An ode to our endangered ‘kopitiams’: May they flourish forever!

Is the 'kopitiam' a relic of yesteryear or a tradition that will stay for generations to come? — Pictures by CK Lim
Is the 'kopitiam' a relic of yesteryear or a tradition that will stay for generations to come? — Pictures by CK Lim

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COMMENTARY, May 20 — It’s another round of #StayAtHome but let’s not neglect our favourite kopitiam. For those who only have time to cook during weekends, the kopitiam is a lifesaver.

But is the kopitiam a relic of yesteryear or a tradition that will stay for generations to come? Do we need an SOS (“Save Our Stalls”) to rally our fellow Malaysians to not forget how their prawn mee and roti canai vendors are struggling to survive during these hard times too?

Certainly they are changing with the times: Everyone is masked up; whether it’s the person cooking or the server bringing you your kopi ping to go. The business of running a kopitiam has changed, as we have all had to.

The food, thankfully, remains much the same.

Whether today or decades ago, the dynamic duo of every kopitiam menu are a large cup of kopi O and slices of roti bakar with kaya and butter. (Some kopitiam regulars prefer the softness of steamed bread and a cold cham ais, but I’m old fashioned.)

CKT or CCF? Kopitiam devotees will know what these acronyms stand for but even if you didn’t, you’re likely still a fan of a plate of char kway teow full of wok hei or some made-to-order chee cheong fun.

The dynamic duo of every 'kopitiam' menu: 'kopi O' and 'roti bakar' with 'kaya' and butter.
The dynamic duo of every 'kopitiam' menu: 'kopi O' and 'roti bakar' with 'kaya' and butter.

And if you grew up eating half boiled eggs, you know no one does them the way a kopitiam does.

The question you might ask is, "Why bother?" There are always other food options after all. So what if a kopitiam shutters, you say, there’s always another. Or order fast food instead. What’s the big deal?

Maybe it’s just become a little too easy to order food from a delivery app, to look for deals rather than foster relationships with our food providers. When we don’t see the same kopitiam server who remembers our usual order, why does it matter where we get our food from?

If you grew up eating half boiled eggs, you know no one does them the way a 'kopitiam' does.
If you grew up eating half boiled eggs, you know no one does them the way a 'kopitiam' does.

And those large, franchise coffee shops — don’t they sell kopi O and roti bakar too? Perhaps a good compromise would be to order from them. We’d get what we want; delivery app and coffee shop franchise owners are happy too. No?

There’s no easy answer.

But this is what I know: I see empty tables at the kopitiam in my taman. Of course, it’s because no dine-in is permitted during MCO 3.0.

Some 'kopitiam' regulars prefer the softness of steamed bread and a cold 'cham ais.'
Some 'kopitiam' regulars prefer the softness of steamed bread and a cold 'cham ais.'

But I wonder how many of them will fill up once more when the restrictions are lifted. How many of these shops — and the stalls in them — will make it?

Everyone is just trying to survive right now.

Whether you’re a shop/stall owner or a customer, it is rough. I remember that terrible (but often true) adage: that things may get a lot worse before they get better.

CKT or CCF? 'Kopitiam'' devotees will know what these acronyms stand for.
CKT or CCF? 'Kopitiam'' devotees will know what these acronyms stand for.

The clear challenge is in riding out the storm. The less obvious one is remaining cognisant that our fellow sisters and brothers are doing their best to ride out the same storm.

I am humbled by conversations with the owner of the chicken rice stall at my neighbourhood kopitiam. It’s where I get most of my weekday meals; he gets started on my order, which he knows by heart, even as I’m scanning the shop’s MySejahtera QR code.

CHICKEN RICE BOSS: Here you go, your usual order.

ME: Thanks! How are things, by the way?

CHICKEN RICE BOSS: No dine-in, less business lah.

ME: But at least you have a lot of takeaway business, right?

CHICKEN RICE BOSS: Aiya, still have to pay rental, workers, still got bills...

He’s right, of course. It’s always easy to assume someone has it easier. Appearances can be deceiving. We all have our troubles but we work it out.

Empty tables at a 'kopitiam.'
Empty tables at a 'kopitiam.'

Funnily enough, assumptions work both ways. What we see as loyal patronage, others may view as practical budgeting. (Come to think of it, why do they have to be mutually exclusive?)

CHICKEN RICE BOSS: Same order again. You’re trying to save money ah?

ME: Haha, who isn’t nowadays?

CHICKEN RICE BOSS: Don’t you get sick of eating this every day?

ME: No, not really.

And that’s the truth. Who’d be bored when we get to enjoy your favourite foods? (My regular order of chicken rice comes with greens, in case you’re curious.)

Why do we have to follow what the others say we ought to like, to always try the latest thing?

My regular order of chicken rice comes with greens (left). Masking up at the 'kopitiam' (right).
My regular order of chicken rice comes with greens (left). Masking up at the 'kopitiam' (right).

That’s when I realise how to decide who to support with my ever dwindling disposable income: What would I miss the most, if it were gone?

The answer, for me at any rate, is an easy one: I would miss the kopi O and the roti bakar. The rich, creamy kaya and the cold butter. The perfectly cooked half boiled eggs. The gossip and the chatter of my fellow kopitiam regulars. That slice of history and heritage, that irreplaceable magic.

Let’s hope others feel the same. May our kopitiams flourish forever.

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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