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May 21, 2011

Ya Kun Kaya Toast - Then and Now

Courtesy photo of Ya Kun

The History of Ya Kun

The year was 1926. Clutching a black wooden suitcase, 15-year-old Loi Ah Koon scrambled frantically on board an old Chinese junk poised to set sail from Hainan Island to Singapore. After what seemed like an endless sojourn in the South China Sea, Ah Koon finally tumbled out onto Singapore soil, uncertainties swirling around in his head. Knowing neither kith nor kin, he naturally gravitated towards the local Hainanese community. It was there that he was introduced to work as an assistant in a Hainanese coffeestall.

Quick and nimble of mind, Ah Koon picked up the tricks of the trade fast. Before long, he could hear the happy jingling of his meagre earnings in his khaki shorts' pockets. That did more than delighted him. It aroused the entreprenial spirit in him. He partnered 2 fellow Chinese immigrants to start their own coffeestall business at Telok Ayer Basin. However, the partners later decided to venture elsewhere on their own. Ah Koon was then left to fend for himself.

A determined young man, Ah Koon decided that, sans partners, it was still business as usual. Coffee, tea, egg and toast - he served them all to one and all. The coolies, merchants, money-lenders, police inspectors, boat operators all sprang to life slurping Ah Koon's piping hot coffee and munching on his charcoal-grilled toast.

Ah Koon got married during one of his visits back home to China. In 1936, Ah Koon's wife joined him in Singapore. She worked alongside her husband, perfecting her skill of churning out homemade kaya (a local of spread of egg and coconut) to go with their toast. Ever resourceful, Ah Koon also began roasting his own coffee. He bought coffee beans, added 'Planta' margarine and sugar and roasted these over firewood at the back of his stall.

To Ah Koon, service involved sacrifices. Although home was a cubicle at 15-B Cross Street which was just across the road, he chose to spend his nights sleeping on the hard wooden countertop at the stall in order to be on time to serve his first customers at 5 am. When these customers barked their orders, he would, with chalk in hand, he scribble their preferences furiously on the same countertop he had slept on. Irate customers never floored him. With a serene smile and a resigned shrug, he kept at his chores. Ah Koon served more than food for the body. He dished out kindness as well. To those in want, he freely gave. To those who read, he circulated the dailies. To those who were regulars, he extended credit.

After operating for more than 15 years at Telok Ayer Basin, Ah Koon relocated his business across the street to Lau Pa Sat. The stall was then simply called Ya Kun Coffeestall, the name 'Ya Kun' being the hanyu pinyin equivalent of 'Ah Koon'. The business remained in Lau Pa Sat for another 15 years during which it clinched 'The Most Courteous Stall in Lau Pa Sat' award. In 1984, it moved back across the street to Telok Ayer Transit Food Market to make way for the revamp at Lau Pa Sat. Finally in 1998, Ya Kun Kaya Toast Coffeestall settled down at its present site at Far East Square and in now completely managed by his children.

By Jennifer Loi - 2002

"The Top Toast" - Ya Kun and the Singapore Breakfast Tradition
by William Koh (Excerpt from the book).

Mention "Ya Kun" in Singapore and most people will be reminded of that popular coffee stall chain that has been a welcome presence in the heart of the urban city as well as suburban shopping centres. Ya Kun is like a legend in Singapore: it grew from a family-run, sole proprietorship in the 1920s to become a well-known coffee stall famous for its unique blend of kaya, served with aromatic, black coffee from an authentic, Hainanese coffee maker.

Ya Kun symbolises the early days of Singapore when coolie and hardworking immigrants from China toiled away at the ports and trading houses to build not just a fortune for themselves but to also turn Singapore into a bustling trading post of the British empire.

The portable kopitiam hawker before the days of Ya Kun coffeestall at Lau Pa Sat.

What is so enticing to enjoy a cuppa in Ya Kun? The experience may be elusive to outsiders, but Singaporeans, especially the working clans of middle-aged men and women, will continue to flock to Ya Kun and similar stalls and outlets to savour not just the coffee or tea served in traditional ceramic cups, but the thick aroma of strong, well-brewed coffee permeating through the air, served with crispy slices of freshly toasted bread smeared with butter and sweet-smelling kaya - reminiscent of their youthful days when they had experienced such memorable times with their elders.

