A vibrant new cafe has opened its doors in a national monument on Singapore’s Telok Ayer Street. With its menu of heritage dishes with a modern approach, beautiful decor of Peranakan tiles and tempting spread of Nyonya kueh, it’s love at first sight with Chong Wen Ge Cafe.
If you love Singapore’s vibrant culture, and exploring Chinatown as much as we do, read on, because you’re in for a treat. Walk down colourful Telok Ayer Street and it’s easy to lose a afternoon gazing at all the shop houses, enjoying a quiet moment at Telok Ayer green and wandering through the sublime Thian Hock Kheng temple, with its swaying lanterns, intricate carvings and gentle scent of incense. Right next door, you’ll find a beautiful blue building heritage, marked 1913. Step into the courtyard where you can glimpse an ornate pagoda, and you’ll find it’s home to the Singapore Musical Box Museum. As of two weeks ago, it’s now also now home to Chong Wen Ge Cafe and the Antique Tiles Museum.
This vibrant little cafe feels as if it’s always been in this beautiful pocket of Telok Ayer Street, but it’s the first occupant in 10 years of what was once Singapore’s earliest school: Chong Wen Ge. Grace Soh, whose father is one of the cafe’s founders, tells us that the cafe, named after the school to pay tribute to its former life, is all about blending Peranakan culture with a chilled-out cafe vibe and great service. And it’s true: you’ll meet nothing but smiles and great hospitality here. Just two weeks after opening, Chong Wen Ge is already enjoying a happy buzz during lunchtime.
Here, chef Sharlene Peh serves up moreish heritage dishes with her own twists: the Asian prawn salad with plump, fresh prawns and fresh greens comes to life with her own spicy vinaigrette. We loved her take on Nyonya Mee Siam: slippery vermicelli noodles with prawns and a terrific tamarind sauce. Sherlene’s personal fave? The tender Nyonya chicken curry with punchy homemade achar on the side. (You can also enjoy achar toast for breakfast.)
Be warned: what you think will be a quick lunch here will turn into a leisurely, lovely afternoon. First of all, you’ll want to browse the adjoining Antique Tiles Gallery, with its spectacular collection of antique and reproduction Peranakan tiles. (And yes, you can bring them home). You’ll linger over your lunch so you can gaze out at that pagoda in the courtyard and listen to the gentle piano music instead of going back to your afternoon to-do list.
And you will be lured by the colourful spread of kueh – freshly made every day – and decide to indulge in the Nyonya kueh tea set (five assorted kuehs and two cups of local coffee or tea for $10. It’s hard to choose, but don’t miss the brilliant red ang ku kueh (and purple and yellow versions with different fillings) and pyramid-shaped pulut inti. Our hot tip? Upgrade to the signature iced teh: it’s just sweet enough with a gula-melaka-esque thanks to its secret ingredient, which Sherlene exclusively sources from overseas.
We can see ourselves settling in for an afternoon tea of kueh and kopi for many afternoons ahead. And mums, we did ask: a high chair will be available. Lovely, lovely service, a beautiful setting and great local food? This is one of our city’s little gems.
Mains are from $6.50. Chong Wen Ge Cafe, 168 Telok Ayer St, Singapore 068619
Photography: Nathania Tirtaputra