New lease of life for favourite Pulau Ubin eating spot run by two sisters

Sisters Goh Xin Eng (left), 69, and Goh Guat Lai, 63, looking at old photos pasted on the wall of the first storey of the Pulau Ubin building where they run the Sin Lam Huat eatery that was first opened and operated by their parents.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Sisters Goh Xin Eng, 69, and Goh Guat Lai, 63, looking at old photos pasted on the wall of the first storey of the Pulau Ubin building (above) where they run the Sin Lam Huat eatery that was first opened and operated by their parents.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Pulau Ubin’s town centre boasts a second-generation eatery that has become a beloved makan (eating) spot for some of the National Parks Board (NParks) staff attached to the island, as well as cyclists, fishing enthusiasts and other day trippers.

The Sin Lam Huat coffee shop’s home-style dishes, served up in generous portions, has made the cheerful joint a favourite stop on any visit to the island.

It is run by sisters Goh Xin Eng, 69, and Goh Guat Lai, 63, who are often mistaken for twins.

Their parents started the business about 60 years ago after migrating from Hainan, China. They planted roots in Ubin and had four children.

The ageing two-storey structure is finally getting an overhaul as part of NParks’ initiative to restore and repair some of the island’s historic kampung structures.

The eatery will close for about two months during the overhaul.

The most pressing problem is the decayed wooden floorboards on the second storey, which were damaged by previous occupants who had doused the floor with water instead of giving it a wipe-down, said Madam Goh Xin Eng. “We were told that the floor is in such bad shape that the boards might collapse. We’ve kept it (the second storey) under lock and key ever since.

“We are very grateful for the help and repairs because our lives are tied to this place.”

The sisters rent the entire building from the authorities for several hundred dollars a month. Their family used to rent the ground-floor space for their eatery from a clan that used the second storey as office space.

The Goh sisters were born on the island. Their brothers – one older and one younger – died on the island, in 1999 and 2015, after decades running the coffee shop as a family.

Since it is just the two of them now, they need some time to prepare the dishes when the eatery is busy. And only Madam Goh Guat Lai cooks. Her sister does front-of-house service and makes coffee.

Both sisters are married, with the older one living in Hougang and the younger in Tampines.

Madam Goh Guat Lai said: “My father came to Singapore and must have picked up a few cooking skills and techniques. I know some of his recipes, but not all of them.

“For instance, he could bake cakes, and we even used to sell curry rice. My parents also handmade their own kaya baos which long-time customers still think of fondly.”

Madam Goh Xin Eng added: “Ubin was very different in the past. It was self-sufficient because it was filled with residents. We used to be able to buy all the produce we needed for the eatery from stores here. Now, we do our marketing near our homes on the mainland.”

She added that Pulau Ubin holds a special place for them: “We have a relationship with this island and our eatery is tied to our entire family history. This is our home and where we can be ourselves.”

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