Oct 04 2011
Yut Kee is a Kuala Lumpur culinary institution, although sadly not one many visitors will have heard of. It’s been serving up tasty food and drink for 83 years, making it one of the city’s very oldest eateries. In that time, this traditional Chinese coffee shop has survived a world war, several recessions, umpteen floods, the communal violence of 1969, and until now, the relentless march of “progress“.
Yut Kee was founded in 1928 by an immigrant from China’s Hainan province, Lee Tai Yik. For some reason best known to themselves, Malaya’s colonial rulers favoured the Hainanese to be their chefs. What the British wanted to eat though was not traditional Chinese food, but cooking that reminded them of home.
Out of this colonial quirk grew Hainanese coffee shops, places that took elements from English and Chinese cuisines, and added a distinct Malaysian twist. The menu at Yut Kee offers everything from chicken chops to rice congee. What it is most famous for though is roast pork with chips and apple sauce — a dish that normally sells out within minutes, rather than hours.
“This was fusion food, before fusion food was invented,” says Mervyn Lee, the grandson of the restaurant’s founder. Mervyn is the third generation of his family to be involved in the running of Yut Kee. His father, Jack, who is now in his mid-60s, has been at the helm for more than four decades.
Jack was just three years old when his father died in 1947. In the absence of an adult heir who could run the business, Tai Yik’s death could well have marked the end of Yut Kee. But his three widows in KL (he also had a wife in China!), joined forces to run the shop until Jack was ready to take over.
Yut Kee’s menu has barely changed since 1928; the same goes for the decor. The only major alteration has been to its clientele. Where once Malaysians of all races would eat and drink together, now it is increasingly rare for Malays to step into a place where pork or alcohol is served.
Not that Yut Kee’s clientele is lacking in diversity (or numbers). On a “quiet” afternoon, it is still packed with men and women of different races and ages. For many of these customers, it is a home from home, somewhere they have been coming virtually their whole lives. Jack jokes: “People tell me this is an institution. I say it’s an institution for the retired and the tired. I meet the best people on the planet here, and some of the worst too.”
Sadly, Yut Kee’s days in its present home are numbered. Its landlord wants the premises to be vacated in the next few months, in order to redevelop the building. Jack and Mervyn hold no grudges against their landlord. They blame instead insane property prices, and a culture that does not value heritage, particularly if it is non-Malay.
If should be pointed out that if the landlord’s redevelopment scheme goes ahead, Yut Kee’s long story will continue, albeit with new electrics. The back-up plan is to move to the nearby house where Jack grew up. The menu will be kept the same, as will the decor. As long as the customers stay loyal, Jack has no intention to shutting up shop: “It would be too sad to let it go. As long as Mervyn wants to run it, let him do it. Let’s see if he can make it a hundred years!”
UPDATE (January 2012): It looks like Yut Kee has been given a temporary reprieve by its landlord, but is still expecting to have to relocate round the corner, sooner rather than later.
Yut Kee Restaurant
Open Tues-Sun 08:00-17:00 (closed Mon)
35 Jalan Dang Wangi, Dang Wangi, Kuala Lumpur
T: (03) 2698 8108
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