Ipoh has always been known as a food haven. And for years outstation motorists would make a detour into the city just for a bite. A popular stopover would always be at Old Town and the reason was pak-ko-pi, the Cantonese name for white coffee, a type of coffee where no sugar is added during the roasting of beans. The typical cup of white coffee would be brewed in a cloth sieve or strainer placed in a tin cup after which it is poured out and mixed with a generous portion of condensed milk, evaporated milk and sugar before being served.
Ipoh white coffee specifically began at the kopitiams (or coffee shops) along Leech Street now renamed Jalan Bandar Timah. Since the 1950s it has been the only place which served white coffee in Ipoh.
Even though white coffee (roasted from 100% coffee bean with only margarine resulting in a lighter colour) is available everywhere in the country, these coffee-shops are still packed every day with people looking for a cup of hot or cold coffee and snacks.
Senior citizens that have been going to this shop for decades still insist that their flavour has not changed since those days. Taken with the cuppa would be kaya (a spread made with eggs, sugar and coconut milk) on toast or a host of other local snacks.
In the fifties most of these shops had their handed down family recipe and processed their own coffee. They would buy the beans from Klang and process their own coffee powder for their own consumption. This is a reason customers loyal to one outlet will defend his outlet as the better coffee.
At the road behind Jalan Bandar Timah at No. 5 Jalan Sultan Yussuf (Belfield Street) lies Nam Wah & Co, a coffee bean roaster which has been supplying white coffee powder to many of the kopitiams in Old Town since the mid 50s.
According to Tan Ko Shuin, the adviser for the Perak Coffee Shop Keepers Association, Nam Wah which markets their coffee powder under the Rose brand is a pioneer supplier of white coffee.
In 1998 as the popularity for white coffee grew Nam Wah moved their operations to Jelapang Light Industrial Zone but still maintained the original shop at Jalan Sultan Yussuf as a distribution centre for its long time customers.
Nam Wah, now a third generation family business was started in 1956 by a Hainanese Chinese migrant, Lim Ming Fong. It is still a family business where grandson Lim Say Seng is currently its manager and is assisted by his wife Cheong Sweet Fong who manages the quality control and production process.
On the day I visited their factory, Cheong was not in while Say Seng was outstation making deliveries. I was attended to by Say Seng’s mother Mdm Foo Piak Har who showed me how white coffee is processed.
They currently purchase their coffee from Banting near Klang and also from Indonesia. The white coffee beans are first dried and subsequently coated with margarine and roasted after which the beans are ground and packed. No sugar is added for white coffee blends unlike black coffee where sugar is added during the roasting process.
Nam Wah which initially supplied their coffee to old town now supplies their product throughout Ipoh and the whole state. Occasionally tourists from China and Taiwan would come to their factory to purchase their coffee.
Old Town White Coffee
Another kopitiam that started from Jalan Bandar Timah 60 years ago is Nam Heong also a Hainanese coffee shop located at No. 2 Jalan Bandar Timah. Its business was similar to the next kopitiam except that 12 years ago it began marketing their white coffee under the brand name of Old Town White Coffee.
The company’s breakthrough product in 1998 was their blended 3 in 1 instant white coffee. Their success is measured by the fact that their instant coffee mix is currently being sold at 3,000 outlets throughout Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Café Outlets a Huge Success
However it was their venture into the food service sector in 2005 with the opening of their first ‘OldTown White Coffee’ outlets in Ipoh that made an impact in the promotion of white coffee and the image of Ipoh Old Town.
The Executive Direc-tor of OldTown White Coffee is 39-year-old Goh Ching Mun who describes himself as a kampong boy. A student from Poi Lam Simpang Pulai, Goh used to help his father since age seven to make coffee at their shop.
His story is similar to the other outlets in Old Town i.e., their immigrant grandfather had a recipe and opened a coffee shop. However he theorised that his generation “did the right thing by improving on the product and marketed it with the right business acumen”. He modestly attributes his company’s success to ‘luck’ though.
Goh explained that the opening of the first outlet was to capitalise and reinforce the brand name of OldTown White Coffee. The subsequent opening of a chain of café outlets reflected the ambience of the traditional Ipoh coffee shop.
The success of the chain can be seen in the number of outlets that have mushroomed since 2005. There are now 175 outlets throughout Peninsula and East Malaysia and Singapore. Currently Goh has four factories in Ipoh carrying out roasting operations, a confectionary and a central kitchen preparing items like curry paste and soups.
It now has a workforce of 4,000. Its net profit for financial year 2008 was RM20.57 million, double from its RM10.90 million a year earlier and has applied for listing on the KLSE.
Goh’s plans for the future are to expand to new markets such as China and Australia and introduce new products such as instant tea.
Coffee Branding for Ipoh?
Uncannily the success of the Old Town White Coffee brand is also a promotion for Ipoh because whenever people ask where is this Old Town the conversation would ultimately lead to the area on the west bank of the Kinta River.
And has all this promotion of white coffee achieved any progress? According to Tan of the Perak Coffee Shop Keepers Association the figures for white coffee are up especially in the urban locations of Selangor.
Its success has inspired the Perak government to plan branding Ipoh as the ‘City of White Coffee’ to boost its tourism industry.
“It has the potential to be an icon of Perak, especially in promoting the tourism industry”, State chairman for Industry, Investment, Industrial Development and Tourism, Dato’ Hamidah Osman said, adding that, “white coffee is also well-known overseas especially in the United Kingdom”.