While we’re still praying for the day where we’d be able to use our passports again, a Singaporean couple in Tokyo has set up Little Merlion, a cafe that serves Singaporean favourites such as Chai Tow Kuay (carrot cake), Roti Prata, and Chili Crab Mantou.
All in hopes of introducing authentic Singaporean food to Japan, reconnecting with fellow Singaporeans, and at the crux of it, because they miss home.
Some of us millennials and Gen Z’s are known to lack national spirit, including myself, who paid no heed to the soaring red and white flags hung around every estate, who decided that gaming was distinctively more important than watching the National Day Parade.
But one night, as I sat on my bed and mindlessly scrolled through social media, I chanced upon a video by Akadot TV, which featured Mark Namiki (36) and Melissa Yap’s (37) story of Little Merlion cafe.
Something struck a chord in me.
Little Merlion cafe in Tokyo, Japan
The video starts with a shot of Little Merlion’s unassuming cafe entrance and slowly reveals a homey and quaint interior, a design trait found in most Japanese cafes. But something is off — take a further look and you’ll see a portrait of Chai Tow Kuay with Japanese words and… is that fried ikan bilis and peanuts on the counter?
Three and a half years ago, Mark relocated to Japan for work. He was working in the hospitality industry until the pandemic hit in 2020. Unfortunately, this caused his employer to shut the business down, leaving Mark both jobless and helpless.
Mark, a Japanese/Malaysian, and his Singaporean wife, Melissa, then faced a dilemma of whether to head back to Singapore or remain in Japan. Most of us would have yearned for the comfort of home and packed our bags. But not this powerful duo.
Instead, they decided to recreate a mini Singapore in Tokyo, Japan, and build something entirely new. Ignited by a small flame of hope, they built a team and Little Merlion was born.
Their Little Merlion wasn’t just any themed cafe shtick. Word spread and the place attracted Singaporeans from all walks of life. Singaporeans travelling from Yokohama, Kawasaki and Tachikawa, Singaporeans pursuing their Masters in Japan, Singaporeans stationed to work there, and even Singaporean families that have migrated aboard.
It’s beautiful to be able to reconnect with these fellow Singaporeans, but what filled their hearts was the taste of home.
In the video, Quek Qian Yi, a Singaporean patron of the cafe commented,
“I miss the taste of Singaporean food that you don’t quite find in Japanese food. The sweet, salty, and oily Singaporean goodness.”
And that’s exactly what Little Merlion serves.
On its menu, you’d be able to find many Singaporean favourites such as Carrot Cake, Laksa, and even desserts such as Pisang Goreng with Ice Cream and Milo Dinosaur, all of them freshly made from scratch by their meticulous team. These recipes were passed down from Melissa’s family; pieces of paper with words that made Singaporeans far away from home, feel at home.
While visiting Litte Merlion made the faraway Singaporeans feel at ease, that is not to say for Mark and Melissa, whose journey has not been smooth sailing.
COVID-19 hit the food and beverage industry hard and the couple faces the same problems as their friends back in Singapore. People are dining out less often and there’s a big drop in customers, but the thought of connecting and providing for fellow Singaporeans, especially those who are stuck in Japan, drives them on.
It’s hard for the people living in Little Red Dot to say that we’re desperately craving a bowl of laksa now, but for those that have not been home for one to two years, I’d suppose that trying to replace coconut curry with Japanese curry would be a bleak attempt.
Located north of the heart of Tokyo, Little Merlion remains unfounded by many. But with a big heart, Mark and Melissa plan to start a food truck downtown where Little Merlion will become more accessible to the travelling Singaporeans.
The video ends with the beaming couple wishing,
“To all Singaporeans back home, in Japan, and all around the world, Happy National Day.”
And just for that moment, my heart brims with Singaporean pride.
No matter if you’re stuck aboard, travelling from country to country, or simply pragmatic like me. In some way or another, you’ll always find your way back home.
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