Opening a cafe at the height of a pandemic might go against the instincts of any aspiring business owner, and reasonably so. But in the story Dr Chee Soon Juan and Orange & Teal, it was a case of now or never.
“I started right smack in the middle of Covid, thinking that it might be the tail end of it. Then the different strains came along, delta and so on. But the worst is behind us now. I keep telling my staff, ‘You know sometimes, you want to do something, not only in F&B. you have to do it with passion. It takes away half the tedium without having to come in and drag yourself to work every day’,” says Dr Chee.
A year on, Dr Chee and his team celebrated the launch of their second outlet at Marina Square and are serving new customers who stop by. Beyond just the smiles and coffees dished out to customers at the two locations, the passion that fuels Orange & Teal is, perhaps, a more intangible one.
“My main motivation was to have a space for the community that might not otherwise be available for certain types of activities. These range from the cultural, social, and the political. And at any time when people want to get together for activities that you might not normally find in society, I just want Orange & Teal to be the nestbed to work for them,” he says.
Orange & Teal: A space for arts & culture
When it comes to spaces for the arts in Singapore, Dr Chee describes them as “anaemic”.
“It’s just very much provided for by the state. It’s not very organic in that sense, especially for the socio-political issues that people want to talk about, from forums and debates. Everything else is just very anaemic. And therefore I think there is a void there. Apart from providing good food and service, Orange & Teal, at least, is able to generate the space for Singaporeans to have for the arts,” he says.
He adds: “I’ve said this in public for the longest time that I think our society is very malformed … because it is so top-driven that the emphasis is so much on the hard-nosed GDP growth at all costs. So much so that the other aspects of society that really makes human beings thrive, gratifying lifestyles are missing in that regard. It doesn’t make us a well-informed, strong, and robust society. Or are we always pursuing something that’s constantly out of our reach? We don’t ever quite live with contentment. So I think in that regard, the arts and culture have a place to play in society.”
At a time that is driven by “ideas and innovation”, which Dr Chee feels is lacking in Singapore, he says it stems from people not engaging each other in “open and intellectual ways”.
“Even Karl Marx started in public places like this. It’s not only in classrooms. People sometimes over drinks or coffee, pound the table if they get angry and that sort. But it’s how things like that started,” he adds.
While Dr Chee welcomes and encourages people with differing viewpoints to engage in debate, he makes the effort not to dismiss ideas that he disagrees with.
“This is how all the butting of ideas is generated. Even the views that I hold, if all I do is just keep spouting them, what’s the point? You’re preaching to the choir in an echo chamber. That’s where Orange & Teal comes in. But at the same time, we cannot solve the problem, because it’s just a little cafe at a corner of Singapore. The idea must be planted,” he says.
Opening up shop during the height of Covid-19 pandemic meant that restrictions were in place on group sizes and social activities at the cafe. Since then, Orange & Teal has been setting the stage for activities that Dr Chee has envisioned.
In July, there was a reading session by poets Stacy Nadine and Chan Wai Han. They were accompanied by a talk on writing in Singapore by Mr Fong Hoe Fang from publishing house Ethos Books.
A month after, string quartet A Little Dream then performed for the patrons at the Rochester branch.
“It’s been going well enough, but it’s only been a year, and sometimes these take time to develop. We’re going to have another forum with the right speakers from various civil society and political parties. I think we’re also going to do a book club on a monthly basis,” says Dr Chee.
With the return of activities, Dr Chee is careful not to coerce the discourse but leave room for things to grow organically.
“I don’t want to force it. The public must be interested enough to want to take it upon themselves. I think we’re slowly building towards that if they are going to be organic and things like that will take time to generate that continued interest. It has to come from the people. The space, I feel, is there,” he adds.
When asked about the value that arts bring to people, Dr Chee says that the value can be recognised by imagining a world without it.
“Sometimes you don’t see the value, then you start removing one thing after another. Then you’ll come to see how empty your life actually is. Take away music, things that you do for relaxation and entertainment, your novels and books. The entertainment sector, where you escape reality, like going to a movie for two hour, is derived very much from creative arts. So when you begin to remove all these, there’s a certain thing missing in your life that doesn’t make you full,” he says.
Orange & Teal: where the conversation is even better
Dr Chee’s new addition to the Orange & Teal brand at Marina Square is a much smaller venue than its Rochester counterpart. Its menu has the office workers in mind and is less geared for larger-scale activities.
While the two “non-negotiable items” located at the Rochester branch are the piano and bookshelf, they are obviously absent at the smaller cafe; but Dr Chee still manages to mount a small shelf on the wall instead.
He says he is partial to and recommends the writings of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami for fiction. As for non-fiction, he finds the writings of the late Dennis Bloodworth, such as An Eye for the Dragon, very informative and poetic.
Lately he has developed a penchant for light jazz pieces which he finds soothing.
He especially mentions Jaeyong Kang, a pianist who frequents the Rochester branch and whose renditions of Moon River and Tersea Tang’s yue liang tai biao wo de xin he enjoys very much.
“I just get lost a little bit, sitting down trying to do my work, so it’s very nice to have him around as he makes things so much less tedious,” he says.
In a place where the ethos in fostering the arts is built on open conversations, Dr Chee says some memorable interactions with his customers are when young adults bring their parents for meals.
“A customer once told me his friends who hadn’t seen each other for 40 years, since primary school, chose Orange & Teal to meet. That’s gratifying. Just the other day, a customer with advanced cancer and I just talked about life. It’s these moments that stood out for me,” he says.
It is no wonder Dr Chee picked Where the conversation’s even better as the tagline for Orange & Teal. Whether or not his vision for a nestbed of new ideas and activities to support the arts, culture, and socio-politics will come to fruition, as Dr Chee says it will take time and the organic support from the public.
And one customer agrees. Mr Patrick Kok appreciates Dr Chee’s approach in fostering the arts at a “casual” setting.
“I think it is good that he (Dr Chee) has made an effort to put this place together. I think other places can be politically heavy whereas his approach invites people to sit down and have coffee. I think it is something that politics needs to change and be more diversified. It’s a good way of reaching out to people,” says the 65 year-old who was there to meet several former colleagues at Orange & Teal.
When asked if he has any plans and concept for the third outlet, Dr Chee says: ”If this place can just survive, then it’s good already.”