Last week Dave and I took some visitors to Yut Kee for lunch. They were famished, and we wanted them to try all our favorite dishes so we ordered as much as the table would hold: chicken chops all around, hailam mee (dry), belacan fried rice, roti babi, stir-fried gailan, beef noodles. "It's comfort food!" she, a food writer from the USA, declared between mouthfuls. "And it's absolutely delicious"
After we'd finished dessert -- iced coffee and toast and kaya -- I found Jack Lee and brought him to the table for introductions. We'd told our visitors about Yut Kee's rolled pork roast, the special Friday and Sunday pork roast that draws many dozens of customers and sells out within an hour. They would miss it, and wondered how they might recreate it at home. "Oh, he won't want to tell us," he said when I suggested we just ask Jack. They were wrong, and I knew they would be. Jack gave them the recipe, just as easily as he had asked his son Mervyn demonstrate to us the Yut Kee method for making roti babi when we were working on a feature on Malaysia Hainan chefs a few months back. Jack's generous like that.
The six of us sat at the table shooting the sh*t for a good hour. "You didn't try the kaya roll?" Jack asked, and ordered over a couple slices along with two squares of butter cake and more coffees. We left full and happy that we'd been able to introduce our new friends to a bit of real Kuala Lumpur. Nothing touristy about Yut Kee, though tourists often find their way there. After all, it's been a part of many local lives for over eighty years.
"That place is really something special," she said to me as we walked to the car. They got it.
Heaving inside, crowd at the door: a typical lunch scene at Yut Kee
We KL-ites take Yut Kee for granted, don't we? It's difficult not to take a place for granted when it's been turning out the good stuff for approaching a century. As long as you don't turn up on a Monday or the last Sunday of the month you're guaranteed a savory chop, a smooth cup of joe, some of Malaysia's best kaya. There will be Jack -- hanging out at the front table with a changing cast of regulars if it's after 3pm and the shop's quieted down, or striding back and forth between dining room and kitchen shouting reminders to staff if the place is full. There will be Mervyn, behind the cash register, maybe in the kitchen, perhaps punching away at his computer if there's a lull.
If it's lunchtime you know the place will be packed, with a crowd outside the door waiting for an open seat. You know that Mervyn will take note of your presence, ask for the number of people in your party, and you will wait with a certain measure of patience because you know that Mervyn doesn't tolerate queue jumpers. If you're a party of just two or three, you know you'll have to share a table. The ceiling fans will be swishing air about, the portrait of Jack's father, who founded the place, will be staring down from the wall. The glass display case will be full of cakes, plastic cups of kaya will be stacked by the cash register, the smell of kopi will be everywhere. There will be couples and colleagues and whole multi-generational families, people from knee-high to months from the grave sitting at marble-topped tables, tucking in.
A Yut Kee favorite: the chicken chop
There will be Yut Kee's green-shirted Burmese staff, many of whom have been there since we started frequenting the place over five years ago. Have you ever noticed how Mervyn and Jack treat their staff? Not gruffly, not grumpily, not as if they're migrant labor (a status which -- let's be honest -- some equate with being sub-human). Jack and Mervyn communicate to their staff with the courtesy rooted in a recognition that respect -- not fear -- earns loyalty. It's a pleasure to watch, the well-oiled and well-managed machine that Yut Kee is. It says something about the kind of folks Jack and his son are.
Back in the kitchen, there will be cooks and the odd wait staff tending to orders, boiling noodles, plating chops, re-frying roti babi, whipping eggs, sometimes putting together a special order. Orders fly in, and plates fly out. Seats are filled and then given up to those in the waiting crowd. So it goes, day after day and year after year.
At the end of the day's business, when the shop is quiet, Jack will back at his front table. Folks passing by on their way home from work stop in for a piece of cake and a cup of coffee or a beer and a pork chop. Others picked up a box of kaya roll or an order of fried rice to go. Many don't eat or drink anything at all, just stop in to shake Jack's hand and say "hi". Sometimes they sit down and chat for a while.
To so many folks who eat at Yut Kee Jack isn't just a kopitiam owner -- he's a friend, a confidante, a buddy, an acquaintance willing to offer a sympathetic ear, a commiserator, and the kind of joke-teller who can humor you out of a foul mood. And Mervyn, though he's often too busy behind the counter or in the kitchen to spend a lot of time chatting, is in Jack's mold.
We were distressed to learn last week that the Yut Kee KL has known for over 80 years may have a limited shelf life. Though there remains one year to its lease, the building's owner wishes to redevelop. If this comes to pass Jack and Mervyn will move the coffee shop next door to the shuttered Boddhi Tree.
When I tweeted and Facebooked this news reaction was of three kinds. Some responded along the lines of "So what, the place has gone downhill anyway." Lord, some people do take a special pleasure in finding fault with well-loved eateries, don't they? Gone downhill since, like, Yut Kee the founder's days? In the past decade? Because in the over 5 years we've been eating there nothing's changed, while more and more hawker stalls that we used to frequent seem to be serving pale examples of their formerly delicious specialties. No eatery is above reproach, but this sort of sentiment is indicative of a certain small- mindedness.
Others were buoyed by the news that roti babi wil still be served, albeit in another location. "It's not closing, it's just moving. At least I can still get my beef noodles!" And that exasperates me. If your 80-year-old grandmother were devastated by the news that she'd have to move from the house she'd grown up and lived in all her life would you imagine that consolation lies in a condo up the block? "Don't worry grandma, you're just moving two doors down. At least it will still be convenient for me to stop in now and again."
Yes -- you may still be able to eat your favorite chicken chops. Kaya might even once again be stirred in a gigantic oil drum in the back of the shop. But the folks who run the establishment that serves the food that makes you happy are facing the loss of decades of family history. It's a big personal loss. This time, it's not just about your belly.
Hailam mee, dry
Still other Yut Kee fans responded, "There's nothing we can do."
Last year a local musician said to me, "We Malaysians are complacent." And why not? The economy is doing decently enough, Mercedes is enjoying brisk sales, Astro gets a billion channels, the authorities haven't shown any indication of cracking down on hawker food, and KL is set to get at least 4 new shopping malls in over the next five years. There's a lot to bitch about but just the act of bitching is so satisfying. Plus it works up a good appetite for the next meal. Why rock the boat?
And maybe there is nothing that can be done about Yut Kee. The building is in private hands and the owner -- whom Mervyn has taken pains to point out is a very nice gentleman who just wants to see his investment pay off -- can do whatever he likes with it. It's unlikely that anyone in charge in this city that is losing its history so fast it will soon be as soulless as some others in the region will give two hoots about an old Chinese coffee shop. Is there a way to have the place recognized as a site of KL heritage and thus in some way protected? Unlikely. Noisy protests might be staged but seeing as water cannons and tear gas have been used on peaceful demonstrators in the not too distant past that's probably not a good idea.
What can be done then? Well, how about a demonstation of affection and support for a family which has given Kuala Lumpur residents and visitors so darned much pleasure over eight decades? How about a collective expression of regret that a special era just may well be coming to an end? Could we possibly manage to get off our rear ends and make that effort on the behalf of good people who do good work and have been doing it so tirelessly for so long?
I'd like to see everyone who has ever enjoyed a meal at Yut Kee show up at the shop and give thanks. On a given date, at a given time. If we did, the crowd could number in the many hundreds -- a statement that would be hard to ignore. Folks, could we manage to do that much?