As the clock strikes 11A.M., Uncle Ling Hing Kooi rolls up the shutters of Sin Han Seong Restaurant, sunlight pours into the half-brick and half-wood double-storey old shophouse, lending brightness and warmth to the interior. The ancient wooden counter is his fortress, and the small round table opposite is laden with glass beer bottles, containing not beer but homemade barley drink instead. Uncle Ling arranges dimsum handmade in-house into the steaming cabinet, and greets customers as they enter. At least one of the signature dishes will appear on each table: spicy and sour fish fillets, spicy and sour pork ribs, Fuzhou mixed vegetables, spicy and sour fish maw soup, red rice wine noodles, or Fuzhou braised noodles.
Ayer Tawar in Perak is situated between Ipoh and Lumut, adjacent to Sitiawan. Most of the residents are Chinese, originating from Fuzhou in China, who retain their ancestral dialect and food culture even after a century of settlement. Sin Han Seong Restaurant was established within a row of shophouses facing the main road, originally belonged to the same landowner as the cinema behind it, built around 1935. Previously named Han Seong Teahouse, it was renamed Sin Han Seong upon changing ownership to Ling Hing Kooi’s father in 1954.
The senior Mr Ling hailed from China, at first he settled in Kampung Koh working as a hot kitchen cook, then he moved to work in Ayer Tawar, where he acquired a shop and brought his family over. In the face of difficult living conditions at the time, the entire family worked together to run the restaurant. Upholding the hardworking spirit of the Fuzhou clan, they open for long hours every day. Serving bao, dimsum, and porridge from 6A.M. onwards, so that rubber tappers may fill their stomachs before work; cooking hot meals all day long to cater for local residents, especially at night when many Indian customers dine in; late night supper spot for movie-goers. Through joint effort by all family members, Sin Han Seong’s business flourished, and the second floor was expanded as a banquet hall, which hosted various banquets during the 1970s and 1980s.
In the 1990s, emerging market competition dealt a blow to Sin Han Seong’s glory, therefore they focused on dine-in foodservice instead. After the senior Mr Ling retired, his seven sons take turns to run the restaurant. However, as the second generation grew older and some passed away, they resumed joint operation, with shorter opening hours from 11A.M. to 7P.M. Among the three siblings still actively involved in the business, the eldest brother is semi-retired and only helps occasionally. The fourth brother, Ling Hing Kooi, is in charge of operations and beverage-making. He sources goods at the wet market in the morning, then rushes back to prepare barley drinks, cook rice, and take care of general affairs at the restaurant. The youngest brother, Ling Hing Tee, is in charge of the cooking, together with two nephews and a few hired help.
Since the opening of the West Coast Expressway, lesser travellers drop by the town, business declined but fortunately there still are regular customers. On weekends and public holidays, foodies flock from Kuala Lumpur and Penang to get a taste of authentic Fuzhou cuisine. During Chinese New Year, when those working outstation return to their hometown, they would come for the nostalgic childhood taste. The cinema behind the restaurant ceased operations 20 or 30 years ago, most of the shophouses in the same row were abandoned due to disrepair. Word has it that the government intends to reclaim the area to widen public roads, and lawyers are handling property valuation. Uncle Ling is already in his 70s, all the restaurant employees are also ageing, it is beyond their capabilities to start over in a new place. As his nephews have no intention of taking over the restaurant, there is a possibility that it will eventually close down.
Decades of serving Fuzhou-style delicacies, shaping collective food memories of Ayer Tawar residents, Sin Han Seong restaurant has a warm atmosphere where most conversations are carried out in Fuzhou dialect, family and friends gather happily around tables full of sumptuous dishes that are mostly red in colour. These scenes may no longer exist in the future, but forever sealed in memory.
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Michael Lerk
Drone : Daniel Lim
Video Editor : Amelia Lim
Copywriter : Pua Hui Wen
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