There were many memorable moments on the show Kopitiam, but none so memorable than frying a (dead) cockroach.
Lina Teoh, 38, and Joanna Bessey, 39, both recall feeling ill after the studio was filled with smoke.
“For the episode, they wanted to make it look like there was a massive fire so they lit up a big tub of incense. But, it was too smoky,” says Bessey, with Teoh adding that there were both real and prop cockroaches used for the scene.
While exact details of the episode remain a hazy memory, Bessey remembers the scene required them panicking when the roach accidentally ended up in the pan.
Mano Maniam recalls there were times when filming took place for 24 hours straight. To which Teoh chimes in that they were probably all delirious come morning.
“If you have never worked with a Chinese company, you don’t know what real work is,” laughed 69-year-old Mano.
Created by Ng Ping Ho, Kopitiam ran for seven successful seasons from 1998 to 2003 on Ntv7. The premise was simple – Marie (Bessey) returns home and renovates her late father’s coffee shop which she calls ‘Kopitiam’.
It was the perfect setting to highlight the friendship between Marie, retirees Uncle Kong (Tan Jin Chor) and Uncle Chan (Mano), bossy lawyer Susan (Teoh), flamboyant hairdresser Steven (Douglas Lim) and aspiring actor Joe (Rashid Salleh).
The series was filmed in English but appealed to a wide audience due to its family-friendly and diverse range of content. Both Mano and Bessey say it “celebrated the Malaysian spirit of muhibbah and transcended race, religion and politics”.
Kopitiam even picked up a few nominations and wins at the Asian Television Awards.
Since the show ended, 75-year-old Tan has been enjoying retirement and playing Scrabble. Bessey proudly interjects that Tan is ranked sixth in Malaysia.
Lim shares that even during the show, Tan would have books full of Scrabble words and a Scrabble cassette tape in his car which they’d be forced to listen to “because back then we didn’t have cars”.
The others have continued acting, or in Lim’s case, doing stand-up comedy and musicals.
Maniam was recently in the BBC TV series Indian Summers which was filmed in Penang.
In contrast, Bessey, Teoh and Rashid have stepped back from the spotlight in recent years, preferring to work behind the scenes as writers, directors or producers.
“The three of us are parents now so I don’t have a life outside my normal day job,” laughs Bessey.
Teoh’s passion for documentaries has led her to run the Malaysian Documentary Association. Meanwhile, Bessey runs performing arts school Enfiniti Academy and 43-year-old Rashid writes and presents.
Twelve years later, as we sit in a Kuala Lumpur cafe owned by Ng for our special shoot, it is evident the dynamic of the cast is as strong as ever.
All of them agree there has never been a serious fight amongst them though fil-ming hours were long and fatigue made everyone cranky.
If there was a problem, it was with the extras. Tan remembers a few of them took too long to film a few lines.
Rashid explains: “I remember this one extra acting as a policeman and he took ages to film! This was outside Stadium Merdeka and it was hot!”
When asked if there’d ever be a Kopitiam reunion on either the big or the small screen, Lim and Rashid answered no.
Lim reasons: “I think nostalgia augments reality and I would not want to ruin it.”
But the others say they would love to film together again, with Teoh and Bessey equally eager to shoot with the original cast and crew.
One thing all of them can agree on is, it was the care that creator Ng took in writing the script and the family-like dynamic he created with the cast that made the show a success.
“As a young actor I was so impressed because other scripts in the industry were so awful. We were allowed some input but Ng usually said no,” says Bessey.
Lim laughs: “Like NO. No budget.”