KUALA LUMPUR, June 29 — Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur is perhaps best known as the city’s touristy Chinatown, where decades-old traditional Chinese businesses ply their trade.
Despite being strategically located and accessible through all the city’s rail lines such as monorail, LRT, MRT and KTM as well as buses, the Covid-19 pandemic along with the latest lockdown has hit businesses here very hard.
During Malay Mail’s visit on a weekday morning, there were perhaps not more than 20 stalls and shops open along the intersecting roads of Jalan Petaling and Jalan Hang Lekir that form Chinatown.
Coming into Jalan Petaling from under one of the iconic gates of Chinatown near the Pasar Seni MRT station, the first shop we spot is the 31-year-old Koong Woh Tong, a traditional Chinese herbal tea shop, which is open.
Next is a convenience store, and then a long lonely stretch of road with all other shops closed until the middle of Chinatown.
Here, the wet market is in operation as is the decades-old asam laksa stall at its entrance. On the right a kopitiam is open, along with a stall selling traditional snacks and the decades-old Sze Ngan Chye roast duck stall.
Madam Tang Muah Chee Queen stall selling peanut-covered mochi and Kim Soya Bean stall are also open. Two Chinese traditional medicine shops along the street are not.
Going further down Jalan Petaling, all shops and stalls are likewise closed, except for the 74-year-old Kwong Nam Hing hardware store towards the end of the street and another Koong Woh Tong outlet at the other gate entrance of Chinatown.
Walking along the stretch of Jalan Hang Lekir that is closer to the Pasar Seni LRT station, all stalls were closed including the florists and flower wholesalers.
Also noticeably closed was the Mou Tak Ding stall in the middle of Chinatown which sold air mata kucing, while other food stalls such as the famous one making apam balik were also conspicuously absent.
The other food businesses along Jalan Hang Lekir nearer to Jalan Sultan that were open included Hon Kee Porridge with FoodPanda delivery riders picking up orders, Koon Kee wantan mee stall, Ho Yoke Kee dumpling stall, and Fung Wong biscuits shop.
Some of these decades-old businesses have adopted new payment options by accepting e-wallet transactions using platforms such as GrabPay and Touch ‘n Go.
In other words, only the established businesses ― mostly food-related ― were still in operation in Chinatown during the total lockdown. Stalls selling items such as clothes, bags, and shoes were all closed.
Malay Mail spoke to a few of these legacy businesses to see how they are surviving the economic downturn from the pandemic.
(Our visit to Chinatown was before the government’s announcement that the lockdown would essentially be extended, and also before eateries were allowed to operate from 6am to 10pm.)
Kim Lian Kee
Lee Heng Chuan, the third-generation owner of 94-year-old restaurant Kim Lian Kee which is famous for its Hokkien mee, said the restaurant closed during the first lockdown last year before reopening on May 13, 2020.
He had given two weeks’ worth of food supplies to his workers while his business was closed then.
Since then, his restaurant workforce was halved with some workers voluntarily resigning as they saw that business was slow and knew that the restaurant was overstaffed.
Lee said he was forced to cut the salaries of the remaining employees by half and have them work on rotation since.
The shorter opening hours during the first part of the current lockdown also hurt Kim Lian Kee’s business as it was losing out on the evening crowd who would otherwise takeaway dinner after work.
With just takeaway or deliveries allowed, Lee noted that business has drastically gone down by 95 per cent.
“I’m open in the mornings and at nights too, so the impact on me is very big. So currently cannot dine-in and the hours are short, we do business not up to five per cent only, how to sustain? Compared to business previously, it is now five per cent,” he told Malay Mail, later also noting that customers now have reduced spending power.
Lee said he has been digging into his savings to operate Kim Lian Kee since MCO 1.0 but pointed out that this would eventually run out.
