In a brightly lit and often crowded back alley off Jalan Bunga Raya, Tong Bee stall is a highlight among street food vendors in Melaka. It’s popularly known as “Longkang Siham” (literally, “Drain Cockles”) because customers sit on tiny stools by the drains to devour fresh shellfish and sotong bakar (grilled cuttlefish) as motorcycles whizz past. A dish combining taukua (fried beancurd), you char kueh and fish cake is a winner. The dipping sauce, a concoction of prawn paste, chilli, lime juice and crushed peanuts, has taken a long time to evolve into its present deliciousness. Tables and stools are short, for easy storage. The bright lights, a recent installation by the current third generation owners, are a far cry from the scene in the 70s, when the indefatigable founder Madam Tan Ah Geok and her son Mr Khoo Tiong Bee operated in a dark alley, lit by kerosene lamps.
We spoke to Alex Khoo, grandson of the founder, about the business and its history which goes back nearly 50 years.
With the owner of
Tong Bee Stall Alex Khoo, 42 016-500 4490
22 January 2020 in Mandarin
Tong Bee Stall aka “Longkang Siham” off Jalan Bunga Raya
Operating Hours: 5pm - 11pm (except Wednesdays)
In the 60s, my father was hit by a tractor, and one of his arms was paralysed. He was a contractor, but could no longer work. To support our family, my grandmother began a small business selling food behind Federal cinema. My family lived there, in the Toa Chu Lai village. My father and his sister helped my grandmother, and then my father took over the business.
Then Capitol cinema began showing Bruce Lee movies, which attracted big crowds. So we set up our stall outside Capitol cinema. People would come for a meal before catching the midnight shows. At that time, my father had a Malay partner, and the licence was in this man’s name. Then the Malay partner left, and the licence was transferred to my father, Khoo Tiong Bee. This was not the usual temporary hawker’s licence, but a yearly licence; the location of the stall was stated in the licence.
Many different foods were sold outside Capitol cinema, including cockles, satay, nasi lemak, cakoi. Gradually there were fewer stalls, and so my father expanded his stall area. In the 70s my father moved the stall here, where we’ve been since then. My mother and I never saw my father’s business before moving here, because when my mother met my father he was already here, where we are now. I was born in 1978, and growing up, this place was my playground.
It’s rare to have a licence continuing for so long, from the 70s. We are a tourist attraction, with people heading here from Singapore and Thailand. It’s very important that we keep this lane clear, and that we clean up very well nightly, tables and stools packed away. We rent a small store for this, different from others who have to pack everything up in pushcarts. But every night we wheel our fresh seafood here, the cockles and such.
You can see that our stools are small and short, with low tables. We use this today because we’ve always used it. Even the satay stall in those days used these low stools, perhaps it was the trend at one time. But we do have other tables as well. We have 8 to 10 tables out, sometimes 13 on busy nights like Saturdays. If it’s quiet, we put out 5 tables.
“Our seafood is fresh - you can see the cockles are still moving. 90% of our customers prefer ourseafood to be 'half-cooked'.They enjoy the 'fresh' taste! Some ask for it very raw, just cook it in boiling water'1,2,3' and out”
Those days, we had a lot of old customers, but as time went on we had more younger customers too. Some of them were brought here by their parents, so it’s across generations. But also, it may have been because of the media attention. We were the first stall here to be interviewed, in “Taste with Jason” on Astro’s Asian Entertainment Channel [a Mandarin language TV channel]. First someone came to taste our food, then when they liked it, they asked my father to do a TV interview with Jason. Many people watched this programme, and we had many young customers after that. Then followed magazine and radio interviews, also newspapers such as Sin Chew Jit Poh and the Star. Baki Zainal from 8TV comes here, on a bicycle, and brings many people here. William San came to interview for One FM [on radio]. It was then that we really became well-known.
I remember in the 80s and 90s, the area of Bunga Raya was very busy. If you wanted to go shopping, the first place you’d think of was Bunga Raya, with its cinemas, Madam King [a shopping mall] and textiles and clothes shops. Before Jonker Street this was the liveliest street.
“In the 80s and 90s, the area of Bunga Raya was very busy. If you wanted to go shopping, the first place you’d think of was Bunga Raya, with its cinemas and clothes shops.Before Jonker Street this was the liveliest street”
We’re open from 5pm to 11pm every day except Wednesdays. We also close if there are personal matters to attend to. Motorcycles pass by on this road, but though it’s narrow, touch wood, no problem has ever occurred. The locals know us here. When it rains, we put up a canvas covering. We don’t use anything automatic or mechanised for fear of vandalism. When we installed lights here before, they were destroyed. So better to use things which can be taken down every night.
Our seafood is fresh – you can see the cockles are still moving. 90% of our customers prefer our seafood to be “half-cooked”. They enjoy the “fresh” taste! Some ask for 3/4 cooked, and some ask for it very raw, just cook it in boiling water “1,2,3” and out. Many of these customers are from Thailand, but there are Malaysians who want this too.
But siput laut [sea-snails] needs to be cooked a long time. If it’s not fully cooked, you can’t get the flesh out of the shell. When customers have insisted on having this half-cooked, it’s sad to see them leave the food uneaten.
Cockles and lala [clams] are the most popular dishes. Cockles are the most important, because when people come and we tell them we are out of cockles, they leave. Some young people can eat a huge amount of cockles.
Shellfish apart, we sell fishballs, fried beancurd, sotong kangkung. We also sell sotong bakar [grilled squid]. When he ran this business my father sold sotong bakar, but the machine was spoilt so he stopped selling it. This machine is a manual press, to flatten and lengthen the squid pieces. When I found a machine, we resumed. We grill the squid beforehand, and then grill it briefly when customers place an order.
“I was born in 1978. Growing up, this place was my playground”
Our sauce is important, it’s taken a lot of work to get it right. Anyone can boil fresh shellfish, but what makes our food special is the sauce. The ingredients are not hard to find – shrimp paste, chilli, lime juice, peanuts, but we did many tweaks before coming up with this unique sauce.
We can only keep our fresh shellfish overnight, after that we throw it away even if it means a loss to us. To be frank this pandemic and fewer tourists has really affected our business. Things have gone very quiet. My younger sister runs this business now, and my role is just to “support” her. I come in at weekends. So I have time to think up new ideas, and I’m thinking of offering claypot dishes, for instance, claypot lala. The soup will be herbal chicken soup, so here it’s not the lala that’s the star but the soup. Instead of lala we could also have balitong (“siput sedut”) or prawns. Not too many ingredients, so it’s easy to prepare. Though we’ll accomodate old customers who make special requests, to add squid or other kinds of seafood.
In those days, business was very good around Chinese New Year. Then there were no shopping complexes, no Jusco. Now around Chinese New Year our business drops, because people go shopping and Bunga Raya is less crowded. We’ve thought about setting up in a shop, but then, many people know our location here.
Looking to the future, we hope our children will continue this business. As it is, my sister’s and my children help out here already, they know the business. They’ll be the fourth generation.