Whenever I stroll around the Botanic Gardens, my feet will always take me back to one particular location. They bring me around the neat wooden tables, thronging with expatriate families and their dogs, crowding the outside of the Da Paulo bistro next to the train station. They take me past glass-fronted wineries and décor shops, through a tire repair shop with waves of heat roaring off car exhaust pipes. And every single time, they stop at Island Creamery.
I never learned if the specific Island Creamery branch I visit was their flagship branch. But even though it has expanded into a chain that can be found in shopping centres around the island, the store tucked away at the corner of Serene Centre will always be the one that holds the most character—and memories—for me. The checquered tiles (ever so subtly faded), round marble tables and diner-style menu hanging from the ceiling have hardly changed in the six years I have visited this ice cream parlour. A jaunty striped parasol stands behind the coffee roaster and water dispenser, and porcelain cups and saucers etched with dark green floral designs sit on top of a red Simonelli grinder. Visitors come and go at odd hours, inspired by sudden a sweet tooth—or perhaps just by the simple circumstance of habit, like in my case.
The first thing any visitor does is press themselves up against the glass covers enshrining the rectangular tubs that hold the day’s flavours for sale. They range from the mundane (Burnt Caramel and Cookies & Cream) to the inventive (Black Sesame Oreo and Tiger Sorbet) to the unabashedly local (Teh Tarik and Ping Pong Milo, the latter of which is ice cream flavoured after the chocolate malt drink that is so popular in Singapore and studded with tiny marshmallows). My eyes will always scan the multi-coloured crevasses for Fresh Banana. It was the flavour I had tried on my first visit to the store as a shy thirteen-year-old in an over-sized school uniform that hung off my shoulders. I have been hooked onto it ever since. Over the years my taste in ice cream might have expanded – I might order a Red Bean, and lately the alluring rose aroma of their new Isfahan flavour has made that another staple of mine – but at the end of the day, I come back to Fresh Banana. And it was that flavour I chose as my accompaniment to a lazy Friday afternoon, with a glass of Coke thrown in for good measure.
Many types of Singaporeans, it seems, are drawn by the allure of the ice cream parlour. Two men in dress shirts and work pants sat down at a wooden side table and began conversing in low voices. A mother walked in with her young son, pressing him for his opinion as a clerk explained the different ice cream flavours. I looked down to sip from my Coke, and when I looked up again there was another mother with another young boy at her side. A gaggle of young women, all with hair dyed strawberry blonde and toting plastic takeaway cups of milk tea, strolled in. And then there are, of course, the groups of secondary school students who would fill the shop with peals of laughter. But the sight that struck me most was of the middle-aged woman sitting alone in the middle of the store, a waffle cone of strawberry sorbet in her hand. A grown adult indulging, for that moment, in what must have been a little scoop of innocence.
Perhaps it’s this shared experience of sweetness that draws so many groups of people to this one shop. And yet, paradoxically, it can also be a site of transience. The employees are never the same. And I hardly see the same group of visitors twice – though, I am sure, they return to the store at other times. The students are drawn from a range of schools all over the Bukit Timah area where Serene Centre is situated (and sometimes even further), and there are those who simply stray into the shop one day and leave as quietly as they came. But maybe it’s the ability of this place to bring people together, even momentarily, that makes Island Creamery have an influence beyond being an ice cream chain. A corkboard near the back of the store bears letters from grateful community beneficiaries – a junior college that had managed to fund a charity kayaking marathon, a message from the Singapore Armed Forces on how the chain had organised an appreciation event for their servicemen. All of these were proud badges of ice cream’s unexpected ability to not just delight, but even inspire.
I finish licking the watery ice-cream melt from the inside of my cup and leaned back into the plush blue sofa I had chosen near the window. Sitting in this store and watching the world go by had an oddly soothing effect – it made me feel, for even just a fleeting moment, that my world was at peace. And as I walked out the store, I knew it would be waiting another day, receiving visitors with open arms and a little scoop of childhood.