“Many of my friends would rather close, some of them are temporarily closed. If it is their own property it is still alright, if they rent from others, it will be very difficult,” he said, noting that some workers of hawker stalls have even temporarily shifted to doing food delivery to earn a living.
With two outlets in Petaling Street, one property is owned by Kim Lian Kee while the other is rented, Lee said that the landlord had given 30 per cent rebates during MCO 1.0 but has not given any discounts since then.
Lee said he tried to apply for a loan from banks but was not successful, adding that he still owes his supplier for several months and is waiting for a bank loan in order to pay him.
He added he has not turned a single month of profit since MCO 1.0, and that he has not even been able to earn enough to cover operating costs or workers’ salaries.
“It can be said that since March 18, 2020 until now, I’m having losses,” he said.
Lee said he is now counting on old customers and also noted the reduced lunch crowd as offices operate at reduced capacity now. This is in contrast to food businesses in residential areas that can cater to those who want to buy a meal nearby.
He said the most important thing that would help food businesses is to allow dine-in again as customers tend to order additional items.
Customers make smaller orders for takeaways, he explained, and they make a smaller profit from deliveries after accounting for the 30 per cent commission by GrabFood.
“Many are in ICU, but we hawkers are also almost in ICU if you can’t survive the tough times, some see their families break up, some commit suicide,” he said.
“However it is, we also have to continue on because we are an old brand. We are 94 years old, from 1927 until now.”
Kim Soya Bean
Ng Lee Yam, 60, is the third-generation owner of Kim Soya Bean stall which has been in operation for more than 70 years. The stall is well-known for being a favourite of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and a photo displayed at the stall shows it has been in Petaling Street since the 1950s.
Ng has spent the past 42 years running the stall, which is open all year long including public holidays and weekends. His cousin Ng Qi Jie also helps run the stall.
Like his neighbour Kim Lian Kee, Ng’s stall which sells soy bean drinks and tau foo fah closed during MCO 1.0 last year and only reopened on May 13, 2020.
The stall’s opening hours were from 8am to 11pm before MCO 1.0, but has since adapted to the permitted operating hours in various iterations of the MCO.
To cope with the lower number of customers, Ng has reduced the amount of food and drinks prepared daily by more than half, and is determined to carry on even at a much reduced volume.
Business was equally poor before and during the current total lockdown, but was slightly better during a brief few weeks in late August last year when night market stalls were temporarily allowed in Petaling Street and local tourists allowed from other states, Ng said.
“In the past during weekends, many people would come out... now they don’t want to come out as there is no place to go to. Now on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, there are even fewer customers,” he said of how the customers’ attitudes have changed since last year.
He said customers were more willing to come out to takeaway food during MCO 1.0, but said an extended lockdown meant people had less disposable income.
Ng said the stalls’ earnings were insufficient to cover costs, pointing out that he still had to pay for car and housing loans and insurance, and that there were family members who were not currently working, while the roadside stall’s monthly rental is RM200.
He said he has not received any government aid apart from a one-off RM500 from the Kuala Lumpur City Hall.
Fung Wong Biscuits
Melvin Chan, 40, is the fourth-generation owner of Fung Wong Biscuits, a bakery founded in Kuala Lumpur in 1909 by his great-grandfather who came from Guangdong province in China.
Chan said the 112-year-old bakery closed for nearly two months during MCO 1.0 and only reopened on May 4, 2020, but noted that he still had to pay monthly rental of RM10,000 for the shop along Jalan Hang Lekir for March and April when the bakery was closed.
He said the landlord did not give any discounts: “Actually it’s hard for us to survive if never get help from the landlord.”
Chan said business dropped by 95 per cent when he reopened in May.
“From last year I’m using my own reserves to sustain the business and my workers. First of all, the company has no more funds. I have to get out my personal savings to sustain the business, now still using my savings,” he said.
He said he has not earned enough to at least match operating costs since last year, noting: “Actually no, I have to fork out my own savings every month.”
