I met a very interesting guy during my trip to Ipoh recently – Johnny, a Perakian, who has travelled the world but chose to return home to live in Ipoh. Accompanied by a Facebook friend whom I had the privilege to meet for the very first time – Nasron, we decided to grab supper with Johnny at the corner of Jalan Raja Ekram.
Johnny had a lot of tales to share about his experience living in different places around the globe. But one story which caught my attention was of him and his family watching the news on CNN about the war in the Middle East and being reminded of home when the strains of the azan was heard in the background. It’s funny, while most of us in Malaysia complain about the loud azan prayers disturbing our serenity, a Malaysian in a foreign land found himself actually missing it.
Food was another big dilemma for Johnny. As he sipped his Kopi ‘O’, Johnny told me how he craved for Nasi Lemak when he was stationed in Ireland. His cravings were not limited to food alone. He found himself craving to come home. He craved to be among those people of different races, ethnicity and religions whom he considered family – so he did precisely that.
While many of us would give anything to be paid to travel the world and live in a foreign land and earn an income in foreign currency, Johnny returned home and started a food business in the heart of Ipoh.
“It’s not easy being in the F&B industry. It is hard work. You don’t really get to separate your personal life and business. Like today, it’s a Sunday and still I had to finish work at my shop before joining you for a late coffee,” Johnny tells me as he orders his second mug of Kopi ‘O’.
I was intrigued as I felt some sense of uneasiness in his tone. As I studied his face, I caught him taking a few glimpses around the café we were seated at.
“Nice deco, eh? Very artistic,” I said.
“Looks as if a bunch of boys got together and decided to paint and decorate the place by themselves,” chided Nasron, who himself just returned home after spending years in Bandung.
I turned around to study the place, “Well, it is simple and quite different from most franchised places. But yeah, I agree more could have been done if they were up for it.”
Johnny smiled. I knew there was a story coming soon.
“You know, those are actually against the rules,” said Johnny pointing at the pieces of zinc placed at the walls around the café. “According to the city council, kopitiams or cafés with an open concept or not fully air-conditioned, must have five feet of tiles covering the dining area walls.”
Nasron and I turned to our left and right and saw no tiles on the wall.
“The kitchen walls need to be fully covered with tiles, and shelves in the cooking area must be made of stainless steel but I bet they don’t have that either,” Johnny continued.
“Are you sure, Johnny?” I had to confirm this new piece of information.
“I am in the F&B industry, I know. Everything needs to be in order because the city council officers do conduct inspections at times,” he said just as his second mug of Kopi ‘O’ arrived.
“But I see no tiles here,” I said, looking at Nasron and Johnny.
Johnny smiled, “It’s a Malay shop.”
I could sense bitterness in his smile.
“Look outside. Look at the decorations and the furniture outside this place. According to the rules, no permanent structures are allowed outside the shops,” Johnny said as Nasron shook his head.
Almost instantaneously I remembered an incident in my old neighbourhood in Taman Desa when Kuala Lumpur City Hall officers came down one fine morning to confiscate tables and chairs placed outside a few mamak shops. They also destroyed the renovated flooring and decorations at the corridor of a bakery, claiming they were unauthorised. Funny though because a stretch of Malay nasi campur stalls built over a huge drain by the roadside in the same neighbourhood were not touched – I guess now I know why.
“Like I said, it’s not easy operating an F&B business,” Johnny’s voice almost disappeared.
I took a deep breath. For the first time that night, I was at a loss for words. I didn’t even know if I was sad, upset, frustrated or angered by what I had just heard. I guess having lived in Malaysia all my life and having encountered similar stories, I had become somewhat numb to it all.
I wish I had something to say to Johnny that could ease his disillusionment. I mean this is a man who gave up a golden opportunity to live abroad where his family could enjoy better lives, better benefits and a better future to return home – and look at how Malaysia was treating him.
As I got into my car at half past midnight to drive back to my hotel that night, my son asked me, “If I grow up and decide to open up a nasi kandar shop, do you think I will have to follow the rules?”
“Everyone should follow rules,” I was too tired mentally to entertain his queries.
“Not if you are a Malay. You get special privileges as a Malay,” he concluded.
I drove on not responding to his remarks. They were too close to the truth to be rebutted anyway.