Chris Lee, the third-generation owner of Koon Kee Noodles, is supervising his workers preparing noodles, roast pork, and side ingredients. Dubbed as one of the best wan tan (Chinese dumplings) noodles in Kuala Lumpur, its inconspicuous old-school signage and dimly-lit entrance would not be obvious to uninitiated passers-by.
Established in the 1940s, patrons have frequented the place for generations and know its location in downtown Kuala Lumpur’s Petaling Street by heart. Further down the same road is an altogether different scene, as the owner of Yew Yew Coffee, Edmond Yew, is in the midst of preparations on the day of his cafe’s grand opening.
Yew Yew Coffee, a takeaway-concept cafe with limited seating nestled in a decades-old building, strikes a very different tone to Koon Kee Noodles, as avid food Instagrammers wait in line to grab their coffee and pose for pictures against its minimalist black-walled, polished concrete exterior.
These two contrasting scenes are typical of Petaling Street, otherwise known as Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, today. The area is going through its latest revival phase as trendy cafes and restaurants mushroom in the area, spurred on by the social media boom among Malaysia’s urban middle class. The result is a striking contrast between traditional and new food culture in one of the capital’s culinary heritage areas.
In the 1950s, downtown Kuala Lumpur was the focal destination of food culture for urban dwellers, predominantly of the ethnic Chinese community. Back then, the area was an eclectic mixture of food stalls and businesses. Visitors frequented cinemas and Chinese opera theatres around Petaling Street, with the enticing smell of food wafting through the air from the many food stalls and glitzy banquet restaurants nearby.
During rapid urbanisation in the 1990s, traditional shops went out of businesses and the area evolved into a tourist destination selling cheap, counterfeit goods aimed at visitors. While most locals were driven out of the area during this period, some traditional food stalls stood the test of time and remain operational today.
Koon Kee Noodles is one of them. To Chris, his restaurant represents more than just a way to earn a living – the family business closer resembles a food heritage site preserving and passing on tradition to the next generation.
“A lot of traditional stalls have disappeared throughout the years. Most of the shops that remained still sell traditional Chinese food and have undergone commercial expansion, whereas others have transformed into modern eateries and cafes,” he explained.
Rental costs and premise ownership are major challenges for family businesses to remain in operation in the area today, but there are no plans to relocate.
“Our customers are used to the place and the environment, it provides them a sense of familiarity. Relocation means losing the nostalgic, memorable atmosphere of Petaling Street,” Chris said. “My relatives have opened branches of Koon Kee in other places and we have customers that question the authenticity of the food. We need to put in a huge effort to reconstruct the brand image as an authentic, traditional dish in other locations.”
For Edmond, Yew Yew Coffee is his first venture pursuing his passion for coffee making. As compared to Koon Kee’s fuss-free interior, Yew Yew’s is air-conditioned and equipped with comfortable seats for patrons to sip coffee and eat pastries. Yew Yew’s storefront is painted black, completed with a minimalistic-lettering signage that rests under Ka Yin Association’s bold Chinese-character signage – a nod to the rich history surrounding this brand new cafe.
Historically, associations have been a culturally significant institution for Kuala Lumpur’s ethnic Chinese. In the mid-1800s, the boom of the tin mining industry in British Malaya attracted an influx of Chinese immigrants in the pursuit of wealth, and Petaling Street became the landing point for many Cantonese and Hakka settlers from China. Chinatown’s origins centred along Tun H.S. Lee Road and the Merchant’s Lane, with a steady flow of migration in the decades following, shaping the ethnic Chinese community in Malaysia today.
Associations symbolise this sense of community and have been an important repose for Chinese immigrants faraway from their hometowns. While old fashioned institutions, today associations are still actively involved in community-building efforts, such as running blood donation campaigns and hosting festive celebrations.
Love it or loathe it, social media platforms have altered the way we eat and evaluate food, and Petaling Street’s revival phase has benefited greatly from exposure on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
New cafes and restaurants in Petaling Street tend to occupy the area’s many heritage buildings, with the façade usually preserved to suit the vintage aesthetic and create a nostalgic atmosphere ripe for social media posts. Love it or loathe it, social media platforms have altered the way we eat and evaluate food, and Petaling Street’s revival phase has benefited greatly from exposure on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
In some ways, the emergence of new food culture has indirectly manifested an appreciation for traditional food culture.
“People these days love taking pictures for social media. The polished concrete wall at the side of the shop wasn’t intentionally designed as a backdrop for photos, but it has become a popular photo spot for social media users,” Edmond laughed.
“As you can see, Lorong Panggung [Cinema Alley] is renovated and refurbished recently by having nice wall murals and cleaner walkways, attracting many visitors. Lots of new eateries also mushroomed around the area.”
A traditional focal spot for traditional Chinese food in the Petaling Street area has been Madras Lane. Detractors will say this narrow alleyway is dirty and uncomfortable, but patrons hail the alley as a local institution for street food.
Madam Wan, a rice noodle hawker for 40 years at Madras Lane, told a Globe reporter how the lane got its moniker. “The lane derived its name due to its proximity to Madras Cinema back in the 1950s. Hawkers sold porridge and fried noodles in their small stands at the alley, and hungry movie-goers crowded the place after each screening,” she said, reminiscing about the good old days.
The Madras Cinema burned down in 1978, which badly hurt business, and as the golden age of cinema began to fade away, food stalls also dwindled in numbers in the alley. Today, a few stalls remain, selling rice noodles, curry noodles and stuffed tofu.
Wan explains that business has improved recently due to increased exposure on media platforms on television and newspapers.
“Tourists and locals, young and old people have started to frequent Madras Lane again,” she said.
There are limited places to go these days. But Petaling Street is one of those areas where you can visit and see how things have changed
Wayne, a food blogger at Foodgazer.com, praised the melding of tradition and modernity on Petaling Street, pointing to interesting concepts emerging, from local specialty chocolate producers to the many modern eateries that focus on local ingredients.
Unlike more cynical folks, he does not view the recent revitalisation of the area as a form of gentrification.
“These new eateries still retain the characteristics that allude to the unique atmosphere of dining in Chinatown, in terms of interior fittings and menu offerings that pay homage to local food cultures,” he told the Globe.
He mentioned a local bar, Jann, which has incorporated famous traditional snacks sold in Petaling Street, such as bean curd and dried meat, to create special concoctions.
“It is important for us to continue supporting local businesses. It’s not just the thought of supporting the place because it is local, but to support it for its quality offerings that carry cultural significance,” he said.
Beyond sentimental nostalgia and social media prestige, travel restrictions are also pushing the Malaysian public to look closer to home and explore their local tourist destinations.
“There are limited places to go these days,” said Wayne. “But Petaling Street is one of those areas where you can visit and see how things have changed.”