Chan said he started offering online delivery since last May, but explained this additional avenue of business was insufficient to cover costs: “Online delivery is for me to reduce my losses.”
Chan is involved in every aspect of the business from baking and packing the biscuits every morning with the help of his wife and sister and two workers, and making deliveries himself to save on costs. His workers have also been put on a rotation basis since last year to cut down on costs. He has also joined the FoodPanda delivery platform.
He said business this year has taken a turn for the worse, as customers’ spending powers have reduced as the pandemic dragged on and there is less cash to spend.
“This year, even worse, because compared to MCO 1.0, people then still can spend, still have savings, get moratorium from banks and the government is giving out money, you can withdraw EPF savings,” he said.
“Money wise, business is low, but our health is the most important thing, our family and friends still staying healthy.”
When the tenancy for the space expires at the end of June, Chan will be moving out to a roadside stall in front of the current shop to sell his biscuits.
Moving forward, Chan already has plans to shift to a nearby shop lot along Jalan Sultan ― sandwiched between a Bee Cheng Hiang outlet and the Hotel Nan Yeang, with the rental for the new place being cheaper.
Having used up his savings, Chan took out a bank loan to move to the new place with renovation work to be carried out after the total lockdown, and with hopes to possibly open it in August.
Chan plans to adapt Fung Wong’s business model with a new concept of dining-in at the planned new shop location with new products along his traditional Chinese pastries: “I think I’ll sell some dim sum, add a few other old dishes. Let customers adapt to a new experience, new concept but still maintain the taste.”
Ho Yoke Kee
Chong Yoke Yean, 50, is the third generation running the Ho Yoke Kee stall selling traditional rice dumplings, a delicacy typically eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival.
The stall was started by Chong’s husband’s grandfather, with the stall named after her father- in-law. It has been in existence for more than 70 years.
While the stall was closed in March 2020 during MCO 1.0, Chong said their business was not greatly affected then as they started taking online orders over Whatsapp and Facebook and her children made deliveries that were mostly focused on locations near their house.
“That time it was still ok. During the first lockdown, maybe it is still fresh for them, they still had a lot of savings and still had work to do, they were more willing to spend on food, they went online and bought food to eat, at that time takeaway sales were good,” she said.
She said there were more orders from March until June 2020 which was when the Dragon Boat Festival was held, and that business quietened down from July 2020 onwards, also slowing down in September as customers shifted to buying mooncakes for the Mooncake Festival on October 1.
“During the second MCO, it was a bit worse. At that time, perhaps people have almost finished using up their money, less willing to spend on food, business became slower,” she said.
Having saved up funds from the busier months last year, Chong said the family sustained itself on these funds during the off-peak months, before business started picking up from the new year again as with other years.
As the peak season marked by the Dragon Boat Festival fell on June 14 this year, the stall’s dumpling business was not affected by the total lockdown throughout June.
Chong observed that there were more Chinese nationals customers last year during the Dragon Boat Festival than locals as many had more time on their hands to make their own dumplings at home, noting that business during this year’s Dragon Boat Festival was better as there was a shortage of dumplings.
While having to pay rent for the stall along Jalan Hang Lekir, Chong said the family’s financial burden is less as they do not have car or housing loans, saying: “We sell small amounts, it is enough to finish selling what we have, our business every day is like that.”
The stall used to be open from morning to night, but is now open from 8am to about noon or 1pm, as there would not be any customers in the area after that.
Online customers tend to be new customers, while loyal customers prefer to buy from the stall physically out of habit as they make their routine trips to Petaling Street.
Noting that the second MCO was messier in implementation when compared to the MCO 1.0, Chong also said that there were about over 300 stalls in Chinatown but only a handful were open.
“Whether it should continue to be restricted or to reopen, it is very hard to say. I’m also not sure. Now they say it’s not death from illness, but death from starvation,” she said of a saying describing the tough financial times.
