Charcoal is the first among seven daily necessities, the rest being rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar, and tea. Since ancient times, charcoal has been important as fuel in daily life. Cooking food using traditional charcoal-fueled stoves is tricky and laborious, requiring constant attention to the heat and doneness of the food. As the dishes are heated evenly, charcoal fumes lent a special aroma to the food. Besides, charcoal has absorbability properties, therefore water boiled with charcoal is velvety and odorless. Once a must-have in every single household, with the advent of gas and electrical appliances, charcoal has now fallen out of favour, charcoal stores are barely seen nowadays.
On Jalan Trus in Johor Bahru, among the row of shophouses opposite the ancient temple, the large signboard of Yong Heng Charcoal Shop could be seen clearly, the sole remaining charcoal shop in the region. The daughters of the late founder, octogenarian Madam Chong Shen Chen (transliteration) and sexagenarian Madam Chong Lian Chen (transliteration) persisted to work, currently helping their nephew, who is the third generation owner to run this seven-decade old family business.
When Chinese forefathers migrated to Malaysia, they sustained this ancient wisdom of utilising natural resources, for instance mangrove wood, to produce fuel thus solving the most crucial daily needs. In earlier days, street peddlers sold charcoal door-to-door on bicycles or tricycles, some merchants also distributed charcoal from local kilns so that customers may purchase in-store. Upon stepping into the corridor of Yong Heng Charcoal Shop, the mottled wooden plaque hanging on top of the entrance brings you back in time.
Towards the end of the 1940’s, when this plaque was newly hung, charcoal was the mainstream fuel used in cooking. Except for the table in front, the entire shop was filled with bundles of charcoal, the floor and walls stained with charcoal dust. Before plastic packaging became popular, charcoal is delivered in loose piles on lorries from the kiln, requiring scooping manually to transfer the stock into the shop. The charcoal is then sorted according to sizes and tied tightly into paper-wrapped bundles to prevent humidity absorption. Working ceaselessly, the family’s clothes and fingers are smothered in black dust.
Hanging on the wall at the rear of the shop are uniquely-shaped charcoal, a collection by the two Chong sisters, full of fond childhood memories where they work happily together as a family. Since a young age, they have been helping their father in packaging charcoal, therefore whenever they came across charcoal pieces with special shapes, they would keep these natural artwork. At present, charcoal stock comes with complete plastic packaging, without any need to sort, just unload and arrange. As gas stoves and electrical appliances gained popularity due to being more convenient, demand for charcoal declined steeply, only hawkers and customers who persist in using charcoal will make regular purchases. During festival celebrations, sales increase due to preparing customary cuisine. Their usual pastime is looking after the shop as well as chatting with customers and old neighbours, leading a simple and joyful life.
A daily necessity, a traditional industry, a specialty store. Improvement in living conditions meant elimination of certain elements, the kitchen evolved from a dusty environment into a clean and convenient place. There is still demand for charcoal despite its being outdated.
Text: Daniel Lim & Pua Hui Wen
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Mok Yii Chek
Coordinator : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang
Video Editor : Amelia Lim
Production Assistant : Michael Lerk
Music : Invisible Beauty
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