“Go and check out the room upstairs,” my superior instructed, his voice low and his normally-less-than-animated eyes dancing mischievously. I could’ve sworn that there was a wink thrown in there too.
He had discovered about my weekend plans to visit the royal town of Kuala Kangsar for the Malay College Kuala Kangsar’s (MCKK) MCKK Premier 7s, an annual Rugby Sevens tournament organised by this elite institution.
The tournament brings together top rugby schools from around the country and from neighbouring countries for a rugby extravaganza.
I’d also let slip that I was planning a detour to Yut Loy coffee shop, famed for its pau and for being a popular haunt for Budak Koleq (literally Koleq boys or students of MCKK).
Being an “old boy” of the school, no doubt Yushaimi Yahaya, NST’s group editor, was keen for me to unearth some racy gems that only Koleq-ians are privy to. That, or perhaps he himself hadn’t a clue either.
“Got ghosts ke?” I retorted, pretending unflappability at the suggestive bait. “Pergi lah tanya the owner (Why don’t you go and ask the owner),” he shot back cheekily, that twinkle never leaving his eyes.
And it’s that lively exchange that I had with Mr Boss-man the week before that suddenly comes into my mind as I find myself standing in front of a picture-perfect kopitiam, the sort you see in photographs of traditional coffee shops in old Malaya, complete with a yellowing rectangular signage hanging above the doorway, the words Yut Loy — Kedai Makan dan Minum — emblazoned across it.
A bespectacled uncle, brows furrowed, stands at the counter, totally absorbed in his newspaper. My dishevelled presence (it’s a scorcher of a day) hardly registers on his radar.
Then I spotted it. THE stairs. From my vantage point at the entrance, I see a wooden stairway just to the left of the shop that leads to... eh, darkness?
I enter and nonchalantly pretend to study the collection of framed photographs hanging along the wall, lingering on a yellowing photo of the Big School, MCKK’s Greco-Roman-styled building, as I furtively attempt to get a better look at what lies beyond.
“Nak meja ke (You want a table)?” asks a tudung-clad woman, suddenly emerging from nowhere to interrupt my covert mission. Guilt must have been written all over my face as her inquisitive eyes follow my gaze towards the top of the stairs.
“Itu tak boleh naik (You can’t go up there),” she snaps, her ‘Kuala’ lilt edgy, before pointing me to the back of the shop where there’s a vacant table.
Wading my way through the boisterous crowd inside this modest-sized shop, brushing against bodies that seem to be aimlesslessly standing, I’m conscious of the curious stares being thrown my way.
Is it the clickety clack of my heels against the tiles? My dishevelled state?
Then it hits me. One — that the coffee shop is populated by men. And two — that for every guy that’s seated at a table, there’s at least one who’s sporting the MCKK coat of arms on his top — that famous shield quartered red, black, yellow and white representing the school’s four “houses”’
What’s even more interesting? That they all seem to know each other. And I, in my crisp white see-through blouse, the slightest of lace peeping from under, have found myself in what appears to be an all-male enclave.
The only women to be seen are the wait staff and a lone auntie at the back looking completely spaced out.
Now that kind of realisation would ordinarily send me to high heaven — but not today. Feeling like a real outsider trapped in some surreal time and space, I take my seat and seek refuge behind my notebook, raising it high enough to cover my face but low enough to not declare to the world that I am an NST reporter (tough job, as the words ‘New Straits Times Reporters Notebook’ are emblazoned on the front of the said notebook!)
“Nak order apa (What do you want to order),” asks another harrassed-looking tudung-clad woman, who’d also emerged from out of nowhere.
I order a selection of Yut Loy’s famous pau, with fillings of kaya, chicken and beef. One of each, I say to her. My enthusiastic order is met with a frown. “Pukul 2.30 baru keluar (They’ll only come out at 2.30pm),” she replies, as if on automode.
My eyes travel to the clock on the wall and you can almost hear a silent wail welling from deep inside me. It reads 1.30pm.
“Satu pun tak de ke kak? Saya datang jauh ni (You don’t even have one? I’ve come a long way),” I say to her, eyes pleading for some semblance of mercy.
