In Potong Pasir is a cafe called Kizuna.
Great, just another addition to the cafe scene in Singapore, right?
This cafe isn’t just a place for people to get their coffee and pastry fix; it serves it with a side order of kampung spirit too.
Here, regulars have no qualms scooting behind the counter to help with the washing. Need eggs or a knob of butter? No problem, just pop by.
One Potong Pasir customer – Elson – even has a set of keys to the cafe!
“He helps us take care of our cat when we go on holidays,” laughs Shen Tan, 39.
“He was here so often that he became a friend. Since he has a spare key, if there is an emergency, we know that there is someone nearby who can help us,” she adds.
Shen is one half of the duo who run the cafe. She and her husband, Sam Wong, 38, have been running Kizuna since April 2020, the start of the pandemic.
They might have only been running Kizuna for two and a half years, but the shop space itself has been in Shen’s family for more than three decades.
She’s the third generation of Tans who have run businesses in this quiet, pleasant corner of Potong Pasir.
Before Kizuna, the space was occupied by Shangri-la Confectionary and Delicatessen, a neighbourhood bakery that Shen’s grandfather started for her aunt in 1985.
Together, they ran the bakery up till 2019, until her aunt decided to retire after 34 years.
She asked if Shen wanted to take over the space, and she agreed.
“They were a source of comfort in the neighborhood, so we didn’t want to lose that,” Shen adds.
Shen and Sam did a major revamp — setting up a modern cafe instead of a traditional bakery. They wanted a common space in the neighborhood where people of all ages could come together to enjoy coffee.
Kizuna – named for the Japanese phrase for “close relationships forged through mutual trust and support” (It was Japan’s kanji for 2011, explains Shen, who studied and work there for 10 years) – has built up a good following with the Potong Pasir residents.
“We wanted this to be a place where people can feel comfortable coming alone to connect with others,” Shen tells The Pride.
Modern day kampung spirit
These days, Sam and Shen have customers from as young as two months to 70 years old. Pets are welcome too (they get a special seating area outside) and furry friends are a common sight especially on the weekends.
The secret to their popularity? Simple: Treat customers as friends instead of just paying patrons and go the extra mile to learn about them.
“We even know which block and unit number they live at, so we know where to find them when they don’t pay,” Sam jokes.
Hoping to create a common area where residents in Potong Pasir could come together, Sam and Shen encourage their regulars to bond with each other. They even have a WhatsApp group chat to organise outings.
This year, after live performances were allowed, in June, Sam and Shen hosted their first live music night.
“After the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, we wanted to have something lively here to celebrate so we held a few live music nights,” says Sam.
To make it appeal to people from all walks of life, they played an eclectic mix of music – all genres, time periods and even languages were welcome!
“We have everything from Wonderwall by (British band) Oasis; to 海闊天空 (Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies) by (Canto rock group) BEYOND. So, everybody has something to listen to,” Sam adds.
In a video by Our Grandfather Story, shot in partnership with Singapore Kindness Movement, Meg, a Kizuna regular who lives in the same block as the cafe says: “This place (has) the human touch. Sometimes when I need eggs, I can just come down and get them. It feels like a kampung in that sense.”
“It really is a very neighbourly neighborhood,” Shen adds with a laugh.
Sam and Shen explain how when the cafe gets busy, their regulars would step in to help clear and wash dishes without even being asked.
Spreading kindness through coffee
Starting Kizuna during the peak of Covid-19 also allowed Sam and Shen to understand the uncertainty and challenges that people were facing.
In Sep 2020, Sam and Shen started a programme at Kizuna called “Buy a Stranger a Meal”.
“We believe that of the most important things that can help people get back on their feet is food,” Sam explains.
Through the programme, the customers could buy a $4 meal vouchers, which Sam and Shen would distribute to needy residents, who could use them at nearby coffeeshops.
“When I was growing up, I was very poor, I begged for food at convenience stores and food stalls because I was starving,” says Sam.
The idea of “Buy a Stranger a Meal” came about during the start of circuit breaker when Sam met someone outside his cafe. They were chatting halfway when the man abruptly said: “Sorry, I have to leave now.”
Sam later learned that the man was rushing to go to Chinatown to collect a free meal because he could not afford food.
So, Sam decided to start a programme for Potong Pasir residents to get free meals without having to travel so far.
He explains: “If people have to travel just to get their free meals, then it really isn’t free anymore, is it?”
Knowing that people may feel uncomfortable asking for help, Sam and Shen implemented a “no questions asked” policy for those who needed meal vouchers.
“We have had people in suits asking us if they could have a meal because they had recently lost their job,” Sam says.
However, the “no questions asked” policy led to an unforeseen issue.
Sam and Shen found out that some beneficiaries used the free coupons on food so that they could drink beer later.
So they found another way to help the beneficiaries, connecting them with Viriya Family Service Centre to receive assistance.
“By referring the beneficiaries to the Family Service Center, they can receive assistance on a longer term,” says Shen.
In October, with three other F&B stall owners — Jason Chua from Beng Who Cooks, Jonathan Tan from The Meatmen, and Tommy Wong from NBCB — to raise funds for Calvary Community Care (C3), a non-profit social service agency that serves the needy in the community regardless of race, age, or religion.
The dinner event raised $850 for C3 to run outreach programmes to engage youths-at-risk.
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In an Instagram post, Sam says: “This is our way to give back by helping the next generation of Singapore youth discover their calling and find their own path.”
Continuing the kampung spirit
Though they revamped the store to have a more modern look, Sam and Shen did not want to lose the sense of kampung spirit that was present before it was passed down to her.
When Shen’s grandfather and aunt were running the store, various residents in the area would provide help in various ways without seeking anything in return.
She recalls that there would be a resident who would cycle to her grandfather’s store to help him close the shop almost every night.
“So, through Kizuna, I hope to bring that same spirit back,” Shen adds.
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Something Sam learned throughout the years operating Kizuna was that while people are good-hearted, they tend to be shy to provide a helping hand for others.
Sam exclaims: “One thing about Singaporeans is that they don’t want to show their face, they are paiseh (Singlish for embarrassed), but they want to help. Don’t paiseh, just do it!”