Thursday, 16 January 1986

Eating As A Social Activity: Hanging Out In Coffee Shops (A Field Study) (2009)

SOCG301 Term Paper

Done by:
Lim Ann Qi Angela
Yong Jin Chuan Jose
Wong Mingchuan Luwin

Over the years, Singapore’s coffee shop culture has evolved tremendously. Coffee shops originally consisted of itinerant hawkers who plied the streets on foot or behind carts, or set up shop in temporary ‘villages’ of stalls; today, coffee shops are typically clean, permanent hawker centres and are both open-air or air-conditioned.

Aside from the proliferation of coffee shops due to an inherent Singaporean love for food, the coffee shop has also established itself as a favourite gathering place for many locals for purposes other than food. Drinks and conversation are rife in these hubs that come to life for various reasons at different times of the day, each one living and breathing to its own beat.

The questions then arise: Who are these people who patronise coffee shops? Why do they choose to go to coffee shops? What is the symbolic nature of the coffee shop and its role in the lives of coffee shop patrons? Our field study and analysis will attempt to answer these questions.

A Coffeeshop Field Study
Our study seeks to uncover the coffee shop culture in Singapore. Emphasis is placed on uncovering the demographic and perspective of the patrons who do not merely come to eat, but to ‘stay’ – engaging in an extended time of conversation and other activity.

The Scope and Methodology
We visited five coffee shops over the course of three nights and observed the activity of coffee shop patrons by engaging in a variety of different observational methods. One method of observation we employed was by simply observing from a distance, through which we attained demographic information such as age, gender, drinks purchased and group sizes, as well as interaction styles in an unobtrusive manner. The details of their conversation was unclear from a distance, so we also engaged some of the groups present in conversation, at times asking them questions and at times just listening to them communicate through their chat and banter.

Ingredients of a Coffee Shop
Based on our observations, the type of people sitting in the coffee shops at night does not vary greatly. They are often groups of Chinese men ranging from ages 20-30 and 40 and above. Conspicuously absent is the presence of women and other ethnicities. An awareness of a prevalent social stigma associated with women being out and about in coffee shops at night with the men may account for the mainly male patronage. What then of other ethnic races? Most Malays in Singapore are Muslim and generally do not patronize the average neighbourhood coffee shop. The existence of exclusively Halal food places, combined with the religious prohibition against the consumption of pork, alcohol, and other foods that might be potentially ‘impure’ (to Muslims), partly explains the predominantly Chinese patronage (Nonini, 1998). Instead, Malays can more commonly be found in Halal food stalls such as 24-hour prata shops. While some Indian men would patronise coffee shops for drinks and/or to watch soccer games, they do not do so as regularly as the Chinese men, choosing instead to consume alcohol at home. The types of people in these neighbourhood coffee shops are thus observed to be mostly and invariably Chinese men.

Most of the time, the men share bottles of beer amongst themselves while chatting. Occasionally, coffee is the alternative beverage of choice. These drinks are symbolically male-centric. The consumption of alcohol through beer also removes social inhibitions and has been cited as having more ‘kick’ than other drinks by a few men we talked to. The men aged 40 and above tend not to eat, having eaten at home with their families, while the younger men of 20-30 tend to meet to have dinner or supper after school, work or any other activity. The food these younger men tend to consume are thus the simple hawker fare sold at these coffee shops, such as mixed rice and noodles.

Male bonding is carried out over beers and occasionally while watching soccer, and for the most part, dialect is spoken. The men, having returned from a hard day at work, have noticeably light-hearted conversations about things such as soccer teams and day-to-day experiences and also chat casually about social issues and local news that might directly affect them. Some of the men stated that there is a deliberate refrain from heavy and in-depth conversation. Visiting the coffee shop and lingering ‘over-time’ is thus strictly a form of relaxation and unwinding to them.

