Shiori of teamCARPE sat down with Adele Tan, the female co-founder of Gather the Misfits, a cafe and retail space at Rangoon Road. Over salmon toasties and ice cream waffles, Adele unveiled her perspective on running a cafe in Singapore, working on something that wasn’t her academic discipline, and bringing the experience of living overseas as a minority into a different kind of ‘misfit’ in Singapore. Written by Ong Shiori, edited by Athena and Photography by Gabrielle of teamCARPE
“We All Start As Strangers”.
It’s not a complicated statement. Indeed, everyone we care about and hold dear to our hearts today was once a stranger to us. Yet, we eventually learn to love and support them, or at least, treat them with respect and empathy. We might even go out of our way to help them, show them how much they matter to us, or to the rest of the world.
Just because we are all strangers now, are we any less deserving of each other’s support, respect and empathy? Are we any less capable of giving that to others as well?
Welcome to “Gather The Misfits”, where this quote shines in blue fluorescent lights above a highly photogenic, Instagrammable spot in this adorable cafe in Rangoon Road.
This statement may mean more to what the cafe represents than you think, or at least, that was what I thought at first. Oh, how I was proven wrong, from the moment we spoke to one of the cafe’s founders, Adele Tan. Yet, I had a feeling that I was going to like what I heard, whatever it was. There was just this wholesome and refreshing air to her, I would be lying if I didn’t say I was intimidated by the wholesome.
So, how did this all begin?
Before the cafe came to be what it is today, the cafe’s founders first started their current online store @xhundredfolds in Australia, where they settled down after finishing university. “What inspired us to start this store was a mission trip to the Philippines where we saw children not having enough in terms of education.”
The duo became inspired by the idea of giving back to less fortunate children by donating products instead of money, a model they adopted from the famous for-profit company Toms. The store donated stationary sets to these children, for every set they sold. “[We wanted to do something that was] just enough for (the children) to start doing something in school or at home.”
However, times were ever changing, and Adele knew that all too well. Even four to five years ago, products and designs had shelf life, and not long after the founders reached that realisation, came the rise of E-shopping. Even so, they still managed to find an opportunity. “People still want to touch and feel things [before they make a purchase]. So we started to rent out a small retail space in another cafe, where we also collaborated with a few friends with products that they didn’t know where to put.”
Eventually, after a few years of managing the retail space and occasionally holding design workshops, the cafe’s team realised there were space limitations at their previous location. So after eight months of searching and other challenges, they started their own cafe at their current location at Rangoon Road, with less space restrictions, and a greater ease in managing their activities, becoming what we know as Gather the Misfits today.
Even after doing so much, the founders’ empathy and generosity didn’t end there.
As Adele describes it, the new cafe and its new space was intended to be a “blank canvas for people to do whatever they wanted ”.
Most importantly, it was intended to be a sort-of “gallery”, something that was more accessible for the everyday person who just wanted their art to be seen. “We didn’t have that [platform to showcase our art] back then, and we saw the struggle in it,” Adele admits. Who says you have to be an established or wealthy artist to have your art be open to others? After all, finding and sharing enjoyment in art is a universal experience, and as the Singaporean in me believes, should be free or at least affordable, but that’s a debate for another day.
““We didn’t have that [platform to showcase our art] back then, and we saw the struggle in it.”
In addition to providing spaces for artists to showcase their art, the cafe also provides spaces for different groups to organise events. Be it get-togethers, business events, even ‘infamous’ KPOP fan cafe events. (disclaimer: the writer supports kpop fan events ok don’t @ me pls i beg also rmb to stream ‘on’ by bts and ‘psycho’ by red velvet thank u end of commercial)
“We saw the cafe as more of a safe space to do whatever you like. There’s this societal judgement that events organised by younger people are not real events. But I believe [an event organised by young people] is not any less of an event if someone were to use the event for a business. It’s still run by somebody, a gathering of like-minded people.” Say it louder for the people at the back!*
As if I didn’t love this cafe’s message and way of thinking enough, she surprises me with another fresh perspective among the negative perceptions towards the KPOP fan event scene. “It opened my eyes to a whole new culture, that people are really generous. People are using their own money and resources to give others free things.We see different people forming fan support groups and they design things to give [to others part of the group].”
“…I believe [an event organised by young people] is not any less of an event if someone were to use the event for a business. It’s still run by somebody, a gathering of like-minded people.”
Speaking about the prevalent judgement seen in older individuals and even some other cafes, Adele adds, “Some people are ‘judgey’ towards it – ‘like what’s the point of all of this?’ But sometimes you don’t need to do something to gain something, you do it because you want to celebrate and support something.”
And of course, when we talk about kpop fan events, perhaps XMM* culture immediately comes to mind, as me and the team jokingly mention to Adele. However, smiling knowingly, she is unfazed. She first clarifies that in reality, many working adults, including mothers and their children, are the ones who mostly frequent such events. But then, her next words take me aback.