The coffee shops of yesteryear were the quintessential part of the common people's way to leisure and pleasure, sitting round marble tables catching up with tales of their daily toils as they kickstarted the day with hot beverages they could afford, while striking up conversations with new friends or just relaxing with old acquaintances to while away some free time meaningfully.

Ya Kun's wife brought with her the idea of homemade kaya spread on toast, and that turned out to be their bestseller, among other meals sold. Ya Kun's coffee stall soon became popular for good coffee and delicious kaya toast.

Kaya, derived from a world of Malay origin meaning "rich" because of its golden colour, is jam made from coconut milk, eggs, flavoured with pandan leaf and sweetened with sugar. The spread originated in Southeast Asia, most likely Indonesia or Malaysia. The jam is sweet and fragrant, and is available as a golden brown or green coloured spread, depending on the amount of pandan used and the extent caramelination of the sugar.

As with other jams, it is spread on toasted bread to make kaya toast and eaten as breakfast although it is now enjoyed throughout the day in Singapore.
Kopi breakfast in the 1960s. Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

Above and below photos of the Telok Ayer Transit Market in 1986. Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

The above Ya Kun coffee stall at the Telok Ayer Transit Market, a temporary location for existing La Pa Sat stall owners and tenants, as it was going to be renovated.

Telok Ayer Basin. Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

The Lau Pa Sat in 1973. Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

The Lau Pa Sat in 1973. Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

The Lau Pa Sat in 1986 under construction. Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

The Lau Pa Sat in 1986 under construction. Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

Lau Pa Sat in 1990. Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

Lau Pa Sat in 1990 (at night). Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

Telok Ayer Basin. Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

Telok Ayer Basin. Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

Telok Ayer Basin. Source: National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

Almost every Sunday mornings in the 1970s, I was a regular customer with Ya Kun at his stall at the Telok Ayer Transit Market which was conveniently located at Shenton Way. I used to address him as "Ah Kor" (brother in Hainanese) and he was very courteous and efficient service. I visited Ya Kun stall using around 6.00 am or else there would be a long queue with customers waiting for their orders.

Ya Kun kaya toast is a "heritage food of Singapore" which many senior citizens will remember Ya Kun and his friendly, humble and excellent service to all his customers.

Mr Adrin Loi, the enterprising son of Ya Kun tells the success story of Ya Kun franchise here .

Related post to "Singapore Kopitiam Culture" blog by Remember Singapore .

Common Terms used for Beverages & Food found in a Kopitiam

Teh – Tea with Condensed Milk and Sugar
Teh Peng – Teh with Ice
Teh Siew Dai – Teh with less Sugar
Teh Gar Dai – Teh with more Sugar
Teh Kosong – Teh without Sugar
Teh Or – Tea with Sugar, without Milk
Teh Or Peng – Teh Or with Ice
Teh Or Siew Dai – Teh Or with less Sugar
Teh Or Kosong – Tea without Milk and Sugar
Teh Si – Tea with Carnation Milk and Sugar
Teh Si Peng – Teh Si with Ice
Teh Si Kosong – Tea with Milk, Without Sugar
Diao Her (Fishing in Hokkien) – Tea with Teabag
Jio Kia (Mirror in Hokkien) – 1/3 Tea, 2/3 Hot Water
Teh Tarik (Pulled Tea in Malay) – Foamy Tea with Milk (usually found at Muslim stalls)
Teh Halia – Tea with Milk and Ginger Water (usually found at Muslim stalls)
Teh Masala – Teh Tarik with added Spices such as Cinnamon, Cardamon, Fennel and Ginger (usually found at Muslim stalls)

Kopi – Coffee with Condensed Milk
Kopi Gao – Thick Kopi
Kopi Di Lo – Extra Thick Kopi
Kopi Po – Thin Kopi
Kopi Peng – Kopi with Ice
Kopi Or – Black Coffee without Milk
Kopi Or Siew Dai – Kopi Or with less Sugar
Kopi Or Gar Dai – Kopi Or with more Sugar
Kopi Or Kosong – Kopi Or without Sugar
Kopi Si – Coffee with Evaporated Milk
Kopi si Siew Dai – Kopi Si with less Sugar
Kopi Si Gar Dai – Kopi Si with more Sugar
Kopi Si Gar Dai – Kopi Si with more Sugar
Kopi Sua – Extra Order of Kopi
Kopi Tarik (Pulled Coffee in Malay) – Foamy Coffee with Milk (not common in Singapore)
Check out the Coffee Lingo by Nanyang Old Coffee

