In the wee hours of the morning, the side grills are open first and already there is someone sitting at one of the tables, eagerly waiting for his morning dose of coffee with newspaper in hand. He sits alone in the middle of the shop, quite oblivious to the noisy Metrobus covering half the entrance and the fact that the main door of the coffee shop is still closed.
A large sign in English reads ‘Lai Foong Restaurant’. Inside, there’s a huge mirror with painted congratulatory wishes from other establishments within the area, on the occasion of the opening of the coffee shop.
The coffeemaker, an almost zen-like Chinese man working like clockwork in the back of the kitchen, shares his thoughts between stirring coffee and looking after the steamer. ‘I remember coming here when I was really small. Now I’m 57 and I’m working here!’ He laughs. ‘I’m usually here by 4.30am. For me, I’m still young and I should work hard as long as I can. That’s how you survive in KL. Look, even the owner of the place still makes the beef noodles on his own.’
The boss arrives at 6.45am. He puts on a black apron and begins work at his stall, slicing stewed beef for the stock of his famous beef noodles. His wife and son are at the counter, manning the cash register. The other hawker stalls are fully operational with their respective captains.
Hungry patrons start trickling in, and by 8am, the place is packed. The regulars are always a welcome sight in traditional kopitiams. These are the patrons who announce their arrival with loud greetings to the owner. A Metrobus driver casually walks in and finds a spot for himself. An old Indian man enjoys his time with a cup of coffee. With people streaming in and out, the orders keep coming in from the old uncle who shuttles between taking orders and serving drinks. An old lady tells me to move away from the kitchen sink so she can start washing the dishes. She calls me a crazy person. I look at the coffeemaker, who says, ‘She calls everybody crazy!’
At this kopitiam, which shall remain unnamed, the cement floor is sinking in the middle. The tables on both sides of the coffee shop slant towards the centre. Each table is a sturdy slab of marble held up by a column of rusted iron, which used to have a small pail attached to it for the convenience of those who spat regularly. The old wooden chairs are particularly interesting, with the front part of the seat heavily worn and the feet bent under the weight of thousands of patrons over the many decades of operation.
The menu on the wall is written on a simple manila card, with prices slashed off and updated over time. The price of a cup of coffee used to be RM1.00, but the years have seen it rise with increments of 20 cents before finally settling at RM2.20.
At noon, only a single table is occupied. A chess game is underway. One of the players is a taxi driver who double parked his taxi right in front of the shop. Whenever there’s trouble, he simple gets up, re-parks his car and returns to the game.
By 3pm, every table in the shop is covered with chessboards. Everyone’s cursing and laughing at each other – it isn’t entirely clear if the players hate or love each other dearly. A game deep in silence will suddenly be broken up with a RM50 note thrown onto the table, accompanied by a challenge to make a specific move. The topic of the evening will depend on what the old man does next. Will he accept the wager or decline?
The old man slowly pushes the money aside. His opponent quickly stands up and shouts a chain of expletives. Another hand butts in and quickly demonstrates a series of moves on the board. Another face agrees. Two of them walk away to the next table.
In an instant, the old man is left alone at the table, staring at the chessboard, pondering on the move he could have made. He quietly gathers all the pieces and rearranges the board just as a new opponent fills the vacant chair.
Every person who walks in carries the air of walking into his own home, as if they all belong here and know exactly where each cup is kept and what every switch controls. They don’t have to worry about the menu or even if they have enough money for a drink. There is no waiter running back and forth. Conversations vary between the weather, politics, current affairs and gossip.
The kitchen only occupies a small area at the back. The empty area next to it is reserved for the constant shuffle of mahjong cubes. Further back is an empty space with only a few broken chairs, far older than many of us reading this. ‘This place was started in 1946 by my father. Back here, this is where we used to make coffee powder. But that was a long time ago.’
An understanding of the early history of the kopitiam would be incomplete without a mention of the role of the Hainanese in defining the kopitiam culture as observed today.
Most of the Hainanese immigrants arrived much later than those of other dialect groups and as such, missed out on many working opportunities in various sectors. They ended up working in positions that were considered undesirable due to working conditions and the demands of heavy labour. They struggled to secure employment as cooks, rubber tappers, farmers and domestic servants. Over the turn of the century, those who worked as cooks and servants in European households built up reputations as loyal and reliable helpers.
The exodus of the British from Singapore and Malaya during the turbulent war periods brought about serious economic and political changes. The Hainanese men soon found themselves out of work, and relied on what they knew best – food and beverage. Transitioning from unemployed to self-employed, they set up coffee shops, bakeries, eateries and even small hotels.
The price of rubber fell drastically during the 1930s and the subsequent Great Depression resulted in not only a steady stream of former rubber tappers now eager to work in a different field but also vacant business premises which were now available for very low rent. Coupled with their eagerness to work hard for themselves, the presence of the Hainanese brought about a serious boom in the food and beverage industry in Malaya during the 1920s till the 1950s. Drawing upon their experience serving their former colonial masters, they introduced a selection of dishes that were a curious hybrid between colonial and local cuisines.
The now-iconic black coffee with roti bakar (toasted bread with butter and kaya) and half-boiled eggs were an adaptation of the original British breakfast. The same can be observed with how the Hainanese chicken chop is served with a gravy of green peas and carrots, accompanied by coleslaw and potato wedges. Hainanese coffee merchants and coffee shop proprietors also went about procuring and roasting their own coffee beans to create unique flavours.
Even the English word ‘coffee’ was adapted into Malay to become ‘kopi’ which was then combined with the Hokkien word ‘tiam’ (meaning ‘shop’) to become ‘kopitiam’, literally meaning ‘coffee shop’.
