Traditional business partners

In a recent food trail to Muar – Bandar Maharani, the royal town of Johor – I notice that many businesses here are run by Chinese and Malay partnerships.  This interesting phenomenon is more obvious in a developing town where most traders still operate in shops rather than in malls or markets.  As I discover how common it is for Malay traders to partner successfully with the Chinese, especially to serve food and drinks to a loyal clientele in coffee-shops, my curiosity is piqued.

Regulars enjoy delicious Nasi Padang
at Qin Garden Kopitiam in JB
This strong relationship between the Chinese and Malay communities in Johor can be traced back to the 1800s when Johor’s ruler, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim, the father of Sultan Abu Bakar, invited the Chinese from Singapore and Riau, Indonesia, to open up land in Johor for pepper and gambier cultivation.  As large plantations were cultivated with pepper and gambier as the state’s economic crops, Johor became the world’s largest producer of gambier.  The cultivation of these crops contributed significantly to Johor’s economic progress and the legacy of this relationship continues in a tradition of Chinese-Malay business partnerships here.

I’m familiar with Adam Soroso, a trader from Surabaya, Indonesia, who forged a partnership with the Tian family and their coffee-shop at Jalan Trus in Johor Baru.  In the last 25 years, Adam has established a reputation for his Nasi Padang set up within the coffee-shop to serve breakfast and lunch.  From 7am, his stall will start serving a breakfast menu with local favourites like nasi lemak, mee rebus, mee siam, yong tahu and lontong while Qin Garden Kopitiam, run by Tian Wai Ing and her husband, Lim Choon Thang, will offer hot and cold beverages and traditional kaya toast and half-boiled eggs.

Mee Bandung connoisseurs head to Wah San kopitiam
to savour the taste of famous mee bandung Muar
I’ve always been fascinated by how customers in busy traditional coffee-shops, have no qualms about joining a table already occupied by other customers – and eat with total strangers on a shared table – during peak dining hours.  This is still happening in traditional kopitiams and at Qin Garden, I’ve also seen how the affable Adam will welcome customers, show them to tables and even help to take their drink orders.  It is not unusual to see Adam shouting the drinks order to the beverage maker at the rear of the shop, in the tradition of old coffee-shops!

In Muar a similar scenario is being played out at Wah San kopitiam (the latter word is replaced by “Café” on the signboard) where Abu Bakar Hanipah serves his famous mee bandung Muar.  While he has another outlet in Tanjung Emas, this coffee-shop along Jalan Abdullah is the original shop where his father served his special noodles recipe since 1930.  This noodle specialty has gained such a reputation that connoisseurs don’t mind traveling all the way to Muar just to savour its unique flavour!

Abu Bakar Haipah showing off the frozen pack of gravy
[in his hand!] that are popular takeaways!
Besides Abu Bakar’s mee bandung, Johor cuisine like soto ayam or spicy chicken soup and satay are popular choices in the menu.  I learnt that in Muar, satay – skewers of grilled marinated meat – is even served for breakfast and am delighted that each skewer is packed with juicy meat and not mixed with chunks of fat or skin.  The fragrance of freshly grilled satay from the grill set up on the pavement blows into the shop but nobody is complaining because it’s all part of the dining experience here.

Sitting next to the cashier’s counter, I watch the Chinese man behind the counter who also doubles up as an order-taker and drinks-server.  Occasionally, he yells out orders to the beverage maker who is a Chinese lady.  The waiters here are a team of Malay and Chinese and it’s interesting to observe them moving seamlessly around, doing their duties to clear tables and attend to customers’ requests. 

The satay stall Sin Juan Heng
coffee-shop is closed for the day

The loudest person in the shop is probably Abu Bakar himself as he extols the merits of his mee bandung to customers (like me) who asks him a few questions.  When he sees my camera, he is ready to pose for a photo but not without his product.  He quickly whisks out an A4-size laminated poster of mee bandung with its brand name and makes me hold it up while he displays a frozen packet of his noodle gravy (sold as takeaways!) and happily shows a thumbs-up sign!

Still amused by Abu Bakar’s enthusiasm, I continue my walking tour and inevitably spot more coffee-shops that are operated in Chinese-Malay partnerships.  When I pass Sin Juan Heng coffee shop at Jalan Maharani, I can’t help pausing for a closer look.  Even though the stall is closed for the day, it’s clear that this is yet another Chinese coffee-shop working in partnership with a Malay satay vendor.

At Jalan Sisi, my attention is riveted to a sign above a stall, “Ori Popia Recipe” and I pause to read a bunting that lists a variety of popia or spring rolls and snacks.  A steady stream of customers is stopping to buy takeaways from the stall set up in front of Tin Chip Mui coffee-shop.  I pick a table near the stall for my tea break and in between serving customers I have a chat with the trader, Lokman Mahat and his son, Muhd Shafiq.

Muhd Shafiq helps his father, Lokman Mahat, at their
snack food stall in front of Tin Chip Mui coffee-shop
While Lokman and his son provide freshly fried snacks to eat-in and take-out customers, a Chinese waiter takes my beverage order and serves it up.  As I sip my drink and chew into a tasty fried popia coated with a spicy sauce and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, I learn that Lokman created this special recipe popia fifteen years ago.

Lokman, who speaks English, says his wife, three daughters and son are his biggest supporters who inspired him to venture into the snack food business.  His popia was such a popular item in catering menus and annual Ramadan bazaars that it encouraged him to start a stall for spring rolls and snacks.  It’s been four years since Lokman went into a business partnership with this coffee-shop, and with the popularity of these snacks, the future of Ori Popia certainly looks promising!

A version of this was published in the April 2015 issue of The Iskandarian

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