Tak Giu (Kick Ball in Hokkien) – Milo
Tak Giu Peng – Milo with Ice
Dinosaur – Milo with extra Milo Powder on top
Lao Hor (Tiger in Hokkien) – Tiger Beer
Clementi (Kim Boon Tai in Hokkien) – Lemon Tea (Home-made or Can)
Lai Kor (Underwear in Hokkien) – Coke Light
Xiao Bai Tu (Rabbit in Mandarin) – Carrot Juice
Siao – Home-made Barley Drink
Yuan Yang (Mandarin Ducks in Mandarin) – Teh plus Kopi (Common in Hong Kong but not very popular in Singapore)
Michael Jackson – Soya Bean with Glass Jelly (not common in a typical local kopitiam)

Zar Tan (Bomb in Hokkien) – Half Boiled Eggs

Brewing up a cuppa history here .



Blogger Lam Chun See said...

Although the name Ya Kun was not familiar to me as a kampong kid, the services/activities described in your article are quite similar to those provided by our kampong's main coffee shop - owned by my godparents incidentally. I remember especially the way they roast their coffee beans. From our house, we could smell the aroma.

A question for your young readers. In an age where electricity was not yet available, how did the coffee shop owner keep his ice blocks (almost typed 'ice blogs' - result of overblogging no doubt ... LOL) which were supplied from the ice factory, from melting.

On a separate matter. Need a little favour. You seem to spend a lot of time searching the NAS photo bank. If you come across a photo of a shop keeper with a daching, can you pls let me know the url details. I want to use the photo in my forthcoming book.

Thanks. Ah Hia.

May 23, 2011 at 7:13 PM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Thanks for sharing your godparents' coffee shop experience.

I found some PICAS photos of daching and emailed the links to you. Cheers!

May 24, 2011 at 8:01 AM  
Blogger lim said...

I remember watching them pouring the hot coffee onto the serving plate and then drinking from the plate. They also added a slice of butter to the coffee. As for keeping the ice from melting, they would bury the ice in some sawdust. I can't say whether it was hygienic or not, but it was sure a very green way to store ice.

May 31, 2011 at 4:32 PM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Thanks for your memories, Mr Lim.

Since my late father's days over six decades, the serving of hot coffee on a saucer is to cool the drink and makes sense. This is a practice which Westerners found it curious.

The use of sawdust to hold the ice blocks to prevent them melting is another local practice in Singapore.Cool!

June 10, 2011 at 9:54 PM  
Blogger Smell the Coffee said...

I grew up in the Lake View Thomson area which according to my mum was also known as Hainan Hill. There was a coffee shop there who roasted their coffee beans with butter or margarine. Love the take aways in condense milk cans and even in beer bottles. The coffee boy always wore pyjama pants and was a very jovial chap. And their kaya toast was wonderful too.

My mum who is Hainanese still loves a nice dark brew of coffee. She makes do now with modern convenient coffee but grumbles now and then about the good ole days.

Thanks for sharing the Ya Kun story


June 20, 2011 at 9:22 PM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Hi Serene,

Thank you for the memories to smell the coffee and sharing the memories of kopitiam like those of Ya Kun Kaya Toast, take-away of coffee in used condensed milk tins, drink bottles, the "kopi kia" (coffee shop assistant) in pyjamas with singlet serving the customersl. and shouting orders in Hainanese "Kopi no" is unique Singaporean characteristic not found anywhere else in the world in the 1950s.

I share your Mum's sentiments and memories of "real black coffee" she remember. Nothing like "3-in-1" packets off-the-shelf in supermarkets or shops.

Time has changed in taste of younger generation who grew up in Starbucks and other coffee connoisseurs have changed their taste preferences. Thus Ya Kun's son have to keep up with times to adapt the modern lifestyle and changes. The old days coffee shops with spittons, non-airconditioned coffeeshops with "kopi kia" in bedtime dressing will make today's kopitiam out of business for sure.

Appreciate if you have consent for this blog to link this topic to taste the coffee. Thank you Serene. Cheers!

June 22, 2011 at 9:06 PM  

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