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Ais kacang seller hopes billionaire Robert Kuok will open his shop

Free Malaysia Today logo Free Malaysia Today 11/8/2017 Predeep Nambiar

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Brothers Wah Kooi and Wah Chai with their father, Lee Eng Lai of Swatow Lane Ais Kacang.

GEORGE TOWN: After nearly 100 years of operating from a pushcart along Swatow Lane and 10 more spent at a food court, the famous Lee Brothers’ Ais Kacang is upping its game.

Come Sept 1, its owners will be moving to a larger, kopitiam-like setting at a shophouse on the Burma Road wing of the New World Park food mall.

Since 2008, they had been operating at a crescent-shaped bar at New World Park’s food court at the Swatow Lane wing. They also served fresh fruits, drinks and local favourites like rojak, besides the usual ais kacang and cendol.

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Fourth-generation ais kacang seller Lee Eng Lai, 67, pointing to his shop’s signage at the New World Park food mall in Burma Road, George Town, Penang.

Brothers Lee Wah Kooi and Lee Wah Chai, who will be running the new shop together, said their offerings this time around would be a mix of the old and the new.

The downstairs portion will follow a “retro Penang” theme with kopitiam tables and chairs. Upstairs, a modern lounge-like setting awaits the young at heart.

For the first time, assam laksa, char koay teow and other Penang favourites will also be served.

The brothers said these local dishes would be “the best” as their father, Lee Eng Lai – an old-time hawker – had engaged his “hawker buddies” as suppliers.

Eng Lai, 67, followed in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, who operated the famous Swatow Lane ais kacang business from a roadside pushcart since 1923.

The Lees said they were trying to keep their ais kacang at the old prices of between RM3.50 and RM5.50 per bowl, depending on add-ons.

“We want to keep the prices low, but I feel there will be a 20 sen or 30 sen increase, since we have spent a lot on renovations, including buying new tables and chairs.

“Prices will be reasonable. I don’t want our old customers to shy away from our shop. Ais kacang and cendol must be affordable, my father keeps telling us, so we will keep it that way,” Wah Kooi, a former IT entrepreneur, said.

Smiling from ear-to-ear and flanked by his two sons, Eng Lai said the new shop marked a new chapter and “big upgrade” in his career.

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Lee Eng Lai (pictured) has passed down his ais kacang-making skills of four-generations to his three children, Wah Onn, 34, Wah Chai, 32, and Wah Kooi, 27.

He said he would be helping his children at the shop, adding that retirement was “not an option”.

He thanked FMT for airing his plight when he was burdened with the high rental at the mall and was dead sure at the time that he would have to leave.

Eng Lai said that thanks to the article FMT published in April, a deal had been struck with the management of the New World Park food mall.

Eng Lai said the management was kind enough to offer him a vacant shoplot previously occupied by a famous kopitiam.

“Now, I have a shop with my face on it, and will start training new staff in the secrets of my ais kacang trade. Not all, but a little.

“I cannot do this for long, though. My back hurts from bending down to scoop ice-cream and carrying blocks of ice,” Eng Lai said with a laugh while pointing at his new shop’s logo.

The logo, according to him, was based on a picture of him smiling in the last FMT story.

“I only have one wish now. I hope the great Robert Kuok will come open my shop next month. Then I will rest easy for the rest of my life,” Eng Lai said.

Kuok, 93, founded the company that currently owns New World Park, where Eng Lai’s shop is located.

Kuok is presently Forbes Malaysia’s richest man with a net worth of US$12.2 billion (RM52.48 billion) as of July this year. He currently resides in Hong Kong.

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Wah Onn preparing ais kacang at the crescent-shaped bar at the New World Park food court on the Swatow Lane side.

Steeped in delicious history

Lee Brothers’ Ais Kacang, commonly known as Swatow Lane Famous Ais Kacang, is run by Eng Lai, his brother Eng Huat, 61, and their sisters, Ah Kee and Ah Guat. The siblings took over the business from their late father, Soo Khan, in 1963.

Soo Khan took over from his father, Kar Tee, in 1950. Kar Tee, who emigrated from China, first sold “ang tau sng” on a pushcart on Swatow Lane in 1923. Ang tau sng means iced red beans in Hokkien.

Sisters Ah Kee and Ah Guat are no longer involved in the business.

However, Eng Lai and his brother Eng Huat have been going places with their ice kacang. Since the early 1990s, they have travelled to Singapore to participate in the Penang Hawkers’ Buffet at the York Hotel.

The duo were also part of former Penang chief minister Lim Chong Eu’s entourage to Adelaide, Australia, to serve ais kacang in 1975.

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The ais kacang stall in the 1990s, by the roadside of Swatow Lane.

Their ais kacang is a delicious treat and part of Penang’s rich heritage.

The dessert features a bowl of shaved ice with rose syrup and gula Melaka (palm sugar) syrup, topped with attap chee (young palm seeds), sweet corn, red kidney beans and grass jelly.

Add-ons such as mango, papaya or bananas are optional. However, many patrons insist on having them included, at extra cost.

Years ago, the red kidney beans were slowly roasted over a charcoal fire, which gave the ais kacang its unique flavour.

Penang’s famous ais kacang outlet to close shop

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