The smell of coffee wafting through the air. Now, that’s a general reception for regulars at the countless cafes that have sprung up since the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Starbucks revolution. And, of course, before the social media generation, this was also a familiar scent at coffee shops with ceramic cups and saucers and marble top tables in most parts of Malaysia.
But at the fringes of Pasar Besar Ipoh, the central market in Ipoh, right smack in the middle of town, that familiar scent lingers in the air, too. Now limited to just a clutch of stalls, coffee sellers continue to ply a trade that seems to be losing its footing in this fast-paced world – once upon a time, there was an entire row of them.
Phan Yoke, who runs the Yee Hoi Coffee Manufacturer stall, might seem like a victim of progress, but she’s in fact, a survivor of it. I recall accompanying my mum to this row of coffee stalls back in the good old 1980s, when Pasar Basar Ipoh housed Super Kinta, a departmental store, which, when it opened its doors in 1984, was the biggest in South-East Asia.
Super Kinta was an institution, but with the advent of malls and specialist stores, the shopping institution fell on hard times at the turn of the millennium and eventually closed down after a 20-year run, but now, it is at least put to good use with the Urban Transformation Centre (UTC) taking up house there.
However, UTC’s presence there simply doesn’t restore the lustre of what was once a bustling shopping haven, and 59-year-old Phan’s dwindling sales attests to the area’s fall from grace. But she greets customers with a customary smile and is ever-willing to serve, despite the obvious setback.
According to Phan, she got into the coffee business as a means to an end. “Back then, we were from a lower class … our salary was very low, so, after I got married, my grandmother suggested I do this for a living.”
Phan watched the coffee industry boom when she began in 1989, working for a family and enjoying the business’ peak years then. In 2000, she took over from the family and has since operated the stall on her own.
Her beans, which come from Johor and Indonesia, are processed in a factory in Jelapang, an industrial town in the outskirts of Ipoh. At her stall, she grinds and sells raw beans for both white and black coffee.
And what is the difference between the Hainanese white and black coffee she sells? “White coffee comes from raw roasted beans while black coffee is made from beans that are roasted with sugar,” she explained, much to this no-longer-coffee drinker’s relief of finally knowing conclusively.
As a town, Ipoh is divided by its beverage of choice. “People in old town like to drink white coffee and people in new town prefer black coffee,” revealed the genial saleswoman, who also took time to advise me to get hitched.
Her clientele includes both the older and younger generation. She has noted that the two have different preferences, too. “The younger people have their own grinding machines at home, and they prefer white coffee,” she said. Of course, there are those who sit on the fence and enjoy blending both white and black coffee, as well.
Customers have come from as far as Australia and China. Apparently, many Malaysians who have migrated, come to her shop whenever they return to visit Malaysia, unable to leave a taste of their past completely behind.
According to the Tapah, Perak-born Phan, the best way to enjoy white coffee is with condensed milk. But unlike the de rigueur 3-in-1 beverages available today, freshly ground coffee of this nature needs to be sieved, which, she feels, adds to the charm of its enjoyment.
While she states that business is down compared to the trade’s heyday, she is grateful that UTC’s presence has at least maintained a trickling clientele. In an attempt to retain her customer base, she has retained her pricing from two years ago.
“Doing this business is what I know best. When I’m at home, I watch TV,” she said with a grin, knowing full well that regardless of economic stature, she is clued in on how to enjoy life in her given capacity.
So, the next time you’re headed for a cuppa in Ipoh, give Pasar Besar Ipoh a shot, and buy a bag of white or black coffee. It’s an experience unto itself. As endorsement, and looking at the logo of her packed coffee, I realised it was the exact brand my mother used to buy when I was a young boy … the Seal brand.