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  • Izzuddin Ramli

The Kopitiam – The Hearths of Penang

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

These street shops are about much more than just coffee and food – they are where conversation and camaraderie flourish.

By: Izzuddin Ramli & Nurul Fadilah Ismawi

Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

Waking up to a morning coffee at a kopitiam; that is a ritual for many of us. But it’s not just about the caffeine kick – it’s the camaraderie that comes with the drink. It’s about the elders who stop for breakfast on their way home after performing their Fajr prayer at the mosques; it’s about the folks who chitchat there after a long day at work; it’s about the youths who pore over ideas while having a cuppa. At kopitiams, which literally means “coffee shop” in Malay and Hokkien/Hakka, breakfast food, such as toast, half-boiled eggs and porridge, is available throughout the day.

“Even if it looks old, people still visit my shop,” says Bee Hin, who has been running Bee Hin Café on Jalan Transfer for more than 50 years. “Running a small coffee shop like this doesn’t make me rich, but it does make me happy. I like to serve people and see people talk and laugh while drinking their coffee.”

More than Breakfast

Kopitiams of all sorts are scattered around George Town, and while they are run mostly by ethnic Chinese, they attract a clientele that knows no racial or religious bounds. The reason? Apart from filling bellies, a kopitiam serves as a venue for tête-à-têtes, which more often than not turn into friendly group discussions – “coffee shop talk”.

The elderly can be found catching up on stories they may have missed; a few even turn the place into a Chinese chess arena. Social-political discourses flourish, and a wealth of oral histories, peppered with pre-war tales and stories about places, can be heard. Amid its loudness, scandals are spread. “Sometimes, there are people who just sit and read the newspaper while having breakfast. There are also people who turn my shop into a parliament hall – they like to talk about politics. You can listen to gossip, too. I sometimes join them,” reveals Bee Hin.

Kopitiams attract the young as well: “I prefer this old-fashioned kind of coffee shop than all those hip cafes that are currently trendy. The coffee and toast are delicious and economical, and I get to listen to stories about Penang from the older customers,” says Alvin Yap, a 30-year-old computer engineer. Fret not if you have missed the morning news; simply visit a kopitiam and tune in.

Heritage Establishments

The coffee-drinking culture existed long before independence in 1957 – and so have the kopitiams; P. Ramlee films dating from the 1950s and 1960s show that visiting warungs – the Malay version of kopitiams – for coffee was common, and coffee was also offered to visitors as a gesture of friendship.

Then there is the distinct design of kopitiams, with their furniture and decorations collected along the way, that takes one back to the past. “The business was passed from generation to generation,” says a coffee shop operator on Lebuh Kimberley. “I am just helping to keep this kopitiam running.”

Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

New cafes are also making their mark in town. These usually have choices of Western food on their menu, are dimly lit and have soothing lounge music or jazz playing on their stereos. Air conditioning, power sockets, free Wi-Fi and comfy couches are the norm – and perhaps the reason behind why people choose to work there than in the comfort of their homes. A cup of coffee can triple in price in these surroundings; these cafes are not just selling the beverage, they are also selling the ambience.

With joints like these, what does the future hold for kopitiams?

“I hope people will always come to kopitiams. That is the only way they can contribute and keep us alive. Otherwise, kopitiams will close their doors, one by one,” says a cook at Joo Hooi Café, Jalan Penang.

Many social and political revolutions began over a cup of coffee – such as the French Revolution, which started at cafes where people came together to plan and discuss bigger issues. In Malaysia, all the “coffee shop talk” might in fact foster change. Kopitiams are more than just about the authenticity of coffee and simple comfort food. They are a place of learning, an archive and a space that knows no ethnic or class boundaries.

So go ahead, visit a kopitiam and engage in random conversation over a freshly brewed cup of joe.

*This article was first published in Penang Monthly, May 2016.


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