Helen Jambunathan is an anthropologist and writer. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge and has spent more than five years researching the specialty coffee industry. She is currently based in London.
Traditional kopitiams, which serve sweetened coffee in no-frills surroundings, are a part of Malaysian national identity, but their survival is precarious.
In Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, traditional coffeehouses are a deluge on the senses. Large fans blast across the room, working against the sweltering heat, and workers shout orders to one another over clamorous chatter. People perch on plastic stools, drinking sticky, sweetened coffee out of green-patterned ceramic cups with matching saucers. Amid the intense bustle, a lone man usually stands in the rear of the shop, straining dark coffee through a cloth filter and letting it spatter into multiple mugs at once.
Kopitiams (the word translates to “coffee shop” in the Chinese Hokkien dialect) are the oldest surviving coffeehouses in Malaysia. Many have been in existence since the colonial era; coffee was briefly a cash crop for the British in the late 19th century. These open-air coffee shops form historic spaces of community gathering, and over time, have come to be seen as precious bastions of diversity and civic dialogue in multicultural Malaysia.
While kopitiams come in many different shapes and sizes, they are marked by the creative fusion foods that were invented by their progenitors: Hainanese chefs working for British households in 18th-century Malaya. There’s toast spread with a rich coconut jam called kaya, a chicken chop with green peas and dark soy sauce, and, of course, the iconic coffee—a light, buttery roast delicious enough to win over local tea-drinkers. The brew owes its unique flavor to a combination of rare, locally-grown Liberica coffee beans and canned condensed milk (the only kind that was sturdy enough to survive the tropical heat).
For many Malaysians, kopitiams are a familiar part of the everyday urban landscape. “Kopitiams are much more than just coffeehouses,” says Patricia Fernandez, a 26-year-old copywriter. “They’re a big part of Malaysian culture and our national identity.” As a result of their popularity and enduring presence, these traditional coffeeshops have become knitted into larger national narratives of social cohesion.
“Kopitiams are important to Malaysian identity because they are places where people can get together to have a lively chat and debate issues. This is important for our multicultural society, so that Malaysia can keep being the peaceful and welcoming country it is,” says Daniel Boon, a law student.
This sentiment is especially relevant to Kuala Lumpur, which is dazzlingly pluralistic. The urban population is composed of the country’s three largest ethnic groups—Malays, Chinese, and Indians—as well as significant numbers of indigenous peoples and migrants. This diversity is further reflected and complicated in the city’s religious and cultural makeup, making spaces like kopitiams feel especially important for their potential to equalize.
Kopitiams may be beloved, but they are dwindling in number. In Malaysia’s cities, gentrification and rapid development are increasingly leaving them on the back foot. A spokesperson for Kuala Lumpur’s Chinese Coffee and Tea Shop-Keepers’ Association laments that the number of kopitiams registered with them has been dropping for decades. Chinatown, the historic heart of the city, was once home to scores of them, but today only three remain formally registered in the area.
Any number of other open-air Chinese restaurants are in plain sight in Kuala Lumpur’s city center, and many will serve coffee. But the family-run coffeehouses that provoke such fondness and nostalgia are undeniably on their way out.
The reasons for their demise are manifold. Rising rental rates in Kuala Lumpur are one big contributing factor. The repeal of the Rent Control Act in 2000 resulted in drastic price hikes, which sounded the death knell for many old, urban business tenancies.
Today, kopitiams are up against the likes of Starbucks and independent cafés with much higher profit margins, in a high-stakes competition for space and attention. And despite their long heritage, the fact that they are non-halal, predominantly Chinese spaces in Muslim-majority KL also makes them a low priority for state conservation efforts.
Upward mobility in kopitiam-owning families is also playing a role. Generations of labor have successfully propelled younger family members into higher education, and the laborious craft of kopi-making—which entails, among other things, the technique of straining the coffee through fine mesh netting—is dying with the coffeehouses.
“I learned to make kopi from my father, and I’ve been making it since I was little,” says Ting, a 65-year-old who works at the Chinatown kopitiam Lai Foong. “Young people today don’t know the process of making kopi. I don’t know if I will be passing it on. In 20 years, there will be very few who know how to do it.”
His thoughts are echoed by the shop’s owner, Thomas Tan. “People these days don’t want to run kopitiams anymore. My children certainly don’t want to be involved,” he says. “This is a dinosaur business.”
