Century-old coffeeshop next in growing list of evictions in George Town

The Kong Thai Lai Coffee Shop has been around for 100 years and is known for its local kopi-o and kaya toasts. ― Pictures by Opalyn Mok
The Kong Thai Lai Coffee Shop has been around for 100 years and is known for its local kopi-o and kaya toasts. ― Pictures by Opalyn Mok

GEORGE TOWN, April 12 ― Quiet, unassuming and looking as if time has left it behind with its small wooden tables and wooden staircase, the Kong Thai Lai Coffee Shop has been around for a century but like many traditional businesses in George Town, it will soon close its doors.

A popular spot for a cup of local kopi-o and crunchy toasts slathered with kaya and butter, this coffee shop has been given notice to move out and vacate the premises by June.

“My grandfather started this coffee shop about 100 years ago, my parents lived here and my siblings and I grew up here,” said Tan Jeng Seow, the third generation coffee shop owner.

The 56-year-old spent his childhood playing and helping out at the coffee shop in the heritage shophouse located along Hutton Lane here, just outside the George Town World Heritage zone.

So, when he received the eviction notice from the building owner about a month ago, he was at a loss because it means he will not only lose his childhood home but also his grandfather's legacy.

“We don't have any choice in this since the landlord has the say and if they ask us to move out, we have to move out,” he sighed sadly.

Tan only asked that the owner give him more time, maybe till the end of the year, to relocate. He also hoped to ask for compensation of about RM15,000 since they've been renting that place for a century.

Tan Jeng Seow preparing coffee at the coffee shop his grandfather started at Hutton Lane.
Tan Jeng Seow preparing coffee at the coffee shop his grandfather started at Hutton Lane.

“After this, if I can find a place with reasonable rental, we might move there but if not, I guess I have to say goodbye to this business and look for something else to do,” he said.

He lamented over the high rental rates for most shops around George Town now, with some rates as high as RM7,000 which he finds is too expensive for his small coffee shop business.

The coffee shop, which is usually packed during weekends and on public holidays, is long known locally as Loh Boon Siew's coffee shop.

The late tycoon was known to have his daily coffee and breakfast at the coffee shop for many years right till the final years before he passed away in 1995. Loh was the first sole distributor of Honda motorcycles and was known in Penang for his rags to riches story.

Padang Kota Gerakan coordinator H'ng Khoon Leng, who held a press conference to highlight the eviction of the coffee shop, noted that George Town had over 600 traditional trades and businesses.

He demanded that the Penang state government reveal how many of these traditional businesses, which are the intangible heritage of the city, have been forced to vacate and close down.

“The state government must do something to stop this from happening to many more of such businesses because usually these are family-run businesses that could not afford the climbing rental rates and once forced to move, most will have to close down,” he said.

He reminded the state government that these traditional businesses are a part of the outstanding universal value (OUV) of the heritage city and if the state does not do anything to protect it, soon the city will lose one of its OUVs.

The row of shophouses at Hutton Lane facing eviction.
The row of shophouses at Hutton Lane facing eviction.

The coffee shop along with its four neighbours in a row of five shophouses were all given notices to vacate by June.

H'ng believed that the landlord, a Singaporean company, had submitted applications for planning permission to renovate the row of shophouses and that approvals were already given in December last year.

“This is why they have asked the tenants to move out by June so that they could start work soon, but we do not know what they planned to do with the shophouses after the renovation works,” he said.

In recent years, many local residents and existing businesses have been evicted when the buildings they rented were sold off to new owners.

In some cases, the shophouses were restored and turned into boutique hotels and eateries.

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