Wandering through the streets and alleys of Ipoh’s Old Town, the air is heavy with the smell of roasted pork and the sounds of jovial voices conversing in Cantonese, Malay and English. Nestled at the end of a row of squat shophouses sits Kedai Kopi Sin Yoon Loong. Finding a place to sit is tough. Tables and chairs that look as old as the 81-year-old coffeehouse itself are packed with folks in a perfect microcosm of Malaysia’s diversity.
Chinese, Malays, Indians and even a couple Westerners all crowd around plates of chee cheong fun (rolled rice noodles), half boiled eggs on toast and other delicacies from the busy hawker stalls just outside the front door. The food in Ipoh is incredible, but everyone is really here for the famous white coffee, served by a few brothers from a family named Wong who laugh and joke with the customers and each other.
The national caffeine fix of Malaysia was born here. During the 19th century, at the height of the British colonial period, Ipoh, the state capital of Perak, was a booming tin-mining town. In time, Hainanese, Hakka and other Chinese migrants flooded the city looking for work and opportunity. But meeting with the foreigners also meant drinking their bitter and acidic brew. “Most Chinese were tea drinkers,” says Law Siak Hong, president of the Perak Heritage Society. “Coffee culture came with the tropics.”
… a lighter roast with a distinctly smoother taste, somewhere in the vicinity of a velvety flat white with a subtle caramelized flavor.
Unaccustomed to the strong bitter taste of the black-as-night, sweet-as-sin kopi o, the migrants developed their own brew more palatable to their tastes. “It was during postwar and pre-independence that people had a sense of confidence to create new things,” Law says. And during those dozen or so years between World War II and Malaysian independence, Hainanese recruited to work in the colonialists’ kitchens left and went into the kopitiam business, opening up coffeehouses and producing instant white coffee powders (available online, starting at around $10).
Back then kopi o was made with a small portion of low quality coffee beans roasted with grain and sugar, K.M. Wong tells me as we sit at Sin Yoong Loong with iced white coffee and some kaya (coconut jam) toast. He’s been at Sin Yoong Loong every day since he was a boy — he now runs it, well into his 60s. White coffee at his shop, he says, is a combination of arabica and robusta beans brewed in palm margarine with no sugar added and then served with sweetened condensed milk. The resulting “white” coffee is a lighter roast with a distinctly smoother taste, somewhere in the vicinity of a velvety flat white with a subtle caramelized flavor. This formula has been copied and refined by franchises such as Old Town — you’ll find one in almost every neighborhood in peninsular Malaysia, and the chain has spread to more than 13 other countries.
The original white coffee shops in Ipoh, which have an unspoken deal to alternate business days to avoid competition, Wong explains, grow fewer every year. He cites a lack of interest by the younger generation to carry on the family legacy and work in the “old school” kopitiams. With a wry smile, he says of the large modern chains: “We dug the well, and now they drink the water!” Wong is far from depressed, however. He’s looking forward to living his life once Sin Yoong Loong shutters.
So with the encroaching gentrification of the city changing the shape of Ipoh’s caffeinated legacy and Malaysia as a whole seeming more divided than ever by politics and religion, there is one thing most Malaysians can agree on: great coffee.
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