A dash of hipster and plenty of heritage – that’s CaffeDiem in Pekan Cina, Alor Setar, writes Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal
PRISON cell. Opium den. Japanese soldiers. British prisoners. Attempts to travel back in time and visualise how things must have been in this 120-year-old buiding housing hipster haunt and first third-wave specialty coffee outlet in sleepy Alor Setar, CaffeDiem, meet with a disappointing blank. Sigh! I wish I knew my history better.
As cafe owner Jackie Loo, looking just the part (of a hipster) in his vintage-looking tortoiseshell glasses, unruly tresses parted to one side, takes me through the building’s colourful origins, his voice rising occasionally as he battles to make himself heard against the lively chatter of other punters, I find my gaze darting hungrily to capture my surrounds as if willing myself to be teleported to the days of British Malaya.
Seated at the back of the cafe in a cosy enclosed space that looks like a double-volume courtyard, aged wooden boats or perahu believed to be more than 90 years old suspended above my head from steel beams, it seems somewhat surreal to be sipping my modern-day cappucino and tucking into a lemon sesame cake made by Jackie’s mother with all that history floating around me.
Natural light filters in from the glass roof, casting shadows in some nooks and a glow in others, giving the room an ethereal feel.
Following my inquisitive gaze where it has settled on the traditional boats hanging above me, Jackie enlightens me on the background.
He and his partner, it seems, decided to use these boats as decor feature in a nod to the ‘sampan’ which used to be the main mode of transportation along the Kedah river.
Recalls Jackie: “One day, while we were renovating this space, a guy came in and spoke to my partner, and ended up offering us his old family sampan, which had been lying around waiting to rot.”
Pointing to the sampan above us, he adds: “We call this the submarine sampan. It had holes in it and was submerged. The owner wanted to give it to us for free. But we paid him RM200 for two sampans. The other one is over there. The oars are there. It’s basically to remind people that before your expensive Ferraris, these sampans were THE transport.”
As Jackie excuses himself to attend to a query, I take a stroll around the cafe to check out some materials framed against the wall.
According to one article detailing the building’s history, this double-storey structure, which enjoys a strategic duo frontage, with the front facing Pekan Cina, and site facing Jalan Penjara Lama, was constructed in 1896 in the-then British Malaya as a prison.
The prison was relocated to its present premises at Jalan Sultanah before the Japanese Occupation of Malaya in 1941.
The old building was subsequently sold to a private owner hailing from Penang who then proceeded to divide the ground floor into four smaller shop lots that fronted Jalan Penjara Lama.
The shop lots were leased to a salted fish merchant, who occupied two lots, a tabacco leaf trader and a vegetable-cum-provisional shop owner whose company name, Kaew Hin & Co, can still be seen at the front of the building although dimmed somewhat by the white paint job.
“That first floor there, which used to be prison cells, was turned into opium dens,” shares Jackie, his eyes behind the glasses dancing enthusiastically.
It seems that when opium was banned, the owner converted the dens into budget rooms. He took up the master bedroom with his family and leased out the other rooms to tenants who worked around the area.
Continues the 29-year-old, a former advertising man: “And then for the last 30 years, that lot previously occupied by Kaew Hin & Co was rented out to a noodle shop. The rest of the building meanwhile was left abandoned.”
Where history resides
When Jackie and his business partner Datuk Rick Cheng, managing director of real estate developers Encomas, decided to take over the building for their coffee business, the place was in a terrible shape.
Recalls Jackie: “You couldn’t even walk up to the second floor. Someone told us that this place was up for sale. We were interested because we needed a bigger space from our earlier premise just a few doors down so we came to check.”
The building, adds Jackie, was 80 per cent infested with termites. “We took one window frame down and gave it to a carpenter so he could replicate the original design and make the other windows. It took him nine months. We also replicated the design of the original stairs. A lot of what you see here has been hand-crafted or handmade.”
The concept is essentially to preserve as much as they can of what remains. A narrow wooden stairway leads to more dining spaces upstairs.