Koon Kee ‘wanton’ noodle
Lee Keng Hui, 39, is a third-generation owner of the Koon Kee wanton noodle stall which has been operating for more than 70 years. He took over the business in 2009.
While the Covid-19 pandemic had affected their business, the greatest impact for Koon Kee might be its joining of online delivery platforms.
Lee said they had previously considered the idea of offering deliveries, but said business in the past was sufficient even without deliveries and that there was concern whether they could cope with the volume of delivery orders as some platforms had penalties for late deliveries.
Lee said they initially had their own in-house delivery services but for pre-orders by old customers, but said the store had no choice but to adapt by joining GrabFood and using Lalamove for deliveries in late May last year due to the pandemic and to cope with fewer customers physically coming to the stall.
“There are some things where I can only say it is fated to be so. Coincidentally the timing came, as I have told them about this (delivery) before, but the seniors did not accept it, we could only carry on as usual. Coincidentally when it was MCO, they retired and we then truly took over the business.”
Lee said the delivery option definitely helped Koon Kee, with noticeably more customers opting for online deliveries in the past few months.
“It can be said that we largely rely on it. Because this time, those who takeaway is truly fewer, because some people really do not dare to come out. Those who takeaway from us are old customers, there are more old customers and less new customers. So we rely on delivery, the delivery business is doing better,” he said, adding that Koon Kee would continue to keep offering deliveries even after dine-in is allowed again as it has become a trend and standard option for businesses.
If the total lockdown is extended, Lee said Koon Kee’s business would still be affected, as dine-in is still the main and best avenue of sales as compared to delivery and takeaways.
In the past, Koon Kee would open for about 12 hours from about 9.30am to 9pm, but has changed its operation hours to up to 3pm, as Petaling Street tends to be quiet after that.
“After 3pm, Petaling Street is a very quiet street, not much people It’s very odd, even if we have delivery, there won’t be much people at that time. Almost every other store is the same. Others who do business also open until 3pm, 4pm and then they close, there won’t be anyone coming,” he said, adding that they did consider lengthening Koon Kee’s operating hours but said doing so may increase operating costs.
Businesses in Petaling Street were also affected by checkpoints for measuring temperatures that were previously fixed at its main entrances as customers were not allowed to drive in and had to park further away, with some choosing not to visit Petaling Street anymore, Lee said.
But the checkpoints are no longer in place currently, and many customers were seen by Malay Mail driving by to buy food.
Lee pointed out that all stores that were opened had their own MySejahtera QR code and thermometers, noting that business has improved in the past few months as customers could drive through again.
While Koon Kee had built up some reserves over its many years of operations that helped the company cope, Lee said they had to use their personal reserves as well for the initial months, but was able to cover costs without taking out bank loans.
To cut costs, Lee said Koon Kee did not cut employees’ salaries but cut the owners’ own salaries, and made adjustments to the menu and packaging but chose to maintain the price of food sold.
In a sense, Koon Kee as an eatery is considered one of the luckier ones when compared to other types of businesses that cannot open but still have to bear operating costs. “During these times, the fact that we can still maintain and can still survive is really not bad.”
Foo Meng Kin, 77, who has been working for about two years in Petaling Street, said he would typically earn daily wages of RM60 to help man stalls from 9am to 9pm or for 12 hours.
But as the stalls he works at are not considered essential businesses, Foo said he has not worked since the total lockdown and owes his monthly room rent that was supposed to be due in early June.
“From the start of June until now, I don’t have work to do. It’s very tough. I rent a room for RM400, this month’s rent not yet paid, where got money? If they chase me out, I’ll sleep here at one of the stalls,” he told Malay Mail when met at Petaling Street.
“Most importantly is to reopen, let the people do business. It’s ok if the SOP is stricter, but the most important thing is to reopen, if you don’t reopen, people cannot sustain their livelihoods. Those who are employers and those who are employees cannot sustain their livelihoods,” he said.
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