A few years ago, fresh graduate Robert Chua Ka Sin, 25, picked up a camera, learnt how to shoot and began a love affair with film-making. Upon returning to his hometown of Penang, Chua met young audio engineering graduate Goh Soo Ghee. The two became firm friends and decided to open their own production house, called Robert Visuals just before the pandemic began early last year.
During the pandemic, Chua came across an article written about James Beard award-winning Malaysian-born filmmaker Andrew Gooi who had set up the US-based Food Talkies, a website for culinary films. That sparked an idea to document the stories of some of Penang’s most venerated, multi-generational street food vendors.
“I was inspired to do this because it’s a pandemic and there’s a real danger that these local street food businesses and vendors will close down completely, like many other businesses have and then their stories will be lost forever. So it is important to document this before it disappears altogether and we wanted to do our bit to preserve local culture through food stories.
“And another thing we realised when we looked online at other food films and videos was that a lot of what was being covered was just about the food itself; it wasn’t about the people and the stories behind the food.
“I feel this is very unfortunate, because other countries like Singapore and France celebrate their chefs and street vendors with good films and documentaries, whereas there is very little of this in Penang and Malaysia. It doesn’t feel fair and I thought if I could contribute the time to doing this, it would be worth it,” says Chua.
A worthwhile undertaking
So began a passion project that took a full year to come to fruition, because Chua and Goh funded it themselves and had to take on paying jobs in between the completion of this endeavour. They also roped in Gooi, whom they contacted through Instagram, as a mentor for the project.
Chua says one of the biggest setbacks they faced once they decided to go full-steam ahead with the project was getting the vendors to actually agree to be filmed, an uphill battle that saw them being rejected numerous times before finally finding success with a few street food vendors.
“A lot of the street food vendors were rather suspicious and wondered why we wanted to shoot a documentary for free.
“Many of them also didn’t want their cooking process to be filmed as they had trade secrets to keep. We told them that we wouldn’t film those parts, but even then, a lot of the vendors decided not to let us film. Some of them were scared the public would see the way the way they prepared food and would criticise them, or that they would go viral for the wrong reasons,” says Chua.
To get the vendors to participate, Chua and Goh built a rapport by stopping by these eateries to purchase takeaway meals and to chat with the owners. Once a friendship was formed, they had to find ways to convince on-the-fence or reluctant vendors to trust them with their stories.
“In the end, what really clicked with many of them was that we wanted to preserve their food culture and family legacy and that the documentary was about them and their legacy; not about us,” says Chua.
The docu-series was filmed by a two-man crew made up of just Chua and Goh, in line with the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant they couldn’t have a huge team for the shoots. When filming, the two adopted a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ filming approach, which basically means the footage depicts what actually happens every day in the lives of these vendors i.e. there is no fancy production set-up or staged shoots.
In putting together the final footage, Chua and Goh turned to Gooi for advice and feedback, having already sought his expertise pre-production.
“Once we shot and edited the series, we provided drafts to send to Andrew for feedback. So every draft, he would give his feedback and we would edit it and improve it, and that’s how he was involved in the whole process,” explains Chua.
The final four-episode documentary web series, titled The Melting Pot: Penang features four vendors: Cavin Mook from the legendary Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Kuih; Ong May May from the hugely popular Air Itam Sister Curry Mee; Ooi Yeok Sun from the famous Toh Soon Café and Shahul Hameed Syed Mohamed from the iconic Hameed Pata Mee Sotong.
Local food champions
The entire experience of filming and talking to acclaimed Penang street food vendors gave Chua and Goh a heightened appreciation for these tireless advocates of local food culture, who have been an integral part of the Malaysian culinary tapestry for decades.
The two also discovered how heritage, modernity, innovation and progress can often be intertwined in the lives and livelihoods of these vendors, with many of their personal stories underscoring this.
