Kopitiam: The Untold Story

Coffee shops, or more commonly known as kopitiams, are a common sight in the city of Kuching.

It has been a lifestyle to the people here long before malls and complexes dominate the city. To many, kopitiams are the ideal place for meals, especially during breakfast. Most would just gobble a delicious bowl of kolo mee, washed it down with a delightful cup of coffee, and proceed to go their ways. 

However, behind each bowl of kolo mee, each cup of coffee lies a story. Not every story lies in a book. In between the wrinkles of a lady behind the drinks station, may have the best of stories.

Kopitiams have a rich heritage which is unknown to many.

It all began when the Chinese start migrating to Kuching in the 1930s. Due to the infamous Chinese Civil War, the country was plunged into a severe state of starvation, which affected the island of Hainan as well. They were all living off on sweet potato, and there wasn't any speck of rice. At that verge of starvation, the Hainanese were forced to venture off to the horizons.

One such individual was a man named Ong Hiap Kok.

His father already migrated to the island of Borneo, so, he was left to choose between staying in Hainan and starved or, to leave his beloved home. With only a shirt on his back (and another in his hands), he loaned some yuan to get a one-way boat ride to Kuching

It was a long treacherous journey which took 30 days, Ong finally reached the shores of Kuching. Embracing his father, whom he has not seen in years, it took a while for him to adjust to the unfamiliarity of the foreign land. He began to observe the situation at the port. There were countless traders coming day in and day out, but there were only a handful of stalls around. Grabbing at that opportunity, he opened a small stall in 1936 along the streets of the Old Main Bazaar.

Old Main bazaar

Old Main Bazaar dated March / April 1964 Image source via Brian Houldershaw


It was a small set up. Operating from 9 pm onwards, traders who were bringing in supplies such as coconuts, charcoals, fishes, etc. would stop by the stall to have a cup of coffee, some roti kahwin (sandwich bread with butter and coconut jam spread) and toasts. The business was great, but Ong had bigger plans. 

Old Rex Cinema

Old Rex Cinema located in Wayang Street Image source via cinematreasures.org


After two years of operation, he decided to relocate his stall to a more bustling environment. That stall was moved to Wayang Street, which was adjacent to Carpenter Street, and was known to be the commercial area among the  Chinese Immigrants. Apart from that, he was able to operate his stall for longer hours, which was not permissible along the Old Main Bazaar. As early as 5 am, his father and he would be roasting coffee and tending to the customers. They operated throughout the day and even till late night where the stall would only close at midnight.

Before long, the stall grew in popularity. Housewives would bake bite-sized snacks (or more commonly known as Kuih-Muih in Malaysia) and placed them beside the stalls. Fruit and grocery vendors follow suit, and this further fueled the consumers in that area. Soon enough, that small little stall became a prominent entity along Wayang Street.

The Kopitiam now developed into more than just a drinks stall. It became a sort of makeshift information centre for the immigrants. The people gathered and exchanging news from their homeland and also the "latest news". Granted, as most immigrants at that point of time could not read or write, they relied heavily on those who could. It is a common sight to see a person who could read slowly dictating the newspaper while being surrounded by dozens of other immigrants.


A beautiful illustration by PeiChi Wu, seems appropriate for this topic, right? Image source via peichiwu.com


In the 1930s, the only luxury item one would be able to possess was the radio. As it buzzes out news about the 2nd Sino-Japanese War, which was invading China, many will be crowding and nodding to the information. Most of the immigrants have left their families back in China. 

The stall became an avenue for them to pen letters with the help of the educated ones to be sent back to their homes. That was as much contact they could have with their loved ones.

This scenario continued for many years till the shop relocated in 1972 to a new settlement area which is now known as Kenyalang. Of course, during the Japanese occupation from 1942 - 1945, Ong had to close his stall and escaped to the village. There were intentions of moving back to his beloved Hainan. However, this proved to be too difficult when China adopted Communism, and Ong was forced to stay in Kuching.

It was a sad realization, but Ong realizes that life must go on. Further from the move, the stall expanded to a full-fledged coffee shop. No longer hosting information exchange parties, it began to open its doors to other vendors such as the famous kolo mee and chicken rice. 

Yong Kwong Cafe

Yong Kwong Cafe Since 1938


With more time on his hand, Ong decided to sell traditional handmade paus. As the dough mixture is ferment for more than 10 hours; hence, the texture of the pau is much more compact, and delicate, with a mild sweet taste that is rare nowadays. Stuffed with meat stewed with all-natural ingredients such as garlic and shallot, a bite into the soft succulent pau would be enough to convince that it is one of the most of the best pau in Kuching. Of course, coffee and toasts are still the main attributes of the store, but Ong was generous enough to let others make a living at his shop.

At present, Ong had long gone passed away, but he had left a legacy in the Kopitiam history in Kuching. One can easily find Yong Kwang Kopitiam in Kenyalang Park, now managed by his great-grandchildren. It was not an easy life for Ong, but seeing how he helped shaped the kopitiams of Kuching, it was indeed worth every bit of sweat.

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