At Capital Café, 1Malaysia existed decades before it became a feel-good slogan adopted by politicians.
IN a corner of Capital Café, a muggy colonial era kopitiam where little but the light bulbs have changed since his father’s times, sat Abdul Kadir Jalawi, 63, alone with his walking stick. For the past 35 years, this blind singer from the Sixties lunches here several times a week – he’s obsessed with the rojak and roti stim, or steamed bread, which he usually downs with a cup of strong black coffee.
Kadir’s presence has become as familiar as the café’s marble tabletops, wooden chairs, and tiled flooring, but he’s certainly not the only customer to visit regularly.
Since its opening by Lin Kuat Hin, a Hock Chiew businessman who hails from Fuzhou, China, and his wife some decades ago, Capital Café has welcomed with open arms a steady stream of the famished, be it Malay, Indian or Chinese.
It is a place where corporate bigwigs eat next to mechanics, where three generations of families on shopping sprees stop for a quick bite and where occasional tourists pop by out of curiosity.
The food, meanwhile, is as diverse as the people who visit. There’s a Malay stall serving one of the best nasi padang in town, an Indian stall which specialises in rojak and mee rebus as well as a Chinese stall selling pork-free Hailam noodles that’s owned by the Lins themselves.
Now 90 years old, Lin has passed on his business – and recipes – to his children, choosing instead to live out the rest of his twilight years in their family abode upstairs.
Since his son Kit Yue has inherited everything but his father’s love and talent for cooking, the task had fallen on one man, a 70-year-old Chinese with over 30 years of experience. But sifu Teng retired several weeks ago and a Myanmar has since taken up his spot behind the wok. Whether or not he has a knack for preparing a Hainanese specialty remains to be seen.
Lin, meanwhile, presides over the cash register, eyeing customers with an air of nonchalance. The years have been kind to him, but not to his competitors.
As Kuala Lumpur developed from a mining boomtown into a bustling capital, the small kopitiam businesses on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, where Capital Café is located, began to fold, one by one.
Asked why Capital Café was spared from the ravages of time, Lin shrugs, grinning.
What was clear, however, was that the cafe has cheekily given 21st century KL the middle finger by proudly flaunting its many relics. Behind Lin, old black-and-white photographs of the city taken by his brother, an avid photographer, were tacked onto a grimy cabinet while to his side hung an ageing menu written in Malay and Jawi. The former – once filled with liquor bottles – is now stuffed rusty antiques. These serve as poignant reminders of the good old days, when a piece of chicken used to cost 80sen rather than RM3.
Bearing witness to this change was Sharil Wahab, also known as Pak Ngah by the café’s many visitors. Together with his younger brother Nasril, this straight-talking 60 year old runs the café’s most popular stall.
The Wahabs have been around almost as long as the Lins, thanks to their father Wahab Amin, an enterprising man who started selling nasi padang to support his family after arriving from Sumatera, Indonesia in 1947. He began renting from Lin and – despite their differing languages and background – the two soon became buddies.
Two generations on, that friendship is still going strong. Just like their Chinese counterparts, the two Wahab brothers have dutifully taken over their late father’s business.
Every morning at 4am, Nasril heads out to the local market to source for ingredients. He then passes these to the family cook, who churns out more than 50 varieties of dishes like daging cincang, petai rendang, bergedil and dendeng.
However, not all traditional recipes left behind by their late mother, Rahimah Tamin, have survived. Certain dishes like otak lembu (cow brains) have been discontinued to keep up with the times.
The origins of the third stall, meanwhile, is rather sketchy. Word around town is that there was an Indian man who used to wander the streets in front of the café selling pasembur and rojak.
Lin Senior then offered him a permanent stall, and the stall has been doing brisk business at the front of the kopitiam ever since.
Mr Rojak has returned to India, and the man who has replaced him is ever smiling, ever busy.
As another pre-Merdeka kopitiam in Kuala Lumpur had to vacate its premises last week – Yut Kee in Dang Wangi – this nondescript little café in the middle of the city has become even more precious.
It is one of the last remaining kopitiam outposts serving to remind us that the spirit of peaceful co-existence is with us all along.
213 Jalan Tuanku
50100 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 016-356 9726