The ‘Third Place’
Essential to our understanding of Singapore’s coffee shop phenomenon is the concept of the ‘third place’ as described by Oldenburg (1999). In his analysis, the workplace and home is regarded as the first and second place respectively, according to the amount of time spent there and the importance an average person assigns to them. Third places are defined in contrast to these other primary places in people’s lives and they offer a space to escape the stresses associated with these primary places. This ties in significantly with sociological work on the symbolism of goods beyond their mere material properties (Fantasia, 1995 & Watson, 1997). Coffee shops now transcend beyond their basic utility of providing food and drinks to one that represents a form of escape.

Coffee shops represent an avenue for regulars to escape from the demands and stresses of day to day life. It is important for a third place to be inexpensive so as to allow patrons to visit regularly without the worry of overspending. This importance is heightened in Singapore’s context as money is considered a daily burden – the traditional Asian mindset regards prudence not just as a virtue but as a standard to conform to. The average neighbourhood coffee shop, among the most reasonable in food and beverage pricing, fit the bill well. Its patrons are hence emancipated from monetary concerns and can focus solely on the enjoyment of the moment. The informal and humble setting of the coffee shop is also comfortably inviting and adds to its suitability as an escape from the corporate environments of work and city living. As coffee shop conventions dictate dressing and behavior alike to be casual, there are few social class requirements and etiquette to abide by. It is a place where one is allowed to be himself, without expectation of conforming to the rules that rigidly govern high society. It is thus not uncommon to witness uncouth behavior – loud talking and general rowdiness – amongst coffee shop regulars.

It’s a Man’s World
The coffee shop is a predominantly male environment and can be qualified through a post-structuralist perspective. The uncouth and often aggressive behaviour of patrons is both a norm and a means to attaining recognition, as such behaviour is applauded when conducted by men and frowned upon when acted out by women. Beer is also seen as a male beverage, the consumption of which men take pride in embracing and women often dissociate themselves from. Soccer, another male-centric pursuit, is shown on huge screen televisions on weekend nights and is often used as a means to draw in the crowds, further enforcing the expected masculinity of the crowd. As an indicator of how coffee shop owners are aware of the gender disparity, waitresses dressed in specially designed uniforms consisting of short skirts are employed to serve and entertain the men who make up the scene. These men are the people who constitute to the formation of the ‘coffee shop uncle’ image.

A further explanation is posited by Oldenburg, who asserts that “social relaxation is greater without the low-level stress that attends the mixing of the sexes”. The individual, in his opinion, is never quite as comfortable, expressive or unrestrained in the presence of the opposite sex as in the company of his or her own.

The reluctance of women to patronize coffee shops as a third place can also be explained by the internalising of social stigma associated with women seen at coffee shops. Such women are often perceived as cheap or as money-launderers, which is exacerbated by the prominence of prostitutes and China women in sleazy district coffee shops – essentially two of the most stereotyped women in contemporary Singapore. Gill (2007) studied the behaviour of and attitudes towards women in Bordertown, a traditionally misogynistic town in Britain, and found that women are acceptable targets for sexual harassment when they appeared in male-dominated public places, especially when alone. This is something the women there have internalised, which makes them reluctant to travel about or go to places like pubs alone. While the likelihood of overt sexual harassment is low in Singapore coffee shops, Singaporean women are well aware of the social stigma that men have of women hanging around coffee shops and they do well to avoid such stigmatic association. This is also enforced by the older men themselves, as they believe with the fervour of tradition that the place for a woman is in the home. One man we spoke to was cited as saying that women should go home to ‘rest’ after a hard day’s work. To these men, leisure for women is accepted as relaxing at home instead of being out with the men in coffee shops at night.

An additional reason is that women have their own third places, such as mahjong clubs and shopping malls – both activities which are predominantly female leisure pursuits. This concurs with Oldenburg’s argument for the value in gender-specific companionship.

The Age Demographics of the ‘Coffee Shop Uncle’
The age demographics of the men at these coffee shops is observed to follow a trend of high between ages 20-30, low between ages 30-40, and high again for those aged 40 and above.

