Kopitiam Nostalgia – Cafe Old Market Square
Almost every Malaysian I know would have had breakfast or afternoon tea/coffee at a kopitiam. The word kopitiam is actually made up of two words: kopi means coffee in Malay, tiam means shop in Chinese Hokkien/Hakka, hence it means coffee shop.
Kopitiams are traditional coffee shops found virtually everywhere in Malaysia, and they serve as a favourite place for Malaysians to eat, meet and chit chat or gossip about the latest news 🙂 Their menus have a variety of food but mostly are based on toast with Planta margarine and kaya (coconut and egg jam), half-boiled eggs, plus hot beverages such as coffee/tea and Milo.
Kopitiams have been in existence since the 1850s when Chinese migrants from Hainan settled in Malaya (pre-independence Malaysia). The Chinese Hokkiens and Teochews had established themselves in agriculture, commerce and trade, therefore circumstances forced the Hainanese to turn to the service sector to make a niche for themselves. Hence, they set up these coffee shops.
Kopitiams in Malaysia are steeped in history and traditions, and one of these traditional coffee shops is Café Old Market Square on Jalan Medan Pasar (translation: Market Square Road) in Kuala Lumpur.
Café Old Market Square was formerly known as Sin Seng Nam Restaurant which was established in 1928 by a Hainanese immigrant, Choong Yoo Ying and his two brothers. The coffee shop was a place for customers to meet, conduct business over a cup of coffee.
The British discovered tin in Kuala Lumpur in the mid-19th century and brought in Chinese immigrants to mine the tin. The tin mining industry boomed in the early 20th century, resulting in more Chinese immigrants arriving in Kuala Lumpur to make a new life here. Hence, coffee shops like Sin Seng Nam had customers mainly comprising petty traders, tin miners and gamblers.
By the time Malaysia gained independence from the British in 1957, Kuala Lumpur flourished and became the largest city in the country and our capital city. KL continued to progress further and five decades on, the founder of Sin Seng Nam Restaurant passed away in 1985 and his son took over the coffee shop business. The patrons of the coffee shop no longer consisted of tin miners and petty traders but businessmen, bankers, lawyers and members of the civil service. As time moved on to the millennium, the café was frequented by Malaysians from all walks of life.
However, after being in the business for 85 years, Sin Seng Nam served their last meal on 28 February 2013. Time had taken its toll on this 100-year old building and the family was not able to maintain it.
Fortunately, the coffee shop was bought over by Datuk Ghani Abdullah, a former-lawyer-turned-businessman who loved the original Sin Seng Nam and didn’t want to see this part of historical KL to die into oblivion. He felt that though the building was old but it has not lost its charms. Datuk Ghani restored the coffee shop to its former glory, retained much of its original structure and fittings, and renamed the coffee shop to Café Old Market Square.
Apart from the typical kopitiam food menu of toast with margarine and kaya served with coffee/tea in old-fashioned cups and saucers, the café now offers Malaysia’s national dish nasi lemak, mee rebus, rojak, yong tau foo and the old favourite, Hainanese chicken rice.
The restored café also hangs photos of old Malaysia from the late 19th century, including images of Yap Ah Loy, the third Chinese Kapitan of Kuala Lmpur who played an important role in developing Kuala Lumpur as a commercial and mining centre at that time, and pre and post independence Kuala Lumpur.
With high ceilings, large windows, original structures and fittings, and photos of yesteryears, Café Old Market Square hopes to bring back the “good old days”, an insight into our history for the future generations of modern Malaysia.
On a personal note, I had eaten breakfast at Cafe Old Market Square thrice, for reason having to queue at the India Visa Centre at Loke Yew Building before 9am, to submit my Indian travel visa application early in the morning. Loke Yew Building is just a stone’s throw away from the cafe, thus it was convenient for me to have breakfast there.
I used to admire the old photos hung on the wall but I never knew the history of this cafe until late December 2016 when I joined a group of bloggers for a tour of KL of which included breakfast and a tour of Cafe Old Market Square.
I reckon my next breakfast visit – which means having to go to the India Visa Centre again 🙂 – will be more meaningful and extra special, now that I have learnt the legacy of the original Sin Seng Nam coffee shop and the intention to preserve history via the restored coffee shop, Cafe Old Market Square.
Location & Contact:
Café Old Market Square
2 Jalan Medan Pasar
50050 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 603 2022 2338