Malacca - the old 'downtown', that is, roughly bordered by the Malacca River, Kubu Road, Hereen Road, and First Cross Street - is fast disappearing.
Just one road remains nearly untouched by the rampant development and careless neglect that, over the last decade, have erased much of Malacca's distinctive architectural character. Jalan Kampong Kuli is named after the predominantly Chinese and Indian migrants ('coolies') who labored in the old colonial Settlement's harborside trading houses and go-downs (warehouses) and on the plantations on its fringes. And it is refreshingly devoid of guesthouses, bars, vegetarian cafes, shops peddling kitsch, and tatoo parlors.
Instead, there's an old-fashioned barbershop anchoring Kampong Kuli at the corner of First Cross Street. Halfway up the short block sits Kim Huat, a third-generation confectioner turning out red and yellow bean paste-filled buns. Kampong Kuli houses a goldsmith, an Indian caterer, a duck roaster, and a coffee corner. At Choon Hing - number 28 - popiah (spring roll) wrappers are made as they have been for decades.
Just after dawn we find Ong, fourth-generation popiah skin maker, working the griddle at the front of his shop. The red glow of a Buddhist shrine illuminates the rear of the room and sticks of incense burn on a table at the front; just outside the door, more incense smokes from wall shrine. Ong has been at it since three, when he rose to mix the dough for his wrappers. He makes wrappers for popiah sellers in town, and also for his own family's popiah business. When he's finished working here, around 11, he'll head to his own popiah stall at the newish Singapore-style Newton Food Court.
Ong's father sold popiah for years in front of Madam King's Department Store. The Fatman, as he was known to customers, was famous for his fabulously oppulent spring rolls. Ong's brother took over the Jalan Bunga Raya stall when their father passed away about a year and a half ago.
It's not easy work, transforming liters of dough into thousands of paper-thin wrappers. Ong's been doing it so long that the distraction of two strangers asking a lot of stupid questions don't slow his pace a bit.
A metal tub of thick wheat flour dough sits to his right on a low wooden table. Ong dips his hand in deep and pulls up a heavy rope of dough, flipping it on top of itself to form a patty in his palm.
Ong lays the dough patty on the hot griddle's, applying pressure at the outset. He quickly backs off and then quickly skims ing the dough over the griddle's surface in a clockwise direction before pulling it away to leave the barest film.
It's over in the blink of an eye,
and then Ong pulls the wrapper off the griddle and adds it to the stack to his left. He gets six or eight popiah out of one handful of dough, then it's back to the vat for more. Lift, flip, coat griddle, repeat.
How many popiah skins does Ong make in a single morning, we wonder. 'I have no idea,' he chuckles. 'I sell the wrappers by weight,' and he certainly doesn't count as he works. Days off are rare. Even if Ong and his brother wanted risk the wrath of regular customers by taking a break from their stalls, he'd be letting down too many other popiah sellers who depend on him for their wrappers.
Brotherly competition may have initiated the invite. We've told Ong that the night before we queued for what seemed like hours at his brother's stall, as customers in front of us purchased popiah by the dozen. We also raved about the final product.
'Fatman Popiah" (as the stall is still known, even though the original Fatman has passed on and his son's girth doesn't approach the legendary hugeness of his father's) makes liberal use of a not-so-secret secret ingredient: lard. Son of Fatman's popiah contain the usual tender cooked yambean (jicama), bean sprouts, and egg, and are slathered with chili and sweet sauces. They're also generously studded with crispy bits of crackling and drizzled with more than a bit of lard oil.
Simply put, they are incredible, worth every lardy calorie. We understand the queue. These taste of these popiah justify the wait.
Ong's popiah, served from his food court stall, are a bit more refined. He uses lard oil, but not too much. His popiah's filling doesn't messily spill out of the wrapper, as his brother's does.
Son of Fatman's popiah win for sheer gross indulgence value. If you love pork, you love lard (you just might not know it). And if you love lard, Son of Fatman's popiah are right up there with a perfect plate of char kuey teow.
But we're partial to Ong's version. The filling is balanced, the lard and cracklings pronounced but not overwhelming. And the wrappers are fresh and soft and decidedly wheaty, a delicious treat in and of themselves.
Besides, these are the popiah made with the hands of the popiah skin maker.
Ong's popiah stall, Newton Food Court (across from Makhota Parade Shopping Center), 11am till late evening.
Fatman Popiah, Jalan Bunga Raya just in front of Madam King's Department Store, 5-ish till he sells out late.