Monday, June 18, 2007

Yut Kee Restaurant - Just like the old times

By Rina De Silva

S.T. Mok and his wife, Anne Mok, had their first date at Yut Kee 50 years ago.
S.T. Mok and his wife, Anne Mok, had their first date at Yut Kee 50 years ago.

OVER a plate of fried Hokkien mee and lum mee, Anne Mok, 68, and her husband, S.T. Mok, 71, reminisced over old times.
Customers do not seem to mind the old ambience at the 79-year-old Yut Kee coffee shop located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
Customers do not seem to mind the old ambience at the 79-year-old Yut Kee coffee shop located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

It was here, at Yut Kee restaurant, at the corner of Jalan Kamunting and Jalan Dang Wangi in Kuala Lumpur, that they had their first date 50 years ago.

Two children and five grandchildren later, the couple still come to the 79-year-old restaurant for its good old Hainanese taste.

They sip black coffee with a pinch of sugar and talk about the good old times when a meal for two cost no more than RM2.

Mok then lived across the shop along Jalan Kamunting, where Yut Kee owner Jack Lee lived.
Anne lived on the other side along Jalan Dang Wangi (known then as Campbell Road), where Yut Kee is located.

They now live in Bandar Utama, but do not mind the distance as it is just 15 minutes away on a Sunday morning.

Sometimes their children, Andrew and Selena, along with their spouses, join them.

"We like coming here as we sometimes meet our old friends," said Anne.

Mok is one of the few customers who remembers Lee’s father, Lee Tai Yut, who died when his only son was two.

"He lived across my house. He was just like Jack — friendly, helpful, very community-centric and a good cook," said Mok.

The fresh aroma of coffee beans being ground in the morning at Yut Kee would awaken the couple and all those living in the vicinity in the early days.

"The aroma was wonderful. It made you want to get that first cup of coffee," said Anne.

The senior Lee, who came from Hainan island, China, opened Yut Kee on Jan 15, 1928. He had four wives, one of whom was left behind in China. The other three wives helped out in the coffee shop.

Yeow Cheang Swi, 76, remembered other restaurants along Jalan Dang Wangi but none stayed in business for long.

He said Yut Kee remained the way it was before Merdeka, with the same cake showcase, old-fashioned tables and chairs and the staircase leading to what was once a dining area.

The only change is the cashier counter.

Yut Kee was the favourite haunt for Lee’s Victoria Institution schoolmate T. Jayanathan, 64, after school.

Jayanathan liked hanging out at the restaurant, which he dubbed as the "headquarters". He usually stayed over. "They always welcomed me at the shop with a barley drink," he said.

Yut Kee is one of the few places left that brings warm memories to those who lived through the birth of the country.

A coffee shop with old ambience

IT is rare for customers to find an empty table at the Yut Kee restaurant located on the corner of Jalan Kamunting and Jalan Dang Wangi.

What is more common is a queue, with about 10 customers, outside the 79-year-old shop.

While owner Jack Lee, 63, supervises the kitchen, his wife Margareth and son Mervyn, 28, run the crowded non-halal eatery like a stockbroking firm.

"Somebody, table number two please," shouted Margareth to one of her 14 staff.

"How many? Four? Please wait awhile," she said in a gentler tone to a group of customers before attending to another at the cashier.

The father, mother and son team have established their own restaurant lingo. For example, "2,4,2" means table space is needed for three groups of two, four and two customers.

With 14 tables inside, and two outside during the weekend, the coffee shop is always short of seats for the 70 or so who throng the place at any one time between Tuesday and Sunday.

No one seems to mind the warm interior and the old furniture, and Mervyn, the computer engineering graduate from the University at Buffalo, New York, now relishes the challenge of keeping the place the way it is.

"There will still be fans. I don’t intend to install air-conditioning," said the only son, who is being groomed to take over Yut Kee.

The chicken chop, the home-brewed coffee, the Swiss roll, lum mee and butter cake are some of the reasons customers are willing to wait for a table.

Many have been coming for years. Some remember Lee from their younger days, still calling him "Uncle Jack".

"Anybody can talk to Uncle Jack. He is very friendly," said Selena Tan, 37, who has been coming to Yut Kee since she was 7.

"I come here because of Jack. He is just like his father, warm and friendly," said Yeoh Cheang Swi, 76, who grew up in Sentul.

Yut Kee’s customer base is now mostly Chinese, but Lee remembers fondly the old days.

"I miss those times. It was a nice mix. I would pick up Tamil words from my customers. It was once a meeting place for the Kampung Baru residents."

Surviving the challenging years

IN the ebb and flow of the past 50 years, Yut Kee restaurant has seen its share of ups and downs.

The May 13, 1969, race riots and the January 1971 Kuala Lumpur floods, in particular, stand out as times of hardship in the memory of restaurant owner Jack Lee.

During the May 13 period, Lee was too scared to stay at home. Instead, he was forced to sleep outside the Dang Wangi police station.

Yut Kee was open for a few hours a day during this tense period. Once, neighbours thought Lee was dead because they had heard that a boy from an eating stall had been shot dead during the curfew. The dead boy turned out to be from a restaurant opposite Yut Kee, bearing the name Ban Kee.

After the May 13 incident, Lee was cajoled by his mother into taking over the business.

The first challenge that he faced as the new owner of Yut Kee was the January 1971 floods.

"Dataran Merdeka was like a river," Lee recalled. Yut Kee was not spared, with flood waters as high as the eating tables.

Over the years, Yut Kee has faced periodic "scares" such as the Japanese encephalitis virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and bird flu. But, the restaurant did not fare too badly because it offered a variety of meats.

"During the JE virus, people ordered chicken, and during the bird flu, people ordered pork so we were not really affected," said Lee’s wife, Margareth.



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