In the Spotlight
By Sumiitra Yiohan Sooriaarratchi
If you ever travel to Kuala Lumpur, you may chance upon a little village in the city called Pudu. Famous for the Pudu Jail that once dominated the area; Pudu has undergone many changes from its rustic village days to be enveloped by the ever expanding city center. It now lies in the heart of the financial district and its distinct mix of village and city life is under threat from the expanding city.
Pudu is also a place where locals flock to indulge in the best street food that KL has to offer. Malaysian street food also known as hawker food is as good as any five star quality food but sold at affordable prices – usually eaten in a small restaurant type of environment or at a small table on the pavement next to the hawker stall. Some of the establishments have been in business for generations or the recipes used are passed down through the years.
We discovered all of these legends while on the move, ourselves. While on our way to Seri Kembangan one day, we chanced upon this board that read: Wild Boar !!! We stopped there and then and made a bee-line to Mr. Wong’s stall. In the same way, we discovered Mr. Lai Tuck while driving through Pudu and spotting these awesome curry puffs beckoning to us through his showcase. We stopped in our tracks to purchase our load of six or so curry puffs. They have all since remained good friends of ours. Seven of the legendary hawkers I want to cover in this article have shown hard work and perseverance throughout the years. Their personal stories are amazing triumphs against all odds in a tough city.
- Mr. Wong from Ah Heng Wong Restaurant on Jalan Chan Sow Lin. In business for over 40 years.
- Mr. Lai Tuck of Tuck Kee Curry Puff on Jalan Pasar, Pudu. In business for nearly 50 years.
- Mr. Yun’s mixed rice shop on Jalan Beruang, Pudu. In business for over 40 years.
- Mr. Yap the sugar cane juice seller, Jalan Pudu Lama. In business for 50 years.
- Soon Fatt Roast Duck 顺发烧鸭 (Peking Duck) – Next to Mr Yun’s restaurant. In business for over 30 years. www.soonfattroastduck.com/
- Cheong Kee Chicken Rice – No 30, Jalan Landak. A family run business for nearly 20 years.
- Siew Ngap Fai Chicken Rice – No 34 Lorong Yap Hin. A business run for three generations (but not at the same location) and functioning for over 120 years.
Mr. Wong’s story goes like this. At the tender age of 12 he made his way to Kuala Lumpur by bus from Buntong, Perak without a cent in his pocket. His mother was forced to send him away to fend for the family due to the tough times they faced in Buntong. His father married twice and Mr. Wong’s mother was the second wife in this arrangement. Things didn’t go too well for Mr Wong’s mother – she was not treated well by the first wife; before long Mr Wong’s mother moved to a separate house away from the first wife. Both wives of Mr Wong’s father had 7 children each, making a grand total of 14 children in the family. This resulted in resources being stretched and the large family struggled to get by on Mr Wong’s father’s salary of fifty (50) Malaysian dollars a month. Mr Wong once told me a story about how his father was employed at a sugar factory in Perak. The amazing part was that the sugar company paid the workers including Mr. Wong’s father in vouchers and not in cash or currency. Something unthinkable today for any employed person. How the family bought provisions and necessities was to exchange the vouchers for whatever they needed with items from the company owned shops. It’s like a closed loop where the factory owner supplied the wages and the daily needs of the workers. A sure way to enrich the factory owner and keep the workers perpetually indentured.😮
I’ve heard of this tactic being used by big tin mine owners throughout the Malay Peninsular, where the Chinese miners would be paid in tin and they would exchange the tin for basic necessities at provision shops owned by the Boss. They would also pay for entertainment like opium smoking, gambling and brothel services at the establishments owned by the mining Bosses. This ensured that the money paid as salaries always flowed back to the Boss. Similar things happen today on a global scale where the salaried workers end up spending all their earnings on entertainment, holidays, services or stuff that is invariably held by the ownership classes or ruling families of society. The end result is that the average Joe never gets out of this vicious cycle of willful enslavement.
