city has taken shape over the last decade, listed here are the core R&D buildings in one-north:

  1. Biopolis: This is where cutting edge (and sometimes controversial) stem-cell research takes place, along with other ground-breaking biomedical research in infectious diseases, cancer and other ills. Biopolis currently has 13 buildings:
    • Phase 1 (2003): Nanos, Genome, Helios, Chromos, Proteos, Matrix and Centros
    • Phase 2 (2006): Neuros and Immunos
    • Phase 3 (2011): Synapse and Amnios
    • Phase 4 (2014): Proctor and Gamble’s Innovation Centre (P&G SgIC)
    • Phase 5 (2014): Nucleos
  2. Fusionopolis: The buildings in the ICT research hub are:
    • Phase 1 (2008): Connexis (South and North) and Symbiosis
    • Phase 2B (2010): Solaris
    • Phase 3 (2013): Nexus
    • Phase 4 (2014): Walt Disney Lucas Film’s Sandcrawler Building
    • Phase 5 (2014): Galaxis
    • Phase 2A (2014 & 2015): Innovis, Kinesis and Synthesis
  3. Mediapolis: For digital media production and development:
    • (2014): Infinite Studios
    • (2015): MediaCorp

For those of us not working or living in the mini-city, the main reason to visit one-north’s core areas would be for its dining options. The area is home to a number of quality cafes (caffeine = brain fuel) and more than a few decent restaurants. Some interesting ones are:

one-north

The Lawn Cafe

  • The Lawn Café (Biopolis Nanos #01-07) attracts the health-conscious crowd with its grilled meat salad bowls
  • Raj Restaurant (Biopolis Centros #01-03) is well-established in Little India, and its outlet here is frequented by the many Indian and British expats working in one-north
  • Long Black Café (Biopolis Centros #01-02) serves connoisseur-grade coffee and café fare, a crowd favourite
  • Infuzi (Biopolis Chromos #01-01) is a more upmarket restaurant offering “fine European” cuisine, good if you want to get away from the crowds
  • Parkway@one-north (Biopolis Chromos #01-02) is probably not affiliated to the famed Parkway Thai restaurant of old, in spite of the similar sounding name. No matter as its modern Thai fare seems to be popular with the lunch time crowd

    https://www.facebook.com/weBreadsg

    Long Black Cafe

  • Bodacious Bar and Bistro (Biopolis P&G SgIC building) is a relative newcomer to the village. Started by the folks of Long Black Café to offer proper meal offerings, it was still pretty quiet when we visited although it seemed like a nice place to kick back in after work
  • WeBread (Biopolis P&G SgIC building #01-02) is an interesting looking quiet little place, serving simple homemade fare
  • Penang Place (Fusionopolis Connexis #B1-20/24) is a large restaurant that gets really crowded. Almost everyone is there for the eat-all-you-want buffet spread of Penang favourites
  • Rong Hua Bak Kut Teh (Fusionopolis Connexis #02-13) for that firm local favourite – pork rib soup

    one-north

    Bodacious Bar and Bistro

  • Across North Buona Vista Road you also have the charming Rochester Park featuring restaurants set in lovely conserved colonial houses. The restaurants suffer from the secluded location however, and only the Goodwood Park Hotel’s Min Jiang Chinese restaurant and the North Border American Bar and Grill have survived from the original raft of restaurants that opened in 2006.
  • Rochester Park is also home to Singapore’s “best looking Starbucks”, in a 2-storey Black-and-White colonial house next to Rochester Mall. The cafe is popular with students from the nearby learning institutions though so you’ll have to fight them for a much-hogged table.one-north
one-north

Never knew Yoda had claws on his feet

Other attractions: You can visit the Sky Garden on the 21st floor of the Symbiosis building in Fusionopolis. Although there are security gate posts at the entrances of all the offices and lab buildings, you can exchange your identity card for a visitor pass and proceed up to enjoy a vantage view of the southern coast.

Over at Lucasfilms’s gleaming Sandcrawler Building (inspired by the giant fortresses-on-wheels in the Star Wars movies) you can also explore the lovely atrium garden. Find you must try the statue of Yoda, Star Wars’ Grand Master of the Jedi Order.

LOCATION

Off North Buona Vista Road, between Commonwealth Avenue and Ayer Rajah Ave.

HOW MUCH TIME

You can drive through the area in under 15 minutes if you just want a look-see at the architecturally acclaimed main research buildings. Far better though to stop and have coffee or drinks or a meal within the one-north complexes in the company of uber talents.

TIDBITS

  • The Fusionopolis building names were picked from a contest held in 2008 which attracted close to 1600 entries. Winning entries were submitted by engineers, students, a film producer, and even a housewife.one-north
  • Indian movie goers may find that some of the buildings in one-north look familiar, as Hindi movie De Dana Dan, which was filmed in Singapore, featured shoots at Fusionopolis.
  • Zaha Hadid also designed the head-turning 1,715 unit d’Leedon condominium along Farrer Road.
  • In 2002 Singapore’s National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) was renamed to the more hip-sounding Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), to highlight the country’s new research emphasis. A*STAR’s many agencies are all housed within Fusionopolis.

    one-north

    Prof. Jackie Ying

  • An example of the calibre of global talent Singapore has attracted to the biomed industry and working in one-north is Prof. Jackie Ying, Executive Director of the A*STAR’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. Prof. Ying is a 48 year old Taiwanese native and a Princeton University Ph.D. scholar, who interestingly converted to Islam in Singapore.
  • one-north is not without its detractors. While the generous research grants have attracted big name scientists (“whales”), some such as pre-eminent cancer research couple Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins have left citing the country’s infamous red tape, as well as disillusionment with the centre’s approach and the pressure to demonstrate commercial results.
  • One of A*STAR’s talents recently made the news for the wrong reasons: Bright young scholar scientist Dr Eng Kai Er, who is employed at A*STAR in virus research, spoke out about having to serve a 6 year bond, never mind that she enjoyed over S$1 million in scholarship monies. She also railed against her work, describing her scientific research as “narcissistic, masturbatory work”. Ouch.
  • In case you’re marvelling at how all the buildings sport so much lovely greenery and think that Singapore is so environmentally conscious, the truth is that government buildings have to incorporate greenery and ecological features according to government guidelines (in keeping with the country’s tagline of “A City in a Garden”), while private developers enjoy hefty incentives to incorporate green features in their buildings.
  • A friend of mind took a cab to Metropolis, an office building on the periphery of one-north. The cabbie could not make out what she meant by “Metropolis”, but understood where she wanted to go to when she pronounced it the local way: Metro-po-lis.

one-north

TAKE NOTE

  • Several buildings are still being worked on so parts of one-north are zoned construction areas.
  • If you plan to dine at any of the restaurants/cafes in the core areas do check their opening hours as not all are open throughout the weekend.

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