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Thursday August 30, 2012

Iconic dim sum restaurant calling it quits due to uncertainties

AFTER 84 years in business, Yook Woo Hin Restaurant in Petaling Street will be bidding its customers goodbye tomorrow.

The surprising move has caused disappointment among the Chinese community in Kuala Lumpur as it is among a handful of surviving traditional food shops located in the historical Petaling Street.

For as long as old-timers in the city can remember, the restaurant is always among the first in town to “wake up” every morning.

<b>Huge draw:</b> Yook Hoo Hin dumplings sold at the front of the shop in the old days. Huge draw: Yook Hoo Hin dumplings sold at the front of the shop in the old days.

Even before the break of dawn, the restaurant is already welcoming early risers with steaming hot dim sum and fluffy pau within its warm, brightly-lit premises.

Locals and tourists stream into the restaurant, mainly for the traditional flavours and also for the old-school ambience peculiar to pre-war shophouses.

The recent weeks have been extremely busy for the operators as many from far and near have been thronging the restaurant to savour its offerings for one last time.

Many are also planning to be there on National Day to make the last order.

The building underwent a major renovation in 2006 due to a termite infestation but in spite of that, the intricate facade has been preserved while the interior is still filled with vintage elements.

<b>Fresh and fluffy:</b> The kitchen team busy making pau in the wee hours. The
restaurant sells up to 500 pau on the weekends. Fresh and fluffy: The kitchen team busy making pau in the wee hours. The restaurant sells up to 500 pau on the weekends.

Among them are a calligraphy carving of the name that means “The House of Jade Teapot” and a black-and-white portrait of its founder, Lee Hoi.

His granddaughter, Lee Wai Cheng, 51, who runs the restaurant now, speaks of its history with mixed feelings.

Way back in 1928, the shop was the place her grandfather and grandmother from the Shunde district in Guangdong, China, toiled to raise 10 children.

“They sold herbal tea and betel nut during the day by the roadside, and lived underneath that staircase at night,” Lee said, pointing to the staircase in the centre of the dining area that led to the kitchen and staff quarters on the first floor.

They scrimped and saved to rent the premises to start a small business specialising in Cantonese delights.

The restaurant has fed customers during peaceful times as well as helped them weather tumultuous periods such as during the Japanese Occupation with specially-made tapioca buns.

The family business fell on Lee’s shoulder in 1991. She took over the task “by default” as her siblings and cousins had chosen different career paths.

One of her nephews, Lee Hou Fai, 38, has been helping her for the last five years.

Her training started when she was 14. Her father, who was in charge of accounts and administration, took her along when dealing with the many government departments to educate her on licence renewal and other matters.

<b>Old-fashioned method:</b> Khoo measuring the amount of ingredients needed to
make Chinese pau the traditional way. Old-fashioned method: Khoo measuring the amount of ingredients needed to make Chinese pau the traditional way.

She was allowed to work elsewhere after she finished school, with the condition that she would be “recalled” anytime.

The winds of change blew when the restaurant was acquired alongside 22 other pre-war properties in Jalan Sultan and Petaling Street for the tunnelling of the MRT track.

The acquisition exercise was stopped following calls for heritage preservation.

Instead, MRT Corp sought property owners’ consent to bore underneath their properties by signing a mutual agreement.

MRT Corp insisted that all but two property owners had signed the agreement while two of them, Yook Woo Hin and Malay Chamber of Commerce Malaysia that owns an empty plot there, had agreed to acquisition.

She said the landlords — her relatives — made the decision to sell the building.

“We made the move with a heavy heart. We felt that there was too much uncertainty, such as the cost to move and operate elsewhere for six months during the tunnelling.

“The conditions that came with the agreement are not in the shareholders’ favour.

“One is that we will not be allowed to build additional levels to the shophouse,” she said.

<b>Started in 1928:</b> A portrait of the founder, Lee Hoi, hangs in a prominent location in the restaurant. Started in 1928: A portrait of the founder, Lee Hoi, hangs in a prominent location in the restaurant.

“Our restaurant was historically a neighbourhood business. This place, as you can see, is now occupied mostly by foreign workers who do not like our food.

“Yes, we have tourists coming but that is only seasonal.

“The business is actually not that good,” she added.

City folk will no longer be able to relish its famous mooncakes, dumplings and yee sang — anticipated annually by many.

“It is sad but frankly, also a relief in a way. Personally, I am still not used to the hours.”

The hours are daunting indeed. Lee and the kitchen staff wake up before 3am to prepare a fresh batch of delicacies before the shop opens at 5.30am.

They are only closed on Thursdays. Heading the kitchen is chef Khoo Chee Seng, 51, who has been with the restaurant for over 30 years.

“I first came here for a holiday job, and in the blink of an eye, three decades have passed,” he said with a smile.

Khoo could not pinpoint what made him stay for so long but has grown accustomed to the job.

It is sad but frankly, also a relief in a way. —LEE WAI CHENG It is sad but frankly, also a relief in a way. —LEE WAI CHENG

He said he would wake up in the wee hours of the day even on his days off.

He has been shuttling between his home and the hostel, amid his children’s complaints, but enjoys the working environment and the company of his co-workers.

But Khoo admitted that it was a far cry from the restaurant’s heyday in the 70s and 80s.

“During those days, there were customers waiting behind every table.

“Now many have moved away and do not want to come all the way here for breakfast,” he said.

Khoo said he might consider running some small business or seek employment somewhere while Lee said she would just retire as she needed to take care of her ailing mother.

But Hou Fai, the fourth generation in the family and whose profession is in business development, is not calling it quits yet despite the obstacles that lie ahead.

He does not have the capital to open a restaurant elsewhere and the other shareholders are too old to want to start all over again.

But he is hopeful, as the name “Yook Woo Hin” is popular.

He does not have any concrete plans as yet but is toying with the idea of franchising.

“The shop may close down but hopefully the brand will continue,” he said.

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