Back to Mr. Wong’s personal story. At the age of twelve he arrives in Kuala Lumpur without a penny and is helped by a taxi driver at the bus station who takes pity on him and drives him to a restaurant to get a job. These were the days before child labour laws, so Mr. Wong was lucky. He worked his way up in the restaurant industry (even working at the Eastern Restaurant in Petaling Jaya); he ended up working in the area which is now Bukit Bintang / Imbi (Sungai Wang) where he met and married his restaurant boss’s sister. They then started their own restaurant that is still going strong.
Mr Wong has a loving family of five children and five grandchildren. One of his sons is in the restaurant business at a location in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. Mr. Wong is a one man show at his restaurant – he does all the work by himself with no help from staff; Mrs Wong helps with serving the orders.
Mr Lai Tuck
Mr. Lai Tuck is an amazing gentleman who used to work as a welder for United Engineers when it was located at what is now the Fraser Business Park in Pudu. The bright lights of the welding equipment started to have an effect on his eye-sight so he was forced to look for another occupation. The company was also downsizing staff at the time. Luckily he and his brothers had experience during their youth of helping a Chinese gentleman to make curry puffs. Since Mr. Lai Tuck knew the curry puff recipe, he decided to go full time into the curry puff business. Aren’t we lucky that he kept those delicious curry puffs alive and available for everyone to enjoy for four decades.
He is an accomplished self-made man (you’ll be surprised to know that KL is full of good old-fashioned, hard working people who have done very well in life), a father of two lovely children, a home owner who has paid-off the bank loan in full and an astute stock market investor. What a combo! A true gem – Mr. Lai Tuck of Tuck Kee curry puff fame. He once told me that the Cantonese word for remember is “kei tuck” and that’s why he chose the name “Tuck Kee” so that people will remember his curry puff stall and return to buy more curry puffs. 😂 He makes sure we have his curry puffs in our minds by contacting us by voice message whenever he finds we have not visited him as we have.
Read more about Mr Lai Tuck here.
A legend in his own right. The quiet Mr. Yun doesn’t speak much but has a been running his mixed rice shop every week day for the past 40 years. He told me that he worked for a hotel in KL for a few years before deciding to venture into the food business. He is usually open from breakfast time until lunch time and his unique location is under a giant country almond tree. The food is amazing with the area surrounding the dining tables being a lovely garden of flowers. herbs and fruits. His prices are very reasonable, making it a hit with office workers during lunch hour. I also supply Mr. Yun with the spice mix that he uses for his curries.
Mr. Yap has been selling sugar cane juice for fifty years. Can you believe that? The simple and great tasting sugar cane drink that he makes using a mechanical press is perfect. The juice is priced at only RM2.00 per glass or RM7.00 per pitcher. Mr. Yap has real glass tumblers available if you prefer not to use the plastic cups. You can take your own flask or bottle and Mr. Yap will fill it up for you to take home. Mr. Yap is based at a suburb of Kuala Lumpur called Serdang and makes the 25km trip daily to his spot in the city.
I’ve heard that sugar cane juice has many nutritional benefits including enhancing liver function, fighting cancer, maintaining kidney health and easing digestion.
Soon Fatt Peking Duck
The owners are always super busy so I’ve not had time to speak to them. The roast Peking / Beijing duck is amazing. This brief description below of the shop’s origins is from their web site.
“Our founder, Mr. Lam has been roasting duck for almost 30 years before he decided to retire and pass it on to the next generation. Our vision is to produce the finest roast duck to serve with at the roadside price. Now everyone can eat!”
Cheong Kee Chicken Rice
This is one of two chicken rice restaurants that tie for first place. They’re both number one on my list of awesome chicken rice / pork rice places. This unassuming family run business has been at it for nearly 20 years.
Mr Michael – Siew Ngap Fai Chicken Rice
Mr. Michael makes excellent roast chicken, duck, goose and pork rice. He has a signature spicey pickle achar or acharu that goes really well with the Chinese chicken rice. This optional side dish gives the traditional Chinese chicken rice a Southeast Asian pickle twist, not available anywhere else in the city. Mr. Michael told me that this business has been in his family since his grandfather came to Malaya from China in the early 1900s.
Go down to Pudu, try out these hawker delicacies and get a taste of the old KL!