The young 20-30 crowd typically consists of men gathering for ‘supper’, while the 40-over age-group primarily turns up for drinks. On their table is typically a bucket of ice and beer bottles, and plates of food are usually absent. While the conversation may be similar – casual with a disregard for formal manners – there is an air of pointlessness to the coffee shop activity of the group aged 40 and above. Those aged 20-30 may gather for the purpose of watching soccer, exchanging ideas, having a conversation about school or work, or having a meal. Those aged 40-over, on the other hand, often arrive at the coffee shop without even needing to contact their buddies and knowing that they can find regular company there. We have observed a few men in the older age category who were drinking alone, as if they were just trying their luck at seeking anticipated company and it did not matter if none of their friends turned up.

The age group of 30-40 tends not to engage in coffee shop socializing as they are in the prime of their lives and careers and thus are often busy with work or family. Just as importantly, excessive patronage of coffee shops for men in this age group associates them with certain negative stigmas, such as joblessness, depression or excessive drinking tendencies. The frivolous nature of the youthful patronage of coffee shops by young men and the pointlessness of the older males in visiting coffee shops are particularly damaging to the social image the men aged 30-40 in their primes are trying to portray.

Social Interaction in this Unique Sphere
The men are often very friendly with the stall owners and beer ladies, mostly out of a sense of familiarity. The beer ladies are usually invited to join the men at the tables for a drink for some time while they chat together over drinks. It is interesting to note that the beer ladies are not regarded the same way other women who visit the coffee shop are. They are accepted as part of the scene and not as an outsider. Gender inequality is an inevitable outcome of the male dominance of the coffee shop’s social structure, thus the acceptance of women in coffee shops demands of them to conform to the distinct gender role expected of them. Hall (1993) highlights the work roles of gendered food servers and points out the behavioural scripts expected of waitresses to give ‘good’ service in particular food settings – these work roles are loaded with gender meanings and results in a heightened importance of gender specific displays. In stark contrast to this is the rare occasion in which we spot a woman at these coffee shops. Even if a woman was present, she was almost always accompanied by either her husband or at least one male friend. Thus, the presence of women as beer ladies is only accepted when they are merely facilitators and servants of the male-dominated coffee shop, behaving in a subservient manner expected of them in the highly-gendered order of the coffee shop. The men at the coffee shops appear to be rather territorial about their space in the coffee shops and, with the arrival of any ‘abnormal’ visitors like a group of women or young students, they tended to look either wary or curious.

The highly gendered, age-specific and racially-specific nature of the coffee shop prevents us from drawing from it too representative a picture of Singaporean culture. It must be understood as representing the culture of a particular strata of society and not as a microcosm typical of Singapore.

Yet the coffee shop phenomenon does offer us insights into Singaporean culture. For one, it reinforces the common knowledge that life in Singapore is stressful and fast-paced, creating a need to retreat into a third place. For the average heartland ‘uncle’, coffee shops serve this function as no other place can. From its humble and inviting setting, cheap alcohol on its menu and the freedom to kick back and speak in the dialect they grew up with, it is ideal for the non-corporate, un-westernised Chinese Singaporean man to meet other characteristically-alike men and foster a uniquely local community spirit.

However, it must be said that it is more so the peculiarities of the coffeeshop conventions, rather than its function as a third place that reveals the Singaporean flavour, for the Singaporean coffee shop finds its counterpart in most of the developed world. German beer gardens, Parisian cafes and English pubs all serve as third places for their respective countries.

  1. Fantasia, R. (1995). Fast food in France. Theory and Society, 24, 201-43.

  2. Gill, F. (2007). ‘Violent’ femininity: Women rugby players and gender negotiation. Women’s Studies International Forum, 30, 416-426.

  3. Hall, E. J. (1993). Waitering/Waitressing: Engendering the work of table servers. American Sociological Review, 45(5), 737-765.

  4. Nonini, M. D. (1998). ‘Chinese Society’, Coffee-Shop Talk, Possessing Gods: The Politics of Public Space among Diasporic Chinese in Malaysia. Duke University Press.

  5. Oldenburg, R. (1999). The Great Good Place: cafés, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons and other hangouts at the heart of a community. New York, N.Y.: Marlowe and Company.

  6. Watson, J. (1997). Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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