The pre-war shophouses along Jalan Raya Timur, a stone’s throw from Klang KTM Komuter Station, used to be a glorious business district on the south bank of Klang River. Several decades later, most businesses either moved out or closed down, among the few surviving is gunny sack dealer Yeo Hup Kee. The natural scent of jute permeates the immediate vicinity of the shop.
Yeo Hup Kee was founded during the golden era of Jalan Raya Timur in the 1940-50’s, during which the shophouses were fully occupied and businesses were flourishing, in stark contrast to recent years. Cracks and splinters are visible on the wooden plaque, the faded walls are laid bare by the wide-open collapsible gates, the high ceiling makes the interior appear spacious, the iron ventilation grille allows light and air to flow through. Glancing in through the unobstructed facade, orderly stacks of gunny sacks, jute rope, and jute cloth take up almost half the shop.
Gunny sacks are made from natural plant fibres, the intertwined strands give out a warm golden glow, and has a slightly coarse texture. They are reusable, recyclable, and biodegradable, which renders them eco-friendly. Gunny sacks absorb moisture, have good ventilation, and are durable, therefore widely used in agriculture and construction industries. Crops stored in gunny sacks stay fresh longer; wrapping plant roots in gunny sacks during transplanting helps conserve soil moisture, and the sacks will decompose into fertilizer; in construction, the base of column are wrapped with gunny sacks in the process of concrete curing.
Yeo Hup Kee deals with bulk purchase of used gunny sacks, which they clean, sort, and then export. The gunny sacks are mostly sourced from local cocoa processing facilities. The acquired sacks are shaken upside down to remove dust and debris. Holes need to be sewn up with jute rope. Sorting is carried out according to thickness, density, and size. The sacks are then tied up into bundles and stored away neatly.
The company’s late founder, Mr Yeo Cheng Swee, started from scratch upon emigrating to Malaya. At the beginning of his career as a second-hand goods dealer, he always travelled around on a bicycle. As the business grows, he acquired a shophouse on Jalan Raya Timur and registered a company named “Yeo Hup Kee”. Out of the 10 children brought up in the shophouse, Mr Yeo Kim Chong is the only one who succeeded his father in the business. Five decades have since passed, and with it he witnessed the ups and downs of gunny sack trading.
In the past, gunny sacks were highly sought after by grocery stores, rice wholesalers, rice millers, and the National Rice Corporation (BERNAS). Through experience, Mr Yeo Kim Chong could easily ascertain a gunny sack’s quality with just a touch. Since the 80’s, polypropylene (PP) woven bags and plastic bags gradually replaced the costlier and heftier gunny sacks as common packaging materials, currently only a handful of merchants remain in the trade. Due to the change in demands, Mr Yeo brought in PP woven bags and ton bags, adopting new strategies to build resilience.
With a flexible mindset, Mr Yeo developed his family enterprise towards a global scale by exporting gunny sacks to various countries, for instance India, Indonesia, and Thailand. Seeing that Mr Yeo has his hands full, his second daughter and son quitted their own jobs several years ago in order to help him manage the family business. Miss Yeo Yee Sim propels Yeo Hup Kee onto online platforms, broadening market reach. Cafes acquire used empty coffee bags as decoration, florists wrap bouquets in jute cloth for a rustic feel, while craftspersons weave jute ropes into baskets, rugs, and even chairs.
Due to space limitations, Mr Yeo set up a warehouse nearby for processing and storing large quantities of gunny sacks. Even so, he insisted on operating the old shophouse. Although it is tiring having to cover both sites, the shophouse is the legacy of his father, and full of fond childhood memories. Most importantly, old customers may be reassured that this store will always be around, at the same spot.
Gunny sacks pile on top of one another, Yeo Hup Kee transfers from one generation to the next, remaining at the dilapidated Jalan Raya Timur, waiting patiently for old and new friends to visit.
Text: Daniel Lim & Pua Hui Wen
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang / Michael Lerk
Drone : Daniel Lim
Video Editor : Evon Pang
Copywriter : Pua Hui Wen
Music : 《Beautiful & Inspiring Piano with Strings》
COPYRIGHTS 2021 ECHINOIDEA SDN BHD