From Melbourne to Melaka: The journey of a reluctant barista

Coffeebar125+ is a slice of Malaccan old town life, without the hordes of tourists. – Pictures by Kenny Mah
Coffeebar125+ is a slice of Malaccan old town life, without the hordes of tourists. – Pictures by Kenny Mah

MELAKA, Nov 3 — Journeys are about finding oneself, and Jacqueline Wen has travelled quite a distance.

Originally from KL, the veteran barista first started working at RAWCoffee in 2012 after returning from her studies in Melbourne.

She then moved to Melaka to work at Mods Café in the historical neighbourhood of Jalan Tokong, drawn by the laidback lifestyle.

Starting a family was the next stage in Wen’s journey as she and husband Howard How welcomed a baby into their lives.

She says, “I stopped working as a barista to take care of my daughter, and help my husband with his guest house, Ringo’s Foyer. Now that my daughter is four, I realised I miss making coffee.”

So Wen took a leap of faith and returned to the coffee scene. She rented some space at Colin’s Café, a Peranakan restaurant and bed & breakfast housed in a century-old heritage building, and opened Coffeebar125+.

Though originally from KL, Jacqueline Wen fell in love with the more relaxed pace of life in Melaka.
Though originally from KL, Jacqueline Wen fell in love with the more relaxed pace of life in Melaka.

Paintings of old china teacups adorn the wall. Kopitiam chairs, round marble tabletops and dark wooden ceiling beams complete the look of a typical Jonker Street café. Except Coffeebar125+ (named after its address) isn’t in the Jonker area but further away along Jalan Tengkera. It offers a slice of Malaccan old town life, without the hordes of tourists.

When Wen tells me she missed making coffee (and one assumes interacting with coffee lovers), I can’t help but smile. I remember what she had told me about her days in Melbourne, when I first met her at the now defunct RAWCoffee.

“Oh yes! I wasn’t into coffee then. When I came back to Malaysia, all I wanted was a job. I didn’t even drink coffee prior to getting a job at RAWCoffee, much to the surprise of my bosses!” she recalls.

One of her first employers in the coffee industry was the enigmatic Kiwi bean maestro, Michael Wilson of Artisan Roast fame. It’s easy to imagine how the lifelong teacher in Wilson detected a challenge and gleefully embraced it.

Wen was the quintessential reluctant barista. She may not have had prior experience with coffee but she learned the ropes swiftly. It was a job and she needed it.

That was the solid standing that drove many of her peers at RAWCoffee, arguably the first generation of specialty coffee baristas in Malaysia.

Brewing a slower brew: Wen has a rotating menu of single origin coffee beans.
Brewing a slower brew: Wen has a rotating menu of single origin coffee beans.

This was the old batch who was really in it for employment rather any promise of hipster barista cred.

Wen’s down-to-earth demeanour endeared her to customers, many of whom still remember her even after she left KL. Some even made trips to Melaka just to enjoy her coffee and conversation.

The mark of a great barista that inspires such a following? For one, Wen still recalls the favourite orders of her regulars from way back then.

She says, “I remember you used to always order a cappuccino back in the day, when you dropped by RAWCoffee.”

Wen also has a rotating menu of single origin coffee beans from various sources. Recent ones include Balinese beans from Malaccan roaster Mods Café as well as Pa-O, a black honey process from Myanmar, roasted by Singaporean-based Quarter Life Coffee. The latter has fermented, grape-like notes, not unlike a fine wine.

For a touristy town, Coffeebar125+ doesn’t get many tourists, perhaps due to its location. Wen says, “It’s more of a local crowd such as office workers and those living in the neighbourhoods nearby. It’s more chill. Whenever I go back to KL, I rather stay at home because of the traffic. I prefer the slower, more relaxed pace of life in Melaka.”

Paintings of old china teacups adorn the wall.
Paintings of old china teacups adorn the wall.

To go with your cuppa, Wen offers a few simple tasty bites. There are both Hong Kong style egg tarts, smooth as silken tofu, as well as the Portuguese variety, a nod to Melaka’s colonial past.

Fresh sourdough bread, one slice each of wholewheat and the less common buckwheat, is served with peanut butter and cacao nibs.

“The wholewheat is more flavourful as it’s dotted with nuts but I like the buckwheat for its texture. Oh, I got the cacao nibs from Susan Wong at Seniman Kakao.

"She’s another former colleague from my RAWCoffee days. We are a small and tight knit community,” says Wen, smiling.

Coffeebar125+’s customers make up a small community too. Sitting here, I chat easily with fellow Malaccans, strangers mere minutes ago, about the rise and fall of our scholastic reputation, about the state of the economy and what worries them.

I return to my home town once a month to spend time with my family, but this is the first in many years that I feel as though I have returned with a sense of belonging.

Tasty bites: Portuguese egg tarts (left), a nod to Melaka’s colonial past and sourdough slices with peanut butter and cacao nibs from Seniman Kakao (right)
Tasty bites: Portuguese egg tarts (left), a nod to Melaka’s colonial past and sourdough slices with peanut butter and cacao nibs from Seniman Kakao (right)

This is why folks take the trouble to leave their offices and homes for half an hour or two, to congregate and connect with their neighbours.

To discover what strikes every heart equally and be comforted by the knowledge that someone else desires the same simple things in life: security, a decent living, food on the table, a roof over their heads, a bright future for their children.

Wen innately understands this and stands guard, not as a sentinel but a facilitator. Part matriarch, part counsellor, her years as a barista has taught her when to listen and when to respond. To nudge conversations forward, to brew the right cup of coffee for every mood.

How has starting a family changed her? I think it’s about finding herself as she put down new roots. We are all the same way.

We chatted about mutual friends in KL’s coffee scene and how they, like her, have found new homes for their brews and themselves in other cities: Joachim Leong and Shean Tan moving Spacebar Coffee to Penang and Ang Yee Siang running Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters in Johor Bahru.

It’s a small community, after all, even as the Malaysian coffee industry expands, recedes and fluctuates. The people whose passion drive the roasting and brewing of excellent coffee remain, at heart, the same people.

If there are any changes at all, it’s that they have gone beyond securing a livelihood — never an easy thing whether in good times or bad — to making a life for themselves.

Wen remembers her regulars’ favourite drinks, such as a sublime cappuccino.
Wen remembers her regulars’ favourite drinks, such as a sublime cappuccino.

Here in Melaka, Wen has created a place that is her own and also for others. Coffeebar125+ is a haven for old friends and new.

The reluctant barista no more, Wen is the model of where a career in coffee can take you. In discovering different sides of herself, she has shown those of us from her adopted home where we, too, can go in the journey of life: Anywhere we want.

Coffeebar125+

125, Jalan Tengkera, Taman Kota Laksamana, 75200 Melaka

Open Mon-Wed 10am-5pm, Thu-Sat 12pm-6pm, Sun closed

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