“Even if it’s for little girls, what’s the issue?”
And for a moment, it made me backtrack on my own judgements and prejudices towards XMM culture at such events.
“They are still paying customers from a business point of view, what makes you [an older customer] any better or any bigger of a person than them when they are paying for the same things? ”
At this point I knew for sure, this place was really not like other girls*. I was curious to know what motivated them to dare to be different from other cafes.
And as Adele explained to me, perhaps, it really came from somewhere close to the hearts of the cafe’s founders. “We just felt like we couldn’t really fit in the mould.” She laughs, as she continues to share how their initial culture shock after coming home from Australia reflected their decisions in the cafe’s management.
First speaking about the differences in their cafe’s culture (as compared to other cafes in Singapore), she shares, “Cafe culture (and life,in general) in Australia is a lot more chill and relaxing, more lifestyle-orientated, and we wanted to adopt that. People in Singapore are more career-orientated, more concerned with working too hard or clocking in overtime hours. It was a real culture shock for me at first. We felt like misfits.”
Moreover, Adele shares with us how their experience living in Australia had shaped their perspectives on working with artists, designers and youth in the Korean-pop fan scene. “It links back to how we want to gather people who may feel outcast [because of] what they like. That’s something very personal to us since we lived overseas with racism and being part of a minority group.”
Wrapping up our interview, I asked her about some things I researched about the cafe prior to our meeting (a girl has to do her research!). On top of messages of positivity and empowerment dotted within the cafe’s interior, the cafe’s Instagram page was not shy of doing the same. It made me wonder if there was something that particularly inspired them to create such an uplifting online space, that highlighted the ‘good vibes’ captured within their physical cafe. ‘
Gently adjusting her bucket hat, Adele explains, “I guess I felt there’s this negativity in our culture, which was one of the things I struggled with after I came back.” With a shrug, she elaborates: “Maybe it’s Asian culture, or maybe us Singaporeans are just not used to being treated kindly, so we’re not really used to (being kind towards) others first.”
Somehow, there’s hope and optimism in her next statement, “But at the same time, it all starts with one person to give way, [it’s] almost like driving. We wanted to do the ‘positive vibes’ thing to make an effort — even if it only reaches one person.” She pauses, and we let her words sink in. The welcoming, inclusive space that she and her partner had created with Gather the Misfits had certainly drawn us to the quaint cafe off Farrer Park in the first place. She begins again, smiling, “Maybe there will be a change in culture eventually, as people try to get used to being treated kindly. [We’re taking it] one thing at a time, especially now that we have a platform.”
“Maybe it’s Asian culture, or maybe us Singaporeans are just not used to being treated kindly, so we’re not really used to (being kind towards) others first.”
One thing’s for sure, they’re definitely not all talk. With a 4.6/5 stars rating on Google reviews (you better believe it!) and recurrent commentary on how “friendly” and how much of a “gem” the cafe is, the cafe’s sincerity and wholesomeness is easily felt by members of the public — encouragement that Adele feels grateful for. “We just try our best to make their experience a good one and make them feel more comfortable. No matter whether or not they are responsive, you just try with your heart. People generally catch on to it.” Just as she completes her sentence, the door to the cafe opens, and someone else walks in. We watch what unfolded when we ourselves had entered this space — her partner walks over, presenting a menu and offering both a smile and help if needed, before letting the customer decide what they’d like to soak in a sunny afternoon.
Adele continues with a grin, “Just [by] asking people questions [such as] (‘How’s your day? How’s it going?) and reaching out to clarify anything — we just want to make your time here a good one.”
As cheesy and cliche as it sounds, going to Gather the Misfits made me more intrigued and curious about the other places and spaces (pun intended) that the average young person can uncover by day-tripping in Singapore.I guess Singapore isn’t as boring as I thought. (don’t call me out pls) Maybe finding out the perspectives of the people behind these places enrich our experience as we traverse upon these spaces.
Ultimately, I’d like to ask you to recall the quote I mentioned at the start of the article — yes, maybe, even after reading this, you and I, you and the founders, you and anyone else, may still be strangers to each other. We may not know each other’s stories, and maybe we never will. But perhaps, it doesn’t really matter anyway.
Regardless of whether you’re a misfit, a non-misfit, a stranger, a person — we’re all deserving of each other’s empathy, generosity and support. Most importantly, we are capable of sharing that with others as well. If anything, Gather The Misfits’ backstory proves that.
Either way, if all else fails, we know where to gather.
*Say it louder for the people at the back: a form of agreement when someone is spitting facts
*XMM: xiao mei-mei — basically referring to this negative image of Singaporean teenage girls
*She’s not like other girls: referring to the cultural stereotype of the unique and ‘different’ girl, pretty self explanatory.