At 2pm, Pasar Besar Cempaka in Jalan PJU 1/5, Petaling Jaya, was closed for the day. Metal shutters barred the rows of shops on the first floor and all were silent, save for one. A grocer was still cleaning up shop at the end of the aisle. Above him, a sign read “Fat Lady Grocery”.

“Since 1980, when our kids were still young, my wife and I ran the business together,” said Yap Kok Yong, 68, the shop owner, who was happy to share his story.

All was well until “Fat Lady” Lin Kup Mui (who the shop was named after) became bedridden after a stroke in 2002.

“We were at our grocery sharing a meal in between breaks when my wife’s hands started trembling; she couldn’t even hold up her chopsticks,” recalled Yap, lost in thought. “She was fine in the morning, running the business as usual.”

During that meal, Lin’s body stiffened, her vision blurred, and her mind went into disarray. They both did not know what to do and only realised she had a stroke at the hospital, when the doctor diagnosed her condition.

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Yap Meng Kian believes the ingredients’ quality are the linchpin of the grocery, which is why he handles them with great care.

Lin survived but could no longer be by her husband’s side at the grocery store. It was then that the family banded together in that time of adversity so the burden would not just fall on Yap.

Their two sons and daughters-in-law helped out daily to carry on the family business. They wanted to lend a hand, and since only time and rest could cure Lin of her ailment, this was the only way they knew how.

The grocery store – which is a humble establishment selling Chinese herbs and oriental foodstuffs – has operated for 38 years now and the second generation will soon take the helm.

“I’m getting old, luckily my sons want to carry on the business, so I can rest a bit,” Yap sighed.

The new age, nevertheless, has brought about new challenges. There are approximately 50 supermarkets in Petaling Jaya alone but this modest grocery store still shines despite being eclipsed by the giants of modern-day grocery shopping.

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The brothers, Yap Meng Chung (front) and Yap Meng Kian (back), working side by side.

Quality above all

“We cannot compete with supermarket prices,” lamented Yap. “In the past, when people bought something, we could earn RM3 to RM4. Nowadays, we can only earn 20 sen maximum. If we sell for more than 20%, nobody will buy.”

Fat Lady Grocery’s inability to contend in a price war with supermarkets has not deterred them from thriving.

“If the ingredients we sell are of a higher quality, our customers would value it that much more,” he said. With that in mind, Yap’s family has filled the grocery store with the best tastes and textures from all over Malaysia and across China.

Dangling from the ceiling and sprawled across the tables are gingers from Bentong, Pahang, anchovies from Pangkor Island, Perak, shiitake mushrooms from Hubei, and fermented tofu from Sichuan in China.

“Our bestselling product has to be the spicy pickled veggie,” he revealed.

Patrons of the Fat Lady Grocery would often drop by and amiably holler, “Fei Po lao gong, jing dian you mei you xian cai?” (Fat Lady’s husband, do you have any pickled vegetables?)

Hiding in plain sight, the contents of this unassuming grocery store have long surprised and enticed oriental enthusiasts from around the world.

“My mum’s secret curry powder recipe has attracted customers from Hong Kong and Britain, they purposely drop by to buy this curry powder from us,” Fat Lady’s second son, 34-year-old Yap Meng Kian, offered, smiling.

The family have prided themselves with the quality of their products.

“If you grab a handful of our anchovies, it would feel completely dry, not damp like those that you would commonly find elsewhere,” Yap said. “Once it is fried, it would be incredibly thin and crisp, similar to that of keropok (crackers).”

The fact that the business has endured for almost four decades is a testament to the quality of the ingredients, considering the store was “besieged” on all sides by chain stores armed with discounted rates and bulk purchases. Over the years, the ingredients have made their way into the local delicacies of Petaling Jaya that residents know and love.

“It’s more expensive but it has a higher standard,” said local mixed rice owner, Yap Yoke Meng, 56. “I still buy their lap cheong (Chinese sausage), shallots, and fu zhu (fried tofu skin).”

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Meng Kian closing the grocery long after everyone has left, a common sight in Pasar Besar Cempaka.

Community spirit

Fat Lady Grocery’s history in Pasar Besar Cempaka is woven into the hearts and bellies of the community.

“I got the recommendation from my friend; she introduced me to this shop. I come to this shop every year to prepare for the rice dumpling festival,” said Helen Fong, 61. “The second son is really nice. I always look for him to help me prepare the long list of stuff I need.”

The cheerful rapport between shopkeeper and customer would lead one to assume that they were just neighbours catching up.

Also onstage is first son, Yap Meng Chung, 39. Even the grandson visits on occasion and greets every customer with an adorable toddler’s wave. This sense of community is what keeps regulars coming back for more.

“We don’t really go to the bigger supermarkets because we are more used to shopping at traditional grocery stores,” Hoi Ah Lan, 82, said while waiting for his wife and son to finish browsing. “We have known the business owner for more than 10 years now.”

Fat Lady Grocery has never professed to being grand, but to the community that frequents this small grocery store, it is a treasure trove – rich in family and flavour.