90 Years of Polar

90 Years of Polar

The crispy chicken puff with its famed flaky crust was one of those foods that accompanied many Singaporeans growing up. Polar was named a Heritage Brand by the Singapore Prestige Brand Award in 2005, but it has served those crisp puffs for 90 years now. A truly Singaporean food brand, Polar is also a story of migration in early Singapore. Chan Hinky, an immigrant from Hong Kong, founded Polar Café at a shophouse unit in High Street in 1926.

A view of High Street in 1936. Polar Café is the second shop on the right. The clock tower of Victoria Memorial Hall can be seen in the background. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

A view of High Street in 1936. Polar Café is the second shop on the right. The clock tower of Victoria Memorial Hall can be seen in the background. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

A photo of the first Polar Café is framed for display at a Polar Cafe outlet.

A photo of the first Polar Café is framed for display at a Polar Cafe outlet.

Chan arrived in Singapore in the 1920s with only 90 cents to his name but eventually saved enough to set up a cafeteria at 51 High Street selling pastries and ice cream. Polar Café opened on one of the earliest shopping streets in Singapore, High Street – a high street of sorts, with its many high-end apparel stores, tailors and department stores.

Together with his wife, they were believed to be the first to introduce the baked curry puff to Singapore. A variation of the Malay fried epok epok, the Polar puff is instead baked and consists of generous fillings of chicken meat encased in buttery puff pastry.

It is said that 81 folds are required of the raw dough to achieve the Polar puff’s distinctive layering.

It is said that 81 folds are required of the raw dough to achieve the Polar puff’s distinctive layering.

Polar Café was a popular eatery frequently patronised by judges, lawyers and politicians, owing to its proximity to the former Supreme Court and Parliament House. The late Dr Goh Keng Swee, Singapore’s first Deputy Prime Minister, was known to be particularly fond of the Polar puff. Many newspaper articles echoed the café’s popularity. An article in The Straits Times on 15 January 1986 reported, “No 51 High Street, just across the road from the Supreme Court and a few steps from Parliament House, was something of an institution for lawyers, judges and Members of Parliament and a daily rendezvous for some.”

Chan, Polar Café’s founder, passed away in 1942. His eldest son Cheong Hin took over the reins of the business before handing over to his younger brother Yoke Onn in the 1970s. The latter ran the business until the mid-1980s when the High Street premises were acquired by the government as part of an urban renewal project. Following the government’s acquisition of the entire stretch of shophouses to build the new Parliament House complex, Polar Café closed its doors on the last day of 1985. By then, its kitchen was producing at least 500 curry puffs daily.

A view of High Street in 1985, where shophouses, including the one that housed Polar Café, were demolished for an urban renewal project. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

A view of High Street in 1985, where shophouses, including the one that housed Polar Café, were demolished for an urban renewal project. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

Site of the original Polar Cafe at High Street today, where the Supreme Court and Parliament House stand alongside the former Supreme Court and old Parliament House.

The site of the original Polar Cafe at High Street today, where the Supreme Court and Parliament House stand alongside the former Supreme Court and old Parliament House.

Polar returned a year later with a takeaway outlet at OUB Centre in Raffles Place and larger production facilities at Leng Kee Road. The Polar takeaway outlet became their mode of business with many more outlets sprouting islandwide.

The Straits Times covered its relocation on 20 December 1987, “It has moved from its ice-cream parlour white premises at 51 High Street to an unpretentious corner of a Raffles Place block… Memories that stretch across two generations die hard. People still remember the puffs lawyers used to buy as takeaways to perk up a long afternoon. Court reporters lingered long at the airy café, sipping coffee and ordering puff after puff. Tea-time for Members of Parliament would not be tea-time without them.”

A Polar Café outlet at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Today there are close to 30 outlets and takeaway counters in malls, MRT stations and hospitals. Polar pastries are also sold at selected petrol stations and convenience stores.

A Polar Café outlet at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Today there are close to 30 outlets and takeaway counters in malls, MRT stations and hospitals. Polar pastries are also sold at selected petrol stations and convenience stores.

A food institution in Singapore.

Polar is a food institution in Singapore.

Polar Café was renamed Polar Puffs & Cakes in 1998. That same year, Polar also acquired a factory space in Woodlands and relocated its head office there. Today more than two million curry puffs are produced for sale every year. There are close to 30 outlets and bistros, with at least another 80 distribution points at selected petrol stations and convenience stores.

Constantly voted among the best curry puffs by local food critics and magazines, Polar remains the go-to tea-time snack for many Singaporeans and is truly a food institution.

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