Charming coffeeshop culture

Toast and teh-see: Notice how they typically serve
the drink carelessly spilled into the saucer!
Long before air-conditioned coffeehouses and cafes started in Johor Baru, there were family-run coffeeshops that locals fondly call kopitiam.  

This word is coined from the Malay word for coffee, kopi and tiam, the word for ‘shop’ in Hokkien dialect, probably because the early coffeeshop operators were mainly Chinese of Hokkien, Hockchew and Hainanese dialect groups.  Even as more chic cafes and franchise coffee-chains are opening in our rapidly developing city, a few old kopitiams are still thriving with the patronage of a loyal clientele.

Coffeeshop coffee is not only often served spilled into
the saucer but it may also come in chipped crockery!
I used to go Johor Baru’s main market, then located at Jalan Wong Ah Fook (where JB City Square is now), with grandma and I remember our coffee powder was bought from a vendor who had a stall in the upper floor.  The young Indian vendor whom we nicknamed, Cassius Clay – the former name of champion boxer Mohammad Ali – would weigh out grandma’s choice of coffee-beans before putting them in a grinder.  I can still hear the shrill whine of the grinder and the fragrant aroma as the beans – the pure stuff that was not roasted with sugar or butter – were ground to the desired texture and neatly packed into brown paper bags for us.

Coffeeshops still use traditional cloth bag
strainers when they brew their coffee!

With such fine quality coffee being brewed at home, there was no reason for us to drink coffee outside.  So my first experience of going to a coffeeshop was probably when we were travelling en route to Ipoh for our family holidays.  In those days when there was no Plus Highway with proper toilets in rest stops, the toilet convenience in the coffeeshop was why we stopped there and sometimes had drinks and snacks.

In those days, the standard furniture in coffeeshops was marble-topped round or square tables matched by wooden chairs with round seats.  The name of the coffeeshop would be emblazoned across a huge mirror on at least one wall as well as on the bamboo chinks hung from the front entrance that was unrolled to keep the interior cooler.  Since the 1940s, coffeeshop décor was typically beer, soft-drinks and cigarettes advertisements that were graced by popular Hong Kong female movie stars with the products and brand logos. 

The menu at traditional coffeeshops usually
include these items.  Can you identify them?
One of the first things that I noticed in a coffeeshop and remains engraved in my memory must be the spittoon that was placed under each table.  My mum warned me to stop swinging my legs under the table or risk accidentally kicking the spittoon over and I obeyed, cringing at the thought of countless people having spat in it.  Back then spittoons were provided for people who chewed tobacco and even though it was unhealthy, public spitting was socially acceptable.  But I’m grateful that the use of spittoons in coffeeshops gradually disappeared in the 1980s.  

The coffeeshop ambience also left an impression of noise and chaos contributed by the convivial chatter of customers that was punctuated by frequent yells among the staff.  I observed how the staff must speak in loud volumes because order-takers would transmit the customers’ orders to the staff at the work stations simply by shouting the order in their lingo.  They just did not believe in walking a few steps to convey the message but must shout it and I used to be amazed at how the messages could be accurately received over the din!  It was quite impossible for me to decipher their language but much later I learnt that “Kopi-O noh!” means two black coffees!

An elegant Nasi Lemak set served in modern coffeeshops
In traditional coffeeshops, kopi refers to coffee with condensed milk while kopi-O is black coffee.  If you want your coffee with evaporated milk, your order should be kopi-C and it is served with sugar unless you clearly state, kopi-C kosong.  If you like an extra strong brew, you should say, kopi-kau because kau means strong and dense in Hokkien dialect or you say kopi-O-kau for extra strong black coffee.  These phrases also apply for tea orders like teh-O for black tea or teh-C for tea with evaporated milk but the permutations can get quite complicated for instance, a black tea order without sugar but with ice is, “teh-O-kosong-peng.”  

In the beauty of coffeeshop language, a phrase like teh-O-kosong-peng is a typical Malaysian mix of languages that reflect the social circles that gather regularly in traditional kopitiams.  Coffeeshop customers present a scene of unity and racial harmony where all races share a common bond in enjoying coffee and a favourite menu of kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs, nasi lemak and mee siam.  From politicians, lawyers, retirees, businessmen and families to career women, the kopitiam remains the place for people to sit together for a drink or a meal, not just at breakfast but also for lunch and afternoon tea.  

It's heart warming to see that our typically
Malaysian coffeeshop culture still prevails today!

Last week in a kopitiam, I enjoyed breakfast along with customers of different races who can agree on the menu of coffee, kaya toast and the range of rice and noodles.  There was something familiar about slurping up perfectly timed soft-boiled eggs from a saucer and not being offended if coffee or tea was served in chipped crockery or spilled into the saucer.  Even though we are seeing more coffee joints and artisan cafes that meet the ice-blended, cappuccino and latte tastes of urbanites, it’s heartwarming to know that there is still a clientele who appreciates coffeeshop cuisine and culture. 

Then I watched as two men arrived – Chinese and Indian – and when they saw that all tables were already occupied, they did the acceptable thing in kopitiams.  They politely asked and then tompang or joined a table occupied by two young men that had two vacant seats.  By then I was no longer looking surreptitiously but openly staring at them because I was totally charmed by this personification of Malaysian coffeeshop culture.  The two men sat down, chatted amiably with the young men and when their orders arrived, enjoyed their meal together in warm camaraderie.  Such a culture of harmony and agreement that still prevails in our charming coffeeshops is truly an inspiration for us to emulate in our daily lives.

A version of this article was published in the July issue of The Iskandarian

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