A little kopitiam’s timeless charm


Patrons enjoying their lunch at Kek Seng in George Town.

GEORGE TOWN: It began even before World War I, at a time when there were few creature comforts, 60 years before the first black-and-white TV arrived in the country.

A grainy photo of its front entrance, dated 8.8.1906 (Aug 8, 1906), is hung on its wall, a reminder of its long history.

Time has stood still at Kek Seng, one of the country’s oldest traditional coffee shops, which has remained in business despite being under the shadow of Komtar and other glitzy businesses.

At 118 years old now, the shop has kept its old-fashioned booth seats and tables. The tiles and windows are the same.

The only “modern” trappings are the freezer, a refrigerator and plastic chairs.

“They have maintained the place exactly like it was decades ago,” said customer JP Chew, 68.

“A kopitiam like this is important. It is our heritage.”

Chew, who was at Kek Seng recently for lunch, admitted that he had not been to the place for years.

A file photo dated Dec 11, 1984, showing patrons at Kek Seng.A file photo dated Dec 11, 1984, showing patrons at Kek Seng.

“I used to frequent it when I was working around here, but then I stopped coming. It is nice to be back, and I am pleasantly surprised that nothing has changed,” he said.

Chinese nationals Liang Yili, 47, and Wei Xiaojing, 40, noticed an old poster on the wall, showing Kek Seng’s signature ice kacang and durian ice cream.

Kek Seng is known for its ice kacang served with a large scoop of durian ice cream.

“As tourists, we want to immerse ourselves in authentic experiences and eat local food,” said Liang, a teacher.

“Here, I get to experience something local steeped in history.”

Liang and Wei were on a five-day trip to Penang.

“I heard about Penang through a Hong Kong series called Outbound Love, which was filmed here years ago,” she added.

Kek Seng’s third-generation owner Cheow Sow Lei said she wanted to preserve the shop as much as possible.

“We want to stay true to the original layout and keep the original seating. That is why we have not done any renovation or extension,” she said.

However, Cheow conceded that business had declined by about 30% in the past year due to fewer tourists and more eateries coming up.

When she took over the shop in the 1990s, she said the place was buzzing with customers.

Cheow, 57, said online delivery has helped her business.

“I am glad that nearby office workers still order from my shop,” she said.

“And we get a full house especially during lunch when there are school holidays or long weekends.”

She added that there are five stalls in the coffee shop, serving local fare such as laksa, chicken rice, kuey teow th’ng, popiah and char kuey teow.

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