Dempsey’s grand dame

Dempsey’s grand dame

 

She turned the quiet Dempsey area to the hip enclave it is now. But the down-to-earth Florence Tan says her main responsibility was just to ‘eat’

 

By Sandra Leong

 

ANY guest who visits Florence Tan’s house in Ang Mo Kio is likely to get a grand tour of her airy abode.

 

The two-storey semi-detached house was renovated to host regular visits from her large extended family of nine brothers and sisters and their children.

 

‘Everybody has his own corner,’ the 50-year-old mother of two says proudly.

 

The breezy wooden patio on the first floor is a ‘beer garden’. A plush sofa facing a flat-screen TV is ‘for the couch potatoes’. Some seats surrounding a coffee table form a ‘gossip corner for aunties’.

 

In the kitchen, there are dry and wet areas for marathon cooking sessions where she whips up signature dishes such as ‘te ka’ (pigs’ trotters) and ‘kong bak pau’ (buns with fatty belly pork), with herbs and spices grown from her garden, no less.

 

Sitting down for this interview, she pours me a glass of home-squeezed orange juice, repeatedly offers me cake, fruit and finally sends me off with a box of pastry from Hong Kong.

 

It feels like I’ve unwittingly stepped into an episode of The Martha Stewart Show. Except I later realise that Ms Tan, who is dressed simply in a blue fitted polo and white pants, is really more ‘Fang Tai’ (remember that endearing Channel 8 cooking mama from the 1980s?) than Stewart.

 

Her English, for one thing, is fluent but endearingly Singaporean – ‘lahs’ and ‘lors’ punctuate her sentences. She also lapses into occasional Teochew. ‘I am so ‘tam jiak’ (Teochew for greedy),’ she moans in mock despair while showing you her collection of cookbooks.

 

And with a motherly air, she says: ‘I don’t want to do serious interviews where all the questions are set for me. I just want to talk to you like you are my daughter.’

 

It doesn’t take a leap of logic to see why this petite woman, who certainly knows how to entertain, is the conceptual brains behind what is arguably Singapore’s hippest Hill.

 

Her property development company Country City Investments, of which she is a director, built and manages the food, beverage and lifestyle enclaves Dempsey Hill and Dempsey Hill Green in Tanglin Village.

 

The firm’s two other shareholders are Mr Soh Kim Teck, owner of a building firm and who is more involved with the construction side of the project; and silent partner Tan Kok Hua, who runs an interior design company.

 

Prior to Dempsey, she had no F&B experience. Her main business is Emas Supplies & Services, a car air-conditioning trading company she started 22 years ago.

 

Dempsey Hill, which boasts 17 restaurants, cafes, gourmet delis and bars, was launched officially only in July last year. But it created deafening buzz almost immediately.

 

If the crowds packing the place every weekend are any indication, it has firmly ensconced itself as the lifestyle scene’s latest shining star, thanks to its savvy combination of popular eateries such as Mexican restaurant Margarita’s, chill hang-out zones such as Spa Esprit’s House and yuppie attractions such as gourmet deli Jones The Grocer.

 

Country City is renting the 1ha cluster of seven buildings from the Singapore Land Authority on a three-year lease renewable up to 2015.

 

Dempsey Hill Green, launched last November, is an extension of the original concept. Tenants include Samy’s Curry and Long Beach Seafood.

 

Ms Tan and her partners poured in about $3 million developing Dempsey Hill, and another $1 to $2 million into Dempsey Hill Green. But they have not yet tabulated their accounts for the first year of operations.

 

‘Hopefully, lah,’ she says with a smile, when asked if they are likely to recoup their investment.

 

But the accolades have started pouring in. In March, both Ms Tan and Mr Soh were jointly named New Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year at the Singapore Tourism Board’s annual Tourism Awards.

 

She looks almost embarrassed about this. ‘When I had to go on stage to give a speech, I really didn’t know what I was saying. I have good partners and even if you want to give me all the credit, I don’t want it.

 

‘My main responsibility? Eating,’ she jokes.

