Old kopitiam

Wall menu at busy Hua Mui restaurant on Jalan Trus
Rustic charm of old kopitiam

Modern coffee shops with retro furniture and fixtures are mushrooming all over Johor Baru but, for PEGGY LOH, nothing beats the quaint little landmark kopitiam in Jalan Trus

WHILE modern entrepreneurs are starting chic little coffee shops with retro furniture and fixtures, Hua Mui restaurant is continuing with its 60-year-old tradition. Ask anyone who grew up in Johor Baru and they’ll tell you about this landmark kopitiam in Jalan Trus that’s run by the Chiang family.

I was introduced to Hua Mui by my street-smart schoolmates during our walks to the town library which was then located beside the main Post Office. In those days, it was a special treat to enjoy a snack or a cold drink at Hua Mui whenever we had a little extra pocket money.

History and harmony

When the business started in the 50s, its clientele comprised mainly European government officers, their friends and families. That was probably because it’s located within walking distance from the Sultan Ibrahim building in Bukit Timbalan which housed the state administrative offices.  Its menu of western dishes and local favourites must have contributed to the attraction.
Old photos of Johor Baru and deer antlers on wall upstairs

The ambience at Hua Mui is typical of a busy kopitiam. It is only mid-morning, but the ground floor tables are already taken up so I usher my friends upstairs. The wooden banister feels smooth, worn down probably by the thousands of customers who make their way up and down these very stairs daily. I imagine that most of the British men and women who once lived in Johor Baru had also walked the same stairs to reach the private booths that lined one wall of the section upstairs.

The booths have since been removed and replaced by modern rectangular tables. But there are still a few old-fashioned marble-top tables.  The walls upstairs are adorned by old black-and-white photos of Johor Baru and several sets of deer antlers.

The customers are made up of business suited lawyer types, middle-aged men and women and youngsters with trendy hairstyles. No wonder it’s always so crowded because everyone seems to be making Hua Mui their regular rendezvous!

Cuisine and curios

Patrons at another table place their orders without looking at the menu. They must be regulars who already know what they want!

Mariam Ibrahim at the ancient cash register upstairs
When waitress Mariam Ibrahim comes to our table, I order hot coffee and roti kahwin (charcoal toasted slices of bread spread with butter and a thick layer of kaya). While my friends are studying the menu, I chat with Mariam and learn that she has been working at the restaurant for more than 30 years.

Mariam happily posed with the cash register that was recently in use at the payment counter downstairs.  In the 60’s this was a very modern piece of equipment but today it’s kept as a cherished memento of a bygone era.  My mind goes back to my school days and I recall that the former waiters and waitresses were also loyal, long-serving staff.  At this point I am convinced that the colonial charm of Hua Mui is not only in its clever blend of Western-Hainanese menu but also in the ageing beauty of its staff!

Ancient dumb waiter still in use at Hua Mui!
When the food comes, there’s something for everyone — the signature fried kway teow with a side of sliced cili padi, nasi goreng kampung, stacks of kaya toast and chicken chop topped with mushroom sauce and a side of fried potato wedges, a dish that’s reputed to be the best in town!

To settle the bill, the Hua Mui method is to tally up a list, written on a little bill with a carbon-copy in a booklet at the upstairs counter before going to pay downstairs.  As I stand near the counter, I watch in fascination as a worker loads the ancient dumbwaiter with used dishes before lowering it through an air-well to the kitchen below. A short while later, the dumbwaiter comes back up, loaded with plates of food for serving to customers.

Fast Facts

Halal certified Restoran Hua Mui, located at No. 131 Jalan Trus, Johor Baru, is open daily from 8am to 6pm.  At peak hours and on weekends, it’s usually crowded so plan your visit to avoid disappointment.  Alternatively, visit Restoran Hua Mui Sutera at No. 50 Jalan Tanjung 8/4, Taman Sutera Utama in Skudai, open from 7.30am to 9.30pm.  For enquiries, Tel: 607 – 224 7364 (Johor Baru) or Tel: 607 – 556 4086 (Taman Sutera).

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 13 January 2011

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