There’s a room upstairs called the Tunku Room, which has photos of Tunku Abdul Rahman. There’s a lovely one with the Father of Independence captured listening attentively to the radio for election results on July 27, 1955.
A wooden table, which had been assembled using salvaged wood from the building’s original fixtures, is the room’s centrepiece.
I’m charmed by the vintage Bakelite light switches just outside the room. “This used to be one of the prison chambers,” says Jackie, noting my look of curiosity.
Walk down the corridor and enter the China Room, a nod to the opium era in Pekan China. The walls have been painted a vibrant shade of chilli red and the room is furnished with plenty of wooden fixtures. Blue and white porcelainware displayed on white cabinets and majestic-looking opium chairs complete the room.
But the piece de resistance? The five beautiful lanterns hanging over a long, large wooden table, each one with a Chinese character that reads: family, harmony, all, business and success. These lanterns, shares Jackie, had also been specially commissioned.
Realising a dream
It was sometime in May 2013 that CaffeDiem, in its early incarnation, was founded.
Prior to setting home here in this historical building, CaffeDiem, which has been awarded the silver mark under the provisional GreenRe certification (for non-residential properties) awarded for their many eco-drives, was occupying a smaller space.
Recalling his decision to join the coffee industry, Jackie couldn’t help chuckling when he confides that his father, an insurance agent, was initially incredulous when he heard of his son’s plans.
“He said, ‘Are you sure you can sell your coffee at RM8 a cup? Who’s going to buy? Alor Setar people like their kopi o kaw... at RM1.30 only.’
“At that time, the third wave coffee scene was still in its infancy. But not long after we opened, there was a sudden boom in cafes here in Alor Setar.
“In one year, we went from having two to three artisan cafes to having over 30. The proprietors were young people. But they opened very fast and closed fast too. Now there’s only a handful left that’s still surviving.”
Smiling at the recollection, Jackie continues: “One day, my dad suddenly came in and he had a strange look on his face. He said, ‘We need to be selling our coffee at a much higher price!’ It seems he’d discovered that other cafes were selling at higher prices!”
Sheepishly, Jackie confides that his knowledge of coffee bordered on zero to begin with. It was a sophisticated coffee machine that steam-rolled his initiation into the coffee fraternity.
“I was working as a manager at one of the restaurants in Sg Petani, and someone told me about this one coffee machine, reputed to be the most expensive coffee machine brand in the world. Apparently, it was being used in one cafe in Sungai Petani. Handcrafted, it’s called the Slayer Espresso Machine. And I wanted it so badly. It was like the Rolls Royce of coffee machines back then. And guess what? Today, I have one in my cafe!”
The machine’s owner, recalls Jackie, was gracious enough to do a demo for him and educate him on everything related to coffee appreciation.
“Later on, I found myself buying coffee beans and I’d smell them. I didn’t have a coffee machine, or anything. I just developed a love for collecting coffee beans. One day, I received an email about a course that was being conducted for coffee enthusiasts. I attended in the hope that I’d learn things that I could take away for my cafe. But no, I only learnt the basics there.”
But he was persistent and continued to seek knowledge on his trade, learning about the different machines, and types of roasts and beans that were out there.
Smiling, Jackie, whose cafe serves coffees made from a blend of beans from Peru, Mexico and Columbia, shares: “My interest in coffee grew. That was five, six years ago. Then I learnt the language of the baristas, discovering that there’s a science to their ‘speak’. So I made it a point to learn their language. That’s how it all started.”
The foam in my cuppa has more or less disappeared and it’s time to continue with my walkabout around Alor Setar.
As I prepare to leave, Jackie confides: “Alor Setar is a small place. And not everyone will be into what we offer. I know it’s a gamble. It’s easy to open cafes here but difficult to survive. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know, right?”
As I exit this charming pre-war cafe, my heels clacking noisily against the well-trodden tiles, his words echo in my head. I guess he’s right. There’s certainly no harm in trying.
44-53, Jalan Penjara Lama, Bandar Alor Setar, Kedah
Opening hours: 12pm to 12am