 

An outsider’s view

 

DESPITE its success, Dempsey Hill started out merely as a ‘hobby’.

 

Two and a half years ago, she met and became firm friends with Mr Soh, whom she had hired to renovate her home.

 

When Mr Soh tendered for the project to revamp Tanglin Village, he asked if she wanted to come on board. Then, the place was a sleepy hotchpotch of furniture shops and wine bars.

 

Asked why he approached Ms Tan, Mr Soh, 50, says plainly: ‘I saw her as someone with a lot of ideas and business sense.’

 

She could not resist the offer. ‘I’m very ‘tam jiak’,’ she says again. ‘So I said, ‘go for it’. I will conceptualise it.’

 

Borrowing from her travels, she envisioned a European feel for the area, with laidback alfresco eateries and sidewalk cafes.

 

They got their keys to the buildings on Dec 14, 2006, and brainstorming sessions began in a makeshift office at the site.

 

Characteristically, Ms Tan would show up toting pots of home-brewed tea and coffee, recalls Ms Kee Luah, 38, the project’s marketing consultant. ‘She’s really got a woman’s finer touch,’ she adds.

 

From the outset, Ms Tan was finicky about the tenant mix. Not wanting to have restaurants offering the same cuisine within the Dempsey area, she turned down several interested parties.

 

In fact, the only ‘repeated’ tenants at Dempsey Hill are Jones The Grocer and Culina, both of which sell gourmet produce and serve meals. But even this, she says, was orchestrated for a reason.

 

‘With competition, both of them will want to provide the freshest produce,’ she says.

 

She also became an ‘undercover agent’ and tried a host of restaurants to see who would make the mark.

 

Her lack of experience in the industry may have turned out to be her strength, says tenant Ang Kiam Meng, 46, general manager of Jumbo Seafood.

 

He says: ‘Sometimes, restaurateurs may have blind spots. As an outsider, she has a better understanding of consumer needs.’

 

Ms Tan declines to divulge what sort of rent tenants pay, but lets on that certain rental provisions were offered in the beginning to get everyone up and running.

 

Dempsey Hill and Dempsey Hill Green are still works in progress. Parking has always been an issue but to alleviate the problems, new lots, valet services and shuttle buses have been introduced.

 

Sometime next month, the management will offer goodie bags to taxi drivers who drive into the area to encourage them to pick up more passengers there.

 

A car boot sale is also being planned to mark Dempsey Hill’s first-year anniversary.

 

Asked if she would change anything about the way the place turned out, she says: ‘I like the current concept with a good mix of tenants. No regrets.’

 

Surviving in a man’s world

 

THIS drive stems, perhaps, from a hard-luck childhood.

 

Her late father, Tan Chai Yew, was a coolie. He and his wife, Seah Joo Luan, had 10 children – eight girls and two boys. Ms Tan is the fourth child. The family lived in a cramped Haig Road kampung house.

 

In the early days, food was so scarce that her father would bring home rice grains that other coolies had spilled from their load from the road.

 

‘My mother would have to pick out the cigarette butts and rusty nails from the rice to make congee,’ she recalls.

 

Her father worked his way up and started the Hai Woon Tug Boat Company, eventually owning 10 tug boats. He died of lung cancer nine years ago. Her mother is now 77.

 

Ms Tan attended Dunman Primary and Tanjong Katong Technical. At the latter school, she studied in the technical stream.

 

Her father protested. He wanted her to pick up a woman’s trade. ‘But I had no interest in balancing 20 cents in an account. And sewing was so boring,’ she says. ‘Sometimes, I think I’m a man in a woman’s body.’

 

After her O levels, she took on jobs as a draftswoman and purchasing manager. She enrolled in a part-time course in draftsmanship at Singapore Polytechnic, but had to drop out because she could not cope with work and school.

 

At 21, she married her husband Rick Goh, stopping work to have her two children.

 

Mr Goh, 54, runs his own construction company. The couple’s son, Jeremy, 29, works with his father while their daughter Jasmine, 27, helps her mother at Emas Supplies & Services.