Age is an inescapable presence in kopitiams. Both the shops and their clientele bear the marks of time, from the stained tiled walls to sepia-toned pictures and cotton-clad old men. For young Malaysians, this living history appears equal parts glamorous and grimy. “Kopitiams are always a bit dirty and gritty. You know the fact that the spaces between the wall tiles are never white? That feels kind of nostalgic to me, weirdly,” says Tan Tze Lian, a young tutor.
The fascination that kopitiams provoke also factors into their current precarity, as it speaks to the shifting politics of coffee drinking among young Malaysians. Third-wave coffee exploded across Kuala Lumpur a decade ago, spawning hundreds of cafés in the extended metropolitan region of the Klang Valley alone and attracting a clientele of young, upwardly mobile urban consumers. Many of these local youth grow up on sweetened kopi and buttered toast, but later graduate to more “sophisticated” coffee drinking.
“No serious coffee drinker would go to a kopitiam,” says Shamani Krishnan, a young communications consultant. “I know they’re seriously under threat, which is a bad thing. I rarely visit them myself, though. Cafés just seem cooler and have better environments.”
In Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, the displacement is literal. As kopitiams like Lai Foong struggle to pay three times their former rent with half the clientele, specialty cafés are mushrooming around them, attracting Instagrammers. In an ironic twist, consumer demand for localized authenticity means that many of these newer coffee bars seek to play up Malaysian heritage by co-opting kopitiam aesthetics while nonetheless serving flat whites and avocado on toast.
Thanks to Chinatown’s narrow shop-lots and chaotic streetscapes, the two types of coffeehouse are curiously juxtaposed. One can have kopi in a green-patterned cup for $0.50 and then pop next door to have a latte in the same cup for $3. In this way, the evolution of Chinatown’s coffeehouses provides a window onto the area’s steady gentrification.
Aside from the fact that it houses some of the oldest kopitiams in the country, Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown and its traditional coffeehouses have a lot in common. Both are spaces of undeniable historic value, provoking fascination and nostalgia but also a certain degree of discomfort. Like kopitiams, Chinatown itself possesses a considerable amount of desirably gritty authenticity, but is simultaneously considered old and dirty.
Even following the district’s reinvention as a tourist hub in the early 2000s, both Chinatown and its kopitiams feel like jarring anachronisms in modern-day Kuala Lumpur. And it is exactly this contradiction that “heritage cafés,” as they’re known, resolve so neatly for young consumers: their carefully designed, expensive interiors sport just enough grime to feel “authentically” local, without any of the hassle of heat, noise, or jostling.
Many of the owners of these cafés are fond of kopitiams themselves and are making genuine efforts to conserve Chinatown’s heritage. Kenneth Tan is the 29-year-old owner of Merchant’s Lane, a café in Chinatown beloved by locals and tourists alike. The shop’s interior is bedecked with Chinese prints and rattan chairs, and the menu sports coconut rendang pasta and matcha lattes. “There’s definitely an increase in the number of people appreciating local heritage. I believe in doing a small part to preserve this, and that’s all you can do—you try your best,” he says.
Although they sometimes sit literally side-by-side on the same dirt-caked blue tiles, kopitiams and heritage cafés are not equal competitors. The simultaneous decline of one kind of coffeehouse and the rise of the other leave young Malaysians in a dilemma, balancing the real nostalgia they feel for kopitiams with new signifiers of cultural capital. While young Malaysian consumers do badly want kopitiams to stick around, in practice, they are visiting them less and less.
“With a café, it’s a ‘Treat yourself’ situation. If I want something nice, that’s where I go for coffee,” says Low Jia Wei, a local advertising executive. “Let’s be frank here: Aesthetically, kopitiams are not as nice. But they are nice because of the nostalgia. I do still go sometimes when I crave certain foods.”
Kopitiams are embedded enough into public life in Kuala Lumpur to be taken thoroughly for granted, but they’re at a pivotal moment of their long history. The sentimental value they stir doesn’t change the facts of rising rents and dropping patronage, which leave these cultural institutions, and the rich slice of history they represent, on shaky footing. To observe Kuala Lumpur’s kopitiams is to witness a fading part of its culture at a crucial moment in time.