Shahul Hameed Syed Mohamed for instance is the second-generation owner of Hameed Pata Mee Sotong, which has been around since 1978 and is often described as a must-visit spot for locals and tourists alike.
Through speaking to Hameed, Chua and Goh discovered that the mee sotong that put the restaurant (and Penang) on the map was not so much an age-old family recipe as it was invented by Hameed as a result of a challenge from a customer.
“People think the mee sotong dish was passed down from Hameed’s father but actually it was a dish that came about because a customer challenged Hameed to create something new.
“He used the ingredients that he had and made a gravy with sotong and put it on top of noodles. So the innovation was not from the ingredients, but from the way the ingredients were prepared. This actually created a new dish that has become synonymous with Penang and brought his business to new heights, because previously it wasn’t that famous,” says Chua.
With the renowned Air Itam Sister Curry Mee, which was started in 1946 by octogenarian sisters Lim Kooi Heang and Lim Kooi Lye – Chua and Goh say they learnt how the duo’s grandniece Ong May May, who took over the running of the eatery a few years ago – had to contend with negative public perceptions about her youth and inexperience, despite retaining the traditional recipe and cooking methods used by her elderly grandaunts.
“One of the things Ong suffered from a lot was that people didn’t believe she could recreate the flavours her grandaunts had created – that was one of the hardships she had to struggle with on a daily basis.
“Ong could have easily had a corporate career, but she chooses to wake up at 4am every morning, to fire up the traditional charcoal fire and cook the heirloom curry mee. And the reason she chooses to do this is because of the respect she has for her grandaunts.
“But at the end of the day, people were still saying the food didn’t taste as good. So we wanted to break that apart and show how she cooked the dish just like her grandaunts did,” says Chua.
In many instances, Chua also realised that the older street food vendors themselves have been embracing modernity, in a bid to get younger family members interested in continuing the business. This is precisely what has happened with Toh Soon Café, which has been making Hainan-style coffee in Penang for nearly 70 years in a charming, old-school alleyway café.
In 2019, the owner Ooi Yeok Sun decided to let his eldest son run a café called Toh Soon Coffee Cave Café, an offshoot that still serves the traditional cup of java, albeit in more salubrious surrounds.
“Ooi has a very interesting perspective because he says hawker culture is always evolving and sometimes it is about evolving locations and flavours and creating new things.
“So if the younger generation like his son can improve the flavours of the family’s coffee, he is totally fine with that, because it is not always about staying the same,” explains Chua.
What’s in store
In making the final version of The Melting Pot: Penang, Chua and Goh decided to synthesise each episode into four-minute videos, or “bite-sized” content, as Chua calls it. Although this may seem like an extremely short span of time to tell the full stories of these vendors, Chua says there is a method to this madness.
“We are releasing all four stories at the same time, so people can binge on it, because what we realised is once audiences like something, they tend to binge on it.
“And we decided to do short videos to gauge whether this approach to story-telling is something people can appreciate, and also because it is really hard to capture people’s attention spans with longer content.
“So for us, it’s about taking baby steps first before going full force into 30-minute episodes,” says Chua.
Chua and Goh both say they aim to make more documentaries about Malaysian food culture in the future to continue the work they feel is missing in the local cultural oeuvre.
“If there is a lot of buzz and interest around this series and we can make it financially sustainable, we want to expand to other states and eventually make a full-length documentary on food,” says Chua.
Ultimately though, these young filmmakers believe that the most important message imparted through their first food docu-series is how food ultimately connects different generations in completely different but meaningful ways.
“In our current generation, we only do jobs that we like. But when we did these interviews, we realised that the older generation totally did this out of necessity. These businesses were born out of hardship; not passion.
“And this made me appreciate our local hawker food more, because many of the older people making curry mee or coffee started doing it because they had to.
“But the next generation of street food vendors now sees this culture as something rare and unique; like a part of their family’s heritage.
“So the younger people who are doing it now are doing it as a way to preserve something important, which is really beautiful to see,” says Goh.