 

Stifling girlish giggles, she says of her husband: ‘A friend introduced him to me. I fell for him because he can sing and strum the guitar. But after marriage, the guitar just disappeared.

 

‘This is what happens if a man wants to woo a lady, so be careful.’

 

At 26, she decided against being a stay-at-home mum and got a job as a secretary in a car air-conditioning parts business. Then three years later, she struck out on her own in the male-dominated industry.

 

‘No one will believe what my capital was – $1,000,’ she says almost gleefully. She did business mostly on credit, banking on the friendships she had with suppliers from her previous job.

 

Being a woman, however, worked against her. Customers immediately assumed she was the secretary, not the boss.

 

She says: ‘I had competitors telling me: ‘I want to see how long you can survive.’ But I didn’t get angry. I took it as a challenge. I took my time to prove myself.’

 

Prove herself she did. Today, Emas Supplies & Services has 22 staff and is worth ‘a few million’, she says.

 

She goes to work every day at Emas’ Ubi office, but pops into Dempsey when there are meetings.

 

As if juggling two business doesn’t sap her of enough energy, she wakes up at 5.30am every day for a jog at the nearby Serangoon stadium. She also makes it a point to cook dinner for the family almost every day.

 

She says: ‘When I get home about 6pm, I dash upstairs, tie up my hair, change into a T-shirt and shorts and go straight into the kitchen.

 

‘No problem what, superwoman,’ she quips when I ask her how she manages her time.

 

But she adds: ‘Us women, we can conquer the whole world but when we return home, we must remember that we are somebody’s daughter-in- law, wife and mummy. So when I step in the house, I believe I must still ‘di tou’ (Mandarin for ‘know my place’).’

 

Still, it seems she won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

 

Over lunch at an Italian restaurant later, she discovers that I am single.

 

‘Oh,’ she says, her eyes lighting up in excitement. ‘I will introduce my son’s friend, a doctor, to you.’

 

I squirm. Her daughter Jasmine, who is also at the table, comes to the rescue with a retort: ‘You’re already so busy with two businesses and you want to start a third in matchmaking? ‘

 

Her mother nods eagerly. Maybe, just maybe, the suggestion may not be so far-fetched for this ‘superwoman’ after all.

 

Source: Straits Times

One Response

  1. Message for Florence Tan:
    I was very inspired by the article on your Dempsey project. It’s wonderful to see the place transformed into such a hip enclave.

    I would like to invite Country City Investments to explore the possibility to developing a lifestlye/eating enclave in the Telok Kurau area at the junction of Joo Chiat Place, opposite the East Shore Hospital. There’s a row of shop houses, two of which belong to my family.

    I see great potential for this development for the following reasons:
    1) There are many new condos in all the Lorongs of Telok Kurau…many many new younger, professionals as residents who would appreciate more eating and lifestyle entertainment places in the vicinity. At the moment, people have to travel quite far to Parkway or Siglap side.
    2) It’s opposite East Lodge Hostel…foreign students and budget tourists
    3) It’s opposite East Shore Hospital ..visitors
    4) The area is bordered at one end by East Coast Road and Changi Road with small eateries at both ends. However i see a potential for more outlets which residents of the area would otherwise have to travel to Parkway Parade to enjoy…Delifrance, Ya Kun for eg.
    5) The row of shop houses is owned by only 5 owners which makes negotiation simpler. The height limitation is 5 storeys which makes a neat enclave for residential units above and shop space below, and underground carpark. Extra carpark space available at the hospital.
    6) With the above, I see the place livening up. Along Telok Kurau Road, there is no other place that can achieve this kind of atmosphere.

    I hope you will seriously explore this opportunity. I am most willing to meet up with you or show you around although I am sure you are familiar with the area having grown up in Haig Road. Telok Kurau is becoming so modern now with many new condos unlike the old days of kampong houses in all the lorongs.

    Thank you for your patience.
    siew kiang
    HP: 81399565

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