Growing up in a Prewar Kuala Lumpur Shophouse
As a child, my mother visited her maternal grandparents’ commercial laundry Chop Cheong Fatt [Cantonese: prosperity] every day. She loved sweeping foam down the drain and playing between rows of hanging laundry. It was a short walk, five doors down, from her home and paternal grandparents’ provision store Chop Yong Seng Hong [Teochew: to become abundant].
I did not visit my maternal grandparents Ye Ye and Ah Ma daily, as I grew up an eight-hour flight away. Mum told us stories instead, such as the Great Flood which lasted three days. “I wish it’d flood…” I sighed during one visit. I did not understand why Ah Ma scolded. All I wanted was a bit of adventure.
One of my earliest memories is of burning my thumb at my grandparents’ shrine to 地主公 [Landlord God]. I remember Hudson’s and Nano Nano lollies, hiding in Ye Ye’s air-conditioned office and bucket showers, but little else. Flicking through old photos, I wanted to know more and so I asked Mum.
In the 1930s, the top floor of many Kuala Lumpur shophouses served as a dorm for up to thirty people. Most were newly-arrived single workers from China but some had wives and children. Ye Ye’s father sub-let his to relatives—four families, a total of twenty people—and sold daily necessities downstairs to families along his street. Every night, trishaw workers stopped to buy oil for their headlights. Electricity was not common; most families used oil or kerosene lamps at home.
Mum says: “According to Ah Ma, relatives liked to come to my grandfather’s shophouse to collect mail and distribute their children’s wedding invitations. Everyone knew each other; gossip and news spread easily. After a hard day’s work, coolies and workers came to my grandfather’s shop to eat, drink and share news, and also to collect daily wages from their boss. They all spoke the same dialect.”
From left to right: Koh Saing Pong (Ye Ye / grandfather) and Koh Lam Ying (Ah Ma / grandmother). Photo c/o Shu-Ling’s family archives.
My great-grandfathers were indentured labourers brought from southern China by merchants. After paying off their debts, they went back for their wives and sons and rented neighbouring shophouses, intending to return home once they had made enough money. They never did return.
Shophouses are narrow, small terraced houses, generally two- or three-storeys high, with a shop on the ground floor and a sheltered “five foot” pedestrian way out front. The architectural style of shophouses reflect when they were built. Ours had shuttered windows and a Chinese-style courtyard, but not the bold colours or fancy tiles of those in Malacca and Penang. The shophouse was integral to building commerce and a sense of community in most historic Southeast Asian cities.
As soon as Mum and her siblings could count and read, they helped in the shop. They weighed biscuits, flour, sugar, vermicelli and salt in kati and tahil [Malay: catty and tael], wrapped them in newspaper and string, and learnt to count notes and coins. Kerosene and cooking oil arrived in five gallon (17L) tins, rice in gunny sacks of hundred catty (60kg) to be divvied up for sale.
“We filled small plastic packets with sweets, melon seeds and preserved plums, limes and ginger, and sealed these by candle.”
Mum remembers: “Customers and hostesses on their way to bars often knocked on our door to buy snacks so my grandfather extended business hours past 8pm. We filled small plastic packets with sweets, melon seeds and preserved plums, limes and ginger, and sealed these by candle. One night, three men pretended to be customers and robbed our shop. Luckily, nobody was hurt, but we lost some money and Ah Ma lost some jewellery. From then on, we decided to close early.”
Koh Saing Pong (Ye Ye / grandfather) and Shu-Ling Chua. Photo c/o Shu-Ling’s family archives.
From the 1960s, many shophouse owners decided to sell or develop their property. Some bought out their neighbours and built modern, mid-rise commercial buildings. My great-grandfather lost many customers; some left without paying their bills.
I ask Mum if they ever struggled financially: “At one stage, business was so bad, my grandfather charged us for every item we took from the shop. Ah Ma was annoyed and upset and in return, wanted a wage for cleaning and cooking. My parents decided to play a heavier role, indirectly asking my grandparents to retire.”
“Ye Ye nicknamed his neighbours according to their business: soh see lou [key man], haai sohk [shoe uncle], zyu yohk fun lou [pork noodle man], yin zai lou [cigarettes man], hei seoi lou [soft drink man] and so on.”
Ye Ye nicknamed his neighbours according to their business: soh see lou [key man], haai sohk [shoe uncle], zyu yohk fun lou [pork noodle man], yin zai lou [cigarettes man], hei seoi lou [soft drink man] and so on. The scent of sesame oil chicken, vinegar pork trotters and drunken chicken soup signaled the arrival of a new baby. During Yu Lan [Hungry Ghost Festival], many families prayed and burnt paper money in the back lane.
Mum shares fond memories of playing in the lane with her sister and brother: “Girls would play hop-scotch, skipping ropes and masak [Malay: cooking]. We collected fern growing along the drains and fried it over a pretend stove. Boys played spinning top, kites and marbles. The only games we played together were ‘police and robbers’ and hide and seek.”
They were later forbidden to do so as drug addicts and pushers moved into the lane.
From left to right: Koh Lam Ying (Ah Ma / grandmother), Shu-Ling Chua and Koh Yeuan Tyng (Shu-Ling's mum). Photo c/o Shu-Ling’s family archives.
When my great-grandfather passed away in 1972, Ye Ye, his eldest son, took over the business. He had no other trade. As fewer families lived in the area and more offices were built, Ye Ye changed his business model to serve office workers and set up a delivery service for newspapers and magazines. These gave a small profit, but sold well. Photocopiers: in. Preserved vegetables: out.
“If it started raining at midnight, we’d wake up and stare out the window to prepare for any flash floods.”
The shop suffered frequent flash floods from the 1970s, due to poor city planning and rubbish-clogged drains. “If it started raining at midnight, we’d wake up and stare out the window to prepare for any flash floods,” Mum says. “We couldn’t sleep.” Furniture toppled into waist-high water, dimpled with rats. Shelves and walls remained swollen with a mouldy dampness long after the mud was scraped away. “I can never forget those flash floods for the rest of my life,” her voice breaks. “One time, Ye Ye worked so hard to salvage goods in the shop he suffered a mild stroke.”
In the mid-1990s, my uncle resigned from full-time clerical work and took over the business. Ye Ye and Ah Ma continued to help as he focused on photocopying, stationery, rubber stamps, snacks and drinks. By then, there were 1,000 teenage students studying along the street, renamed Jalan Hang Lekiu in the 1980s. Many office buildings had been converted into colleges. Business remained steady, but my grandparents decided to leave their shophouse in 1998. Mum regrets not making the trip home to help with the move. At the time, she was busy raising my brother and I in Melbourne.
Mum says: “Ah Ma was quite reluctant to move. She thought they wouldn’t have money without the shop business. Also, she thought if Ye Ye didn’t work, he would die early. Without hobbies, they’d just sit down and wait to die. She had to reconsider later. Rental was high, 2,400 ringgit a month. Also, they couldn’t cope with so many flash floods, three to five times a year.”
When Mum later mentioned the shophouse, Ye Ye said he did not remember much. He passed away in 2001. “Ngor m saai, bao m waai,” Mum says. “We had just enough.” I do not have the words (or courage) to ask Ah Ma about the shop, her home and livelihood. As I read the notes Mum sends, I tear up at the disconnect between my reality and that of my forebears.
Both shops (36 and 46), two of seven, remain on Jalan Hang Lekiu, in a city of glass and metal.
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