The sole remaining traditional Cantonese restaurant in Kuala Lumpur situated on the bustling Jalan Pudu for over 70 years, Sek Yuen, means a suitable gathering place. Both the exterior and interior of the restaurant retain its olden charm, the very same fans, tables, and chairs being in use since commence of business, where the marble tabletops became faded due to frequent scrubbing. In the kitchen stood two woodfire stoves and a wood-fired steamer which is seldom seen, the key in producing traditional flavours. Dishes cooked using woodfire stoves have a special taste, without necessity to be complemented by elaborate plating. Apart from making the mouth water, the rich authentic aromas that fill the restaurant transport people back to the past, glimpsing the way of life since 50 years ago.
Pudu is situated in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur City Centre, being one of the early Chinese communal settlements, it was called “half jungle” during the end of the 19th century before being fully developed. The British colonial government built a railway station beside the Pudu fire brigade station, transforming the area into a transport hub connecting Jalan Petaling and Jalan Cheras, causing both population and economic boom within Jalan Pudu. The Pudu Wet Market was the main wholesale market, every day crowds flock in since dawn. Back then when entertainment was scarce, there were three cinemas in Pudu, crowds did not disperse until late night.
Founders of Sek Yuen Restaurant——the three Phang siblings discovered an excellent business opportunity, starting by selling wanton noodles in a roadside food cart, they slowly saved up to purchase a shop lot. In 1948, a simple hut was built at the current site. The whole family worked together, selling dim sum from 5.30A.M. onwards, then noodles and hot food from 11.30A.M. till late night. At the same time, they hosted banquets and feasts, flourishing with guests each night, thus gaining fame and recognition as one of the four major restaurants in Kuala Lumpur. With increasing numbers of banquets, Sek Yuen once imported containers of alcohol, an impressive feat in former times. Even British colonial government officers frequented Sek Yuen, attracting other renowned guests as well.
In the mid-1950s, having developed rapidly together with Kuala Lumpur city, Sek Yuen was granted approval for building premises. The occupied spot stood out from the row of shops as an individual building, with pyramidal steps at the entrance, “Sek Yuen Restaurant” painted in red against white walls. Another interesting fact is due to the restaurant being located on an odd-numbered row between lots 313 and 315, its lot number is ingeniously assigned as 313/1. As the restaurant prospered, in 1971 Sek Yuen acquired a double-storey air-conditioned building at the neighbouring lot 315, improving its standards so that customers could enjoy delicious dishes in a comfortable environment. During the new site opening, they introduced their in-house research-and-developed Pipa Duck as a signature dish, a must-have to date.
Since the founding of Sek Yuen, members of the Phang family have devoted themselves to operating the restaurant, upholding the family business established by their patriarchs. Helping out at the restaurant is a collective memory of the younger generations. Some of them work in the restaurant after completing their studies, Pang Yong Sui and Phang Siew Lake from the second generation lead the kitchen and barbecue stations respectively, dedicating their youth to Sek Yuen. Third-generation person-in-charge Phang Kwai Choong respects the elders’ commitment, as a token of gratitude, he returns to help in managing and handling the family business after some years of venturing out. Sek Yuen is now reined by the fourth generation, apart from about a dozen of family members working full-time in the restaurant, the remaining 60-70 family members lend a helping hand every now and then. During Chinese New Year, even the fifth generation comes to help, the entire family busy in the bustling restaurant.
Modern dietary trends demand for fast service, sophisticated traditional dishes consumption declines, yet loyal gastronomes are still willing to indulge in authentic Cantonese fare at Sek Yuen. The sustenance of Sek Yuen lies in not only cooperative behaviour among family members, but also the involvement of younger generations who bring upon business model innovation to boost revenue. For instance, due to Covid-19, they launched delivery packages through online platforms, delivering tantalizing food to customers in person. Working hand-in-hand, the Phang family strives to maintain Sek Yuen Restaurant.
Text: Daniel Lim & Pua Hui Wen
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Mok Yii Chek
Coordinator : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang
Drone : Daniel Lim
Video Editor : Amelia Lim
Production Assistant : Michael Lerk
Music : Wonderland
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