The kopitiam is a very Malaysian thing. Traditionally kopitiam were run by the Hainanese, They offered their own brewed coffee and their own brand of kaya, while bread and eggs were usually purchased from elsewhere. Often in a kopitiam there would be two or more side stalls selling all sorts of street food. A kopitiam owner sometimes doubled as the landlord, imposing monthly rents on these stalls, but he would hold the exclusive right to sell beverages.
There would be an apprentice/ coffee boy, also Hainanese, to assist in brewing coffee, cleaning tables and floors, and all that is required to run the business. He would leave once he had enough savings to run his own kopitiam. Some stay faithfully at the service of the towkay, eventually buying over the coffeeshop when the towkay is too old to run it. Some fortunate ones will just inherit the kopitiam.
At a dark corner a policeman in civilian clothes would sit for hours to observe and watch the people in his assigned area. Such policemen were known as “amphai”. It was part of policing methodology, used by the “gomen” to monitor the community. Sometimes Special Branch too would appear when there was a big event or election happening in the country, to gather information on the people’s sentiments.
Kopitiam are places where the community would share the latest news in politics and sports and happenings in the world around them. Spittoons and table screen separators were essential features of traditional kopitiams. Kopitiam allow small time sellers of nasi lemak and mee goreng bungkus from nearby kampungs to place their products on consignment or have their own unique business partnership arrangements. Kopitiam tables are usually made of wood with marbled table tops, and on a hot sunny day, one enjoys the coolness of the marble table while resting the arm on its surface. Newspapers of all languages are usually available for free reading. Beer and stout are also available for hardworking coolies and lorry drivers who prefer to consume them at day break, as a tonic drink. “Ini minom, baru badan kuat,” they claim.
Traditional kopitiam seem a thing of the past, in an age of hipsterisation which eclipses local culture in favour of a global aesthetic and “artisanal” coffees from South America. Where new kopitiam are set up, they are air-conditioned and stylised. It will never be the same. Melaka In Fact took the opportunity to photograph several traditional kopitiam within Melaka, including that belonging to Madam Ng Yok Swee, which she is looking to sell.
With kopitiam owner’s wife
Ng Yok Swee, 61
30 January 2020
97 Jalan Bunga Raya
Operating Hours: 8am to 4pm
This business was begun by my father-in-law, more than 70 years ago. He came from China. My husband is the second generation to run it. He’s 60 plus. He grew up here.
They say this building is “pre-war”. We used to rent part of this to [an Indian Muslim] selling nasi padang. No more, now my husband and I are both old, in our 60s, our children have left school and are working. So rather than sit at home, we pass the time here. We’re open 8am to 4pm, and close early if there are no customers.
In those days, before those big shopping centres such as Tesco and AEON, Jalan Bunga Raya was very famous. But now business is not good for the shops here, even for Madam King Shopping Centre.
We buy our tea and coffee from KL, always loyal to the supplier we’ve used all these years. But it’s not easy, this business. None of our children want to continue it, and we’re looking for a buyer for the building. If the price is right, we’ll sell.