Walk across the busiest intersection in KL, past the large machinery that is changing the face of Bukit Bintang – at the end of a long row of massage parlours and a million different shops catered to the wandering traveller lies a quiet and unassuming coffee shop. Dressed in a floral sam foo, Madam Yap commands the Toong Kwoon Chye Coffee Shop with a light foot. Her grandfather, Yap Kee Chong, started the business in 1925 under the nickname Dong Kwoon Zhai , literally ‘the boy from Dong Kwoon’, a town in Guangdong, China.
The tables and chairs are familiar. One wonders if all traditional kopitiams had the same furniture supplier. The staircase leading up to the living quarters are curiously ’70s in style. The building was renovated back then with the addition of two floors, and today, Madam Yap lives on the mezzanine floor of the four-storey building while the rest of her family are on the top floor.
She runs a modest business, serving drinks and the shop’s signature wan tan mee, which has been perfected over many decades. Business starts at 8.30am when the iron shutters are opened by her brother, the wan tan mee maestro. Educated under the British, she responds to my queries for a roti bakar in perfect English. ‘We don’t have roti bakar. We do have kaya pau. You should try it. It’s the same thing.’ We were all raised to respect the wise words of our elders and here it rings true. Even with a full stomach, the pau is delicious. It tastes exactly how a pau should taste and everything just clicks.
If Sergio Leone were setting up a scene for one of his Westerns in Malaya, this is how it would look. There’s the quiet regular with half a bottle of Guinness. A lone wandering traveller with a cold beer. A group of young local girls enjoying their plate of noodles. A duel between Madam Yap and a curious writer, which might make for a better story than the one you are reading.
The main road right in front of the shop is now closed for roadworks and a comfortable curtain of silence hangs over the shop. If any part of Bukit Bintang still retains its soul, this is it.
The pioneering Hainanese and other ethnic groups played a huge role in transforming the kopitiam into a public institution and developing the culture of eating various dishes that today defines the modern Malaysian dining lifestyle. Over the years, the Malaysian palette has evolved from being singular, with each ethnic group preferring their respective cuisine, to being extremely inclusive in enjoying the foods of other cultures.
The modern structure of a coffee shop, with its model of serving drinks and subletting space to hawker stalls, was established by early proprietors who were looking at diversifying the choice of dishes available and to offset the rising cost of rental. The scale of a modern coffee shop has shifted from a bare shoplot with wooden tables and benches to a full-blown restaurant with a selection of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Western, and even fusion dishes from rows of hawker stalls. The hungry Malaysian expects the option of ordering different dishes at the same time, and rotating between cuisines becomes a daily routine rather than a luxurious gastronomical adventure.
The pressure to deliver is great and the stakes are higher every day. With food reviews and coverage by the media, foodies flock to eating destinations for a taste of good food. Along the way, selected kopitiams attain status as heritage icons while lesser-known ones fade away slowly with each passing generation. Some kopitiams are cool to be seen in while others are barely even noticed, let alone frequented by the younger crowd.
The idea of a kopitiam is so much more than just servings of food. The old coffee shops exist as a safe haven for the older generation, who find comfort in familiar faces and routines. A cup of coffee and a slice of toast is the way they’ve started their mornings for the better part of their lives and to be able to share that routine with familiar faces is a simple but gratifying joy. A place where one can go to be alone, to while away the day in silence.
The kopitiam is a time capsule, where the younger generation go to have a taste of how their parents and grandparents once lived. The kopitiam is a neutral ground where meetings are held, business deals are sealed and squabbles settled. The kopitiam is a common ground, where different parts of society can share the same table, eat the same food and ultimately, share a common identity.
The traditional kopitiam lifestyle will not last forever. The rising cost of rental makes it that much harder for these places to balance between being accessible to the common person and profitable enough to remain sustainable, especially in central KL. The age-old signboards with Chinese characters carved into solid blocks of wood will inevitably be brought down, to be replaced by neon signs sponsored by alcohol brands.
Stories from all the traditional kopitiams share a common script. The generation of kopitiam operators are at the tail end of their careers. The working hours are long, the work is hard, and the future is dim. They urge the younger ones to leave the nest behind in search of a better career and ultimately a better life.
Each generation will have its own kopitiam. For every old uncle who decides to call it quits and shutter his coffee shop for the very last time, just like the coffee shop with the Chinese chess in the coming months, there will be someone else, someone much younger, someone with an eager entrepreneurial spirit, working towards his very own version of a coffee shop, just like the immigrants did a century ago.
A kopitiam may die when it closes its doors for the last time, but the spirit of it and what it represents will live on for a very long time, albeit in a different form. But stories of the old kopitiams will be repeated for many more generations. Just like how our parents and their parents start every story with ‘You know, during my time…’ we will do the same with our children.
Visit the kopitiams
With a large sign in English that reads ‘Lai Foong Restaurant’ facing the road, you’ll find it hard to miss this decades-old coffee shop. Inside, the hawker-style restaurant consists of a cluster of stalls selling its signature beef noodles (the station is managed by the owner of the place himself), char kuey teow, Penang fried kuok teow and other Chinese favourites.
Toong Kwoon Chye coffee shop is located on the ground floor of a four-storey building that bustles with a familiar crowd throughout the day while the mezzanine and top floors house the kopitiam’s owner, Madam Yap, and the rest of her family. It was her grandfather, Yap Kee Chong, who founded the business in 1925. Today, she runs the coffee shop, which serves drinks and its signature wan tan mee at a stall operated by her brother.