She purses her lips before relenting. Her tone suddenly kinder, she replies: “Tunggu sekejap. Saya simpan untuk you. Tapi order sudah banyak. Nak dua boleh lah. Order lah benda lain dulu. Western menu pun ada (Wait. I keep for you. But there’s lots of orders. If you want just two, can. Why don’t you order something else first. We also have a western menu).”
Grateful for that tiny shred of kindness, I quickly reel off my orders — one coffee and two pau, a kaya and a beef one. And yes, even if I have to wait an hour, that’s what I’ll do.
After all, this is the pau that even the royal palace, Istana Iskandariah, places orders in the hundreds for when there are functions.
Light and fluffy, the soft-steamed buns continue to be made using traditional methods in wooden steamers and without the addition of yeast.
Located at No. 51, Jalan Kangsar, Yut Loy kopitiam, which celebrates its 88th year this year, is regarded as an institution among Kuala Kangsar folks.
Although the shop sells more than just pau — its menu also offers Hainanese favourites such as chicken chop and fried rice — it’s the pau that’s the main draw for the locals and those coming from far and wide.
Whenever there’s an Old Boys’ Reunion at MCKK, you’ll see politicians, senior government officials and celebrities visiting the shop too.
I later discover from a kindly uncle seated behind me that the bespectacled chap I saw earlier at the counter is the father of the shop’s present owners, Chong Cheen Yee and his twin brother.
Dad Chong Khong Meng, already in his late 70s, continues to serve customers from his post at the front. Three generations have/are still serving this institution.
The shop was opened by the brothers’ grandfather in the 1940s, and eventually became famous for its pau and western cuisine prepared in the traditional ways of the Hainanese cooks who used to cook for our colonial masters.
Everything on the menu is made in the bustling kitchen at the back of the shop, including the pau.
According to the now-mellow tudung-clad woman, once they’ve reached their pau quota for the day (a few hundreds), they’ll stop. Customers queue for the piping hot pau as soon as they come out at 2.30pm.
Then, there are also those who pre-order in the “puluhan” (tens), coming to the shop only for a swift pick-up. In fact, as I while my time away observing the comings and goings of the customers in this modest coffee shop, I notice a distinguished-looking gentleman making a bee-line for the kitchen, emerging minutes later swinging those old fashioned see-through yellow or pink plastic bags in their hands.
For the lucky ones, the look of triumph etched on their faces — as if they’d just acquired a prize catch — is one for the camera!
Meanwhile, parked outside by the roadside, glistening under the mid-afternoon sun, are their cars, Mercedes, BMW and wait, is that a Harley Davidson?
Too famous for publicity
A man, clad in a simple T-shirt over a pair of rolled-up trousers, emerges from the kitchen. His steps are hurried and he appears harrassed.
He throws an absent smile in my direction as he acknowledges mine. Iin his hands are bags and bags of pau, squashed against each other, possibly in the hundreds.
So he’s the co-owner Cheen Yee. I try to intercept him on his return to the kitchen to find out more about his business. But he’s apologetic in his response. “Newspaper? So sorry ah. If I give interview, more people will come from everywhere. We cannot cope.”
I persist but he stands firm. Again an apologetic smile and the same excuse. Sensing his inevitable “disappearance” from my periphery, I lob him one final question — the bonus one. “So what’s upstairs ah?” I ask, pointing to the stairway. “Is it a special room? Got story?”
A smile ensues. “No-lah. Nothing up there. Just another dining space. Got lots of dust now.”
And with that, he excuses himself and beats a hasty retreat for the kitchen where more pau are being taken out from the wooden steamer.
“Atas tu (Up there)?” a handsome guy who looks to be in his early 50s suddenly interrupts my disappointed reverie.
He’s among the boisterous bunch sitting at the table in front of me. I nod, my interest piqued.
Pulling his chair nearer, he chuckles, before adding: “No mystery-lah. That’s where the naughty boys and seniors used to go for a quick cigarette or two — to escape the teachers who might have suddenly decided to come for a drink downstairs.”
What? No ghost? Now what am I going to tell Mr Bossman on my return to Balai Berita?
Yut Loy Coffee Shop
@ 51 Main Road/Jalan Kangsar, Kuala Kangsar, Perak.
Open 9am to 6pm.
Closed on Sundays