Walking downstream of the Melaka River, passing by Jambatan Kampung Jawa with 130 years of history linking Jalan Kampung Pantai and Kampung Jawa, a wooden bridge rebuilt with metal by Chinese businessmen Tan Oon Guan and his two brothers in the late 19th century, who also restructured Kampung Jawa into a “New Street” with well-planned brick houses and developed lanes. Ever since, business activities on both shores got along closely, during daytime the “New Street” is a bustling trade zone, whereas turning into a pleasure-seeking and extravagant entertainment spot upon night-time, an area combining both work and amusement.
A century since, the flourishing “New Street” is long gone, its lanes (Jalan Jawa and Kampung Jawa) receded into serenity, leaving behind double-storey shophouses built in a fusion of Asian and Western styles which was popular back then, housing several traditional shops with over 100 years in existence, taking a sneak peek at former local cultural scenes. Among them, Sin Hiap Hin, a bar established in the 1920’s, maintaining its original British-influenced appearance, the solid wooden bar countertop with a rounded arc is still in use to date.
Pushing apart the red iron shutters, a variety of liquor bottles are arranged on layers of wall racks, the wooden bar countertop is full of marks where liquor glasses were set down over the hundred years. The antique furnishing and interior is never renovated, in the bar sits Aunty Lee Lian Suan, also known as Doris, wife of the 4th generation successor of Sin Hiap Hin. She pours out the customer’s choice of liquor with a smiling face, be it traditional Chinese herbal liquor such as Notoginseng liquor, Acanthopanax bark liquor, Perfect Tonic; beers popular with Caucasians, novelty rice wines, or rose liqueur. The most special type of liquor served being rice wine manufactured in Malacca by Tay Miang Guan Priquor Distillery established in 1908, with a range of innovative flavours such as pandan, lychee, coffee etc.
Sin Hiap Hin holds a liquor retail license granted by the British colonial government, legally selling liquor by the British colonial measurement unit peg, where half peg is equivalent to 30ml and one peg 60ml. Pure liquor is being sold, not mixed with other alcohol, water or soda, only a few ice cubes may be added. In the olden days, this type of bars were popular with fishermen and labourers making a living near Malacca River due to low prices. These customers often got drunk, wreaking havoc and owing credit which they never repaid. Moreover, the upper storey of the shophouse was an opium den where people used to gather to smoke. Sin Hiap Hin survived tenaciously throughout the years despite the turbulent environment, having experienced the British colonisation, the Japanese Occupation, the Federation of Malaya, to finally independence and the forming of Malaysia, still operating in its original site.
Since Aunty Doris married into the family in 1973, besides doing household chores, she also helps her husband and father-in-law to manage the bar. A few years after her father-in-law passed away, her husband’s legs became incapacitated, therefore she has to shoulder all responsibilities on her own. Turning 69 years old, Aunty Doris is probably the oldest bartender. Although selling an array of liquors, she barely drinks, merely looking upon as others enjoy. With a liquor bottle in one hand and steel measurement cup in the other, Aunty Doris pours either amber-coloured or clear liquor into glasses while chatting brightly with customers, making them feel at ease.
Over the forty-odd years, Aunty Doris handles her husband’s family business while taking care of her ill spouse, enduring various hardships to raise four children, as well as purchasing the shophouse they once rented. Eventually elderly regular customers passed away, changes in lifestyle and spending habits caused business to drop. Fortunately in recent years, the bar gained popularity and internet exposure, introducing slight improvements. Aunty Doris witnessed the flourish and decline of “New Street”, former neighbouring hardware shops, gold shops, wooden clog shops, vegetable shops, and barber shops are mostly closed for good. As her children grew up and moved out, the business that she once relied on now helps her to kill time.
In the century-old bar, each cup of liquor sold contains precious memories, accumulated into the ups and downs of a city. Be it tourists with a fleeting visit or regular customers with frequent visits, Aunty Doris does not hesitate in sharing life stories in the historical city.
Text: Daniel Lim & Pua Hui Wen
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Mok Yii Chek
Coordinator : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang
Video Editor : Michael Lerk
Production Assistant : Michael Lerk
Music : Oakwoord Station – Kind of a Miracle from YouTube
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