Saturday, 11 January 2014

Long House: Makan place from dawn till dark

Affordable food and convenient location draw regular patrons to Long House
By Kash Cheong, The Straits Times, 10 Jan 2014

A MEETING place for cyclists at dawn. A stopover after school. A place for dinner on the way home from work or after jogging at MacRitchie Reservoir.

Long House food centre in Upper Thomson Road has held a special place in the hearts of patrons for the past 13 years.

But this week a deal was closed to sell the site - formerly a Shell station and garage, a fast-food outlet and a Kopitiam - to a developer for more than $45 million.

"It’s such a pity," said Yio Chu Kang resident and sales manager Jerry Tan, 32, as he sat down for his weekly meal at Ah Hui Big Prawn Noodle, which draws more than 300 customers a day. "It’s one of the few places along Upper Thomson Road with a variety of good hawker food at affordable prices."

The popular food stretch still houses a few coffee shops, like Hwa Nam Restaurant and The Roti Prata House, but there is nothing nearby in the same league as Long House, which has about 15 stalls offering a variety of dishes from duck rice to Western food. Most of its stalls open till about 10pm.

"The closest I can think of is Shunfu market," said Thomson resident and jogger Eve Teo, 27. But that is located far from the main road and opens mostly for breakfast and lunch. "I will miss the convenience of Long House. It’s open until late and the chicken rice is worth the calories."

Long House was originally a row of shops in Jalan Besar stadium and was popular with footballers and fans. The food centre moved to Upper Thomson about 13 years ago after the stadium was renovated.

Retired lawyer Ng Choon Gim, 62, oversees Long House on behalf of his family’s business, Sin Hin Lee Investment, which owns the Upper Thomson site.

It used to house a Shell petrol station with a car workshop in the 1960s and 70s. Mr Ng’s father, the late Mr Ng Aun Khim, ran it as a local dealer for more than 20 years. But when Shell downsized operations in 1979, the late Mr Ng bought the property for $678,000 the following year.

The family has now sold the 1,575.6 sq m site to developer TEE Land for $45.2 million.

"I thought the property market is close to its peak and it’s time to let go," said Mr Ng. "It’s a good profit but all thanks to the acumen of my late father."

TEE plans to redevelop the place - near Marymount MRT and the upcoming Upper Thomson stations - into residential and commercial units.

After the Ng family bought the land in 1980, they leased it to American fast-food chain A&W for eight years and food-court operator Kopitiam for two.

It was vacant for some time before Long House moved in around 2000, bringing some stalls from the original Jalan Besar eatery, including the barbecue stingray, mee pok and char kway teow stalls.

Today, only four hawkers from the Jalan Besar Long House remain: Ah Hui Big Prawn Noodle, Bugis Street Chuen Chuen Chicken Rice, Boon Pisang Goreng and the popular Soon Kee (Boneless) Lor Duck Rice.

"The duck is tender, the rice is loose and fragrant and the chilli is flavoursome" said public servant Jimmy Tan, 30, who first visited the stall about a decade ago.

He remembers Long House fondly for 5am cycling meet-ups with his kakis when the floors were "still wet as they had just been cleaned".

Mr Ng is searching for a new home for Long House’s 15 stalls. He estimates the move will take place in four to six months after he receives money from the sale.

He will leave it up to individual stall owners to decide whether the stalls move en masse.

Ah Hui Big Prawn Noodle boss Tan Ah Hui, 68, is already considering relocating to Block 280, Bishan Street 24.

"We knew of the sale only this week," said Mr Ong Tan Heng, 60, owner of Soon Kee (Boneless) Lor Duck Rice. "We expect other coffee-shop owners to approach us in the next few days."

Madam Yong Fong, 64, owner of Bugis Street Chuen Chuen Chicken Rice, said: "Hopefully the four stalls from the original Jalan Besar site can move together. We have been friends for so many years and work well together. We want to keep our branding too."

Soon Kee’s Mr Ong added: "When we moved from Jalan Besar, our regulars came with us. Moving shouldn’t be a problem."

For Boon Pisang Goreng owner Rose Boon, Long House at Upper Thomson holds special memories. It is the place where she spent most time with her late husband, Mr Boon Fong Juan, selling fried bananas. He died three years ago and she inherited the business.

"Of course, I will miss this place," the 35-year-old said tearfully. "I spend more time here than at home. My regulars have become friends. But when we close down, I hope to rest one or two months and take my children on a well-deserved holiday."

Echoing the sentiments of many Upper Thomson residents, Mr Dan Lee, 23, said: "Wherever they go, I hope the stallholders remember to tell us. I’ll miss having one of the best food centres at my doorstep."

Long House site: Bought for $678,000, sold for $45.2m
By Cheryl Ong, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2014

LARGER than usual crowds thronged the popular Long House Food Centre yesterday after news emerged that the site had been sold for redevelopment.

Many visitors were sorry to see the well-loved place go, but the family which has just sold the site in Upper Thomson Road is now sitting on a handsome profit.

This was all thanks to a shrewd move by the late Ng Aun Khim to buy the site more than 30 years ago.

The Ng family sold the 1,575.6 sq m site for $45.2 million - or $888 per sq ft (psf) per plot ratio - to listed developer TEE Land on Tuesday. The property had been owned by the family's firm Sin Hin Lee Investment.

The site was bought in 1980, said Mr Ng Choon Gim, 62, who oversees the business. His father had acquired it for just $678,000.

That means its value has shot up 66-fold over 33 years.

TEE Land plans to redevelop it into a mixed-use project. It can house 30 to 38 residential units, averaging 1,000 sq ft each. About five to 10 commercial units measuring about 1,600 sq ft each can also be built, said deal broker Knight Frank. Residential units are expected to sell for about $1,500 psf, while commercial units should go for about $4,000 to $6,000 psf.

The site is about 500m from the Marymount MRT Station, and about 350m from the upcoming Upper Thomson Station.

The site was owned earlier by oil giant Shell, which had a petrol station there in 1961.

The late Mr Ng was the dealer who ran the petrol station for more than 20 years. "I still remember sleeping in there when I was in primary four, and I grew up there till I was 18 years old," said his son. He recalled that it was surrounded by "kampung houses" with tombstones scattered about.

Shell scaled down its operations in 1979, downsizing the kiosk, which still stands at 183A Upper Thomson Road today.

The property has been home to many food establishments over the years. After the Ng family bought it, fast-food chain A&W asked to lease the site in 1980. It moved out after operating there for eight years.

Then food court operator Kopitiam Group leased the premises for another two years.

Long House moved there from Jalan Besar about 12 years ago, said Mr Ng junior.

The food centre is famous for its prawn noodles, duck rice and goreng pisang. Hawkers said business has declined since parking fees were imposed a year ago.

News of the looming closure drew plenty of extra visitors. Mr Tan Ah Hui, 68, who runs Ah Hui Big Prawn Noodles at the centre, estimated that he had sold at least 100 bowls by 2.30pm, when The Straits Times visited. He has been serving the dish since 1963, and now plans to move to a coffee shop in Block 280, Bishan Street 24.

Ms Rose Le, 35, owner of Boon Pisang Goreng, said she has not looked for a new place but is not too worried about whether business will be hurt by a move. "Customers have been asking me not to move too far away," she said. The stall sells about 500 pieces of goreng pisang a day.

The Ng family has other property investments in the Thomson area. Mr Ng junior said his brother owns the unit housing restaurant Liquid Kitchen at Yew Lian Park, while his cousins own three shops in the area.

"I have my father to thank for his foresight to buy the site at a historically low price," he said.

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