AsiaOne talks to Singaporeans who are overseas during the Covid-19 pandemic and sees how they fare. Do you know someone who has an interesting story to share? Let us know!
When the effects of Covid-19 hit the world last year, Mark Namiki, like many others in the hospitality industry, found himself out of a job.
The 36-year-old Japanese-Malaysian had been working as a manager of a hostel in Tokyo for three years. He was the sole breadwinner with his Singaporean wife, 37-year-old Melissa Yap, who was staying at home to care for their two-year-old daughter.
When Covid-19 hit and the hostel finally closed, “there was the dilemma of whether we should return to Singapore,” shares Mark. “But the opportunities (in Singapore) looked bleak, especially for hospitality, whereas here they looked slightly better.”
It was then that Mark came up with the idea – once a “distant dream” – to share Singapore’s food and culture with the local Japanese people. Although born to a Malaysian mother and a Japanese father, Mark grew up in Singapore from the age of one.
He met Melissa while they were both working as front desk clerks at one of the five star hotels in the Marina Bay area. The couple dated and got married in 2012.
The adventurous couple and avid travelers recount going on a working holiday to Australia and driving in Greece for a month, before packing for Japan in 2017.
Mark is happy that Melissa was “super supportive” when he brought up the subject of opening a Singaporean-style cafe in their Adachi neighborhood in metropolitan Tokyo. With that, the pair plunged headfirst into the business, although they didn’t both have much prior F&B experience.
“It was a leap of faith. We just hoped the locals would embrace the flavors of Singapore,” says Mark.
The risk was not just due to the pandemic.
“We knew it was hit or miss because in the entire Adachi area we are the only Singaporean or Malaysian dining establishment. But we were confident in our customer service and the quality of our food, ”says Mark.
There was also the heavy financial burden to consider.
The couple took out a large bank loan and invested more than $ 100,000 in the business. Things went faster than expected and their cafe, Little Merlion, opened within three months of signing the lease.
Encouraging response from locals and Singaporeans
The decision to open the cafe was spurred in part by Mark’s desire to continue the community network he and his colleagues had established at the inn.
“I used to give English lessons for adults and children at the hostel, and this is something I continue to offer in the current café,” he shares.
“There were also regulars at the hostel cafe and I wanted to create a place for them to meet.”
Mark enlisted eight of his former colleagues as staff during the initial phase of opening the cafe, and according to him, “this was the best team I have ever had in my 15 plus years of work. “.
Their help was invaluable, as Mark and Melissa neither read nor write Japanese.
Since the café opened last year, the response from locals and Singaporeans has been encouraging.
“Those who have tried our food like it and we have regulars who come every week,” says Mark. Of the many positive reviews left on Google, most praised the food for its authenticity and “legitimacy”.
During the Chinese New Year period earlier this year, the cafe also offered customers the traditional hold on experience, which was a heartwarming moment in Mark’s book.
It was also the case “to see Singaporeans befriending other Singaporeans at the cafe, as well as with locals”.
Little Merlion’s recipes came from Melissa’s family, with some trial and error to perfect the taste.
They were also encouraged by the enthusiastic comments when they served some of the dishes, especially the crowd-favorite laksa, to Mark’s colleagues at parties.
The coffee’s bestsellers, according to the couple, are their shrimp laksa and nasi lemak.
Other dishes on their menu include roti prata curry, sambal nasi goreng, fried carrot cake (black and white) as well as curry puffs.
You can even wash your prata meal with an embellished Milo dinosaur. But being the land of Gojira, we think having Milo Godzilla (who comes with a scoop of ice cream) on the menu would be pretty fitting.
Which is better: Singaporean or Malaysian cuisine?
Mark being half Malaysian and a PR from Singapore, we had to put him in the spotlight and ask him: is Singapore or Malaysian food better?
Mark admits that this is a question he gets toast “all the time”.
“To be fair, I have to represent both a bit, although I’m always more Singapore-oriented,” says Mark, who grew up eating at Bukit Timah Food Center and Ameen Makan House across from the Beauty World Center.
“For example, I prefer the Singapore laksa like the Katong laksa to the Malaysian laksa or the Penang laksa,” he adds.
Of course, being located in Japan means that restaurant prices, once converted to SGD, lean more towards the hotel than towards the hawker.
Little Merlion’s shrimp laksa costs 1,280 yen (S $ 15), while their carrot cake costs 550 yen – perhaps still a reasonable price to pay for a taste of home.
Just ask the many Singaporeans who have left glowing five-star reviews online, many of whom have been stranded in Japan since the start of the pandemic.
For those wondering about the lack of Singaporean dishes, chicken rice and bak kut teh on the menu, there’s a reason behind it.
It turns out that Mark and Melissa are longtime Pescatarians, consuming only fish and seafood as their main source of protein. Therefore, their cafe focuses only on dishes that don’t use chicken, pork, or beef.
“We wanted dishes that represented Singapore the most, but without using meat,” says Mark of the diet they adopted “for health and environmental reasons.”
Not that their absence was sorely missed. If there’s one criticism Mark received, it’s that their dishes are less spicy than the standard hawkers.
Singapore food in Tokyo’s ‘Punggol’
With their restaurant located in the rather obscure northeastern part of Tokyo, which Mark helpfully describes as “like Punggol”, they see more locals on weekdays and Singaporeans on weekends.
But in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the couple share that there are “really calm” days when there are “only a handful of customers all day”.
“Because of Covid, people eat a lot less in restaurants. And we’re new too, and Singapore food is unfamiliar to locals,” Mark shares of the low volume of customers.
Fortunately, however, their business was aided by grants and subsidies from the Japanese government.
In the face of uncertainty, the Namiki pursue the next stage of their plan at full speed – the opening of a food truck.
The truck has already been bought, Mark shares, with the kitchen box being repaired. “I hope it can work by November.”
To expand its sources of income, the cafe has also started offering catering services for birthdays and office parties, as well as offering Melissa-designed products on its website.
The family isn’t complaining about living in Japan until now, especially with its temperate climate and lifestyle, but there are certainly things they still miss about Singapore.
Food is one of them, but of course.
For Mark, it’s a plate of “this one and that one”, that is to say cai fan, which he longs for, while Melissa misses the most veggie beehoon.
But now that Melissa is in Singapore taking a break with their daughter to visit family, it’s definitely something she can indulge in – for both of them.
While Japan is where they will likely stay put for the foreseeable future, the couple are not ruling out the possibility of returning to Singapore for good at some point in their lives.
“The house is where the family is, so right now we have two houses,” they share.