It is 11.30am on a Wednesday morning, and although Sek Yuen has just cracked open its shutters, the eatery is already teeming with people.
The crowd is a curious mix of old and young faces – one table is made up entirely of elderly men and women, an assortment of walkers and canes forming a protective moat around them. Other tables are filled with fresh-faced folk, their long-sleeve shirts alluding to hurried work lunches.
No one seems to mind the sweltering heat, alleviated only by the gentle whirring of fans in the distance and a sporadic breeze floating in from the large windows stretching across the sides of the eatery. But this is after all part of the charm of the 70-year-old Sek Yuen, one of KL’s oldest surviving restaurants, which still holds sway with those looking for traditional Cantonese food served with a dose of history.
Although it has thrived through the decades, Sek Yuen’s foundling years were steeped in modest, unassuming circumstances. It all began in the 1940s, when three enterprising brothers – Phang Shue Tang, Phang Chew Kan and Phang Meng Yun – travelled around KL peddling wantan mee on a mobile food cart. Eventually, they tired of the daily rigours of travelling and decided to settle in a fixed location.
“My dad and his brothers sold their wantan mee alongside other hawkers – I was told it was like a hawker centre. Eventually, the others moved away or closed shop. But the brothers stayed in the place and started setting up a simple structure with some shade, so people wouldn’t get wet when it rained. Then they started expanding their menu,” says the affable Phang Yew Kee, 60, one of the partners in the restaurant (and Meng Yun’s son).
Eventually, in the early 1950s, having saved up, the brothers acquired permission to build the brick-and-mortar restaurant that still stands to this day along Jalan Pudu. In 1970, they acquired the lot next door and set up an extension to Sek Yuen that became one of the first air-conditioned eateries in KL. Last year, the owners started renting another lot along the same street to cater to growing demand and to facilitate the planned closure of the air-conditioned outlet for renovation works.
“This renovation will most likely start this year, but we may not give up the lot that we rented, because our business has expanded so we do need the space,” says Yew Kee pragmatically.
In many ways, the fact that the restaurant has remained a success is no big surprise. After all, it was a hit from the time it opened 70 years ago.
The restaurant’s founders knew they had to come up with multiple ways to monetise, as people didn’t have much money to splurge on food during the post-war period.
So, in the early days of its inception, Sek Yuen opened at 5.30am every morning to serve wallet-friendly dim sum to the rubber tappers, traders and morning market-goers who thronged the neighbourhood.
For lunch, the eatery attracted predominantly civil servants who at the time, were often British. The restaurant also became the go-to place for Chinese wedding banquets as there were few international hotels in the city then. At the time, brandy was a staple at Chinese weddings, so Sek Yuen began earning a reputation as one of the biggest purveyors of brandy in Malaysia.
“There was a French liquor company that visited the restaurant and accorded it some sort of recognition for selling so much brandy. My relatives were told that a tree was planted in the restaurant’s name in France. Whether the tree is still there or not, we don’t know though,” says Yew Kee, laughing.
Of course the real reason people flocked to Sek Yuen then and continue to throng it in droves now (just try getting a table on the weekends!) is because of the food.
The restaurant specialises in traditional Cantonese food, and for years has maintained wood-fired stoves (they only have two of these stoves now in response to growing environmental concerns), said to enhance the flavour and depth of the food. In the old days, family members often even doubled as wood-cutters!
“Most of our cousins were very muscular guys because they were always chopping wood. I used to see them do that when I was a child, and it was just like the Western cowboy movies!” says Yew Kee, grinning.
The restaurant currently employs between 80 to 100 staff (from cleaners to cooks to wait staff), and much of that labour is dedicated to making dishes from scratch.
Like the eatery’s famed crab meat balls – plump, rotund globes packed with flavour – which are made by hand every morning and typically sell out by early evening when they reopen for dinner.
The pei pa duck (roast duck) has also been a popular feature at Sek Yuen since the 1960s, and if you steal a glance at other tables, chances are most of them will have plates of this beautifully burnished duck.
Another old-fashioned Chinese dish that has survived from the 1950s is the steamed tofu and fish paste, a wholesome meal that plays on tender, silken textures and is redolent of home-cooking. “Many restaurants don’t serve this because it’s very, very traditional,” says Yew Kee.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, Sek Yuen’s culinary concoctions have withstood the passage of time and continue to garner accolades and celebrity appeal. In the 1980s, the restaurant was a popular pitstop for Hong Kong stars like Richard Ng and Eric Tsang, and this celebrity allure remains – just a few weeks ago, legendary Malaysian shoe designer Jimmy Choo was spotted here too.
In 2015, FoodieHub (a site alleging to be the world’s largest global network of local food experts) even released a video naming Sek Yuen the world’s best Chinese restaurant!
“Yes, we saw the video and we are certainly very honoured but we are actually surprised, because we have done very little advertising for our restaurant,” says Yew Kee.
The future is bright
Like many family-run businesses, continuity will always be an issue, but Sek Yuen seems to have landed quite nicely on its feet in this case. The restaurant is still run by the children and grandchildren of the original founders, all of whom are partners in the restaurant.
Yew Kee’s elderly cousin Phang Keng Foo, 77, for instance, is the front office manager while another cousin is the main chef in the restaurant, entrusted with the family’s heirloom recipes. From the younger generation, a number of nephews and nieces are also involved in the business.
To keep up with the times, the family has set up a collective management committee. The committee’s main goal now is to consolidate the eatery’s quality control processes and digitise the menu to aid in the cooking, ordering and billing process.
“At the moment, there are not many of the younger generation here, that’s why we are trying to modernise the menu system and have certain management structures in place.
“For our restaurant to keep going on, we have to do that so that in the future, it will be professionally done. So the management team will just set the direction and the restaurant can run on its own,” says Yew Kee.
This modernisation is in keeping with the growing numbers of younger diners the restaurant is increasingly seeing. “Yes, now a lot of young people come here, bringing their families and friends. I think we have a younger crowd because people are willing to travel anywhere for food and the price of our food is still reasonable,” says Yew Kee.
Given Sek Yuen’s continued popularity in the face of ever-evolving times, Yew Kee says the family is not ruling out the possibility of expanding to other locations, but only time will tell if this will come to fruition.
“There are future plans to expand but not at the moment. For now, this will still be our main restaurant,” he says.