History of Padungan’s oldest traditional tea shop

Post-pandemic Khee Hiang traditional herbal tea shop, as they follow the standard operating procedures set by the state government.

Over the centuries, when immigration between countries was popular, the Indians and the Chinese brought their culture and traditions into Malaysia. So, when Grandfather Chang came to Kuching from China, he brought along his skills of making spices and brewing herbal tea, which led to the establishment of Khee Hiang Traditional Herbal Tea Shop located in Padungan.

A cure for various ailments

Filled with diverse ethnicities and cultural differences, Malaysia today is what its history holds. Ever since the age-old era of port trading in the 19th century, foreigners have visited and chosen to reside in the different states that make up Malaysia today.

Great grandfather Chang was a Chinese physician in Shantou, Guangdong, China, going around from village to village helping the sick.

It is no different when it comes to Sarawak. The Chinese and Indian populations were made up of people from China and India that emigrated here to seek greener pastures. With that, they also brought along their respective cultures and traditions.

Over time, assimilating with the locals and adapting to modernity, the different ethnicities soon blend into one — Sarawak.

Such is the historical background of the Chang family that owns Khee Hiang Traditional Herbal Tea Shop at Padungan. The row of shops where their store is located has been standing for over a century. “When my grandfather came here, there were already these buildings standing here long before he arrived,” disclosed Nolan Chang, the third-generation owner of Khee Hiang.

Grandpa Chang, who rode a boat from China in the 30s to find a better life in Kuching, Sarawak.

Originating from Shantou province in Guangdong, China, Nolan’s grandfather, Chang Eng Chuan, took his chances on a ship and sailed into Kuching in the 1930s. The relocation was for the purpose of gaining survival away from the place he could not.

“Back in those days, making a living in China was hard. So my grandfather came to Kuching in hopes of a better life,” said Nolan. According to him, Grandpa Chang chose Kuching because he already had relatives living here.”

Right after the Japanese Occupation of Sarawak ended, Grandpa Chang decided to go into business, manufacturing spices. “He learned the skills in China and brought them along to Kuching. He started producing coffee powder, curry powder and others.”

In the late 1940s, the market was booming. The shop enjoyed good business, and Grandpa Chang and his relatives were busy mixing and grinding spices for the locals.

The hustle, however, stopped in the late 80s. “During my father’s time, they were still manufacturing spices. They even made chilli sauce, tomato sauce, pepper powder, but they no longer produced curry and coffee powder.”

This was in part because relatives who helped them before became old, and the generations after had their own respective careers.

Now, the open window has been taken down. The shop currently serves its patrons by handing over the glass at their booth. Nolan Chang (standing in front) together with his father, now handles the tea shop.

A special aroma

Father Chang making tea for his customers.

‘Khee Hiang’ can be translated to “special aroma” in the Teochew dialect. It was the name chosen to reflect on Grandpa Chang’s spice produce. However, years after, he added a traditional herbal tea booth at his spice store.

“The tea booth was merely a coincidence. Back then, when we had relatives who fell sick, my grandfather would brew herbal tea for them. From then on, they suggested he sell it,” Nolan explained.

According to Nolan, Grandpa Chang had obtained the skill of mixing and brewing tea from his father (Nolan’s great grandfather) back in China. “My great grandfather was a Chinese physician, who went around from village to village helping people.”

In the olden days, Grandpa Chang would brew the tea on charcoal, and it could take four to five hours, minus the charcoal set up.” Nowadays, Nolan and his father, Chang Chuan Heng, would use a mid-small fire on a gas stove to brew their tea, which takes only three hours.

Focusing on selling traditional herbal tea, Khee Hiang offers four different types of tea. Ba Xian Cha (non-bitter), Qing Ku Cha (mild bitter), Feng Huo Cha (very bitter) — to reduce body heat, and Pei Yao Cha in two different mixtures to aid in the healing of various ailments.

“Between the first three teas, people usually go for Feng Huo Cha despite its bitterness. This is because it is the most effective one among the three,” shared Nolan. Patrons would come and order a cup, and they would drink it straight away. “But nowadays, it is less lively than before.”

In saying this, Nolan recalled the days when the Capitol cinema was still standing on what is today’s Tun Jugah shopping mall.

“Back in those days, our tea was quite popular. Many would come for a drink. We used to have a cinema beside us, and movie-goers would stop by for a glass before or after their movie,” recalled Nolan.

He also remembered the days when the Odeon shopping mall was still standing. The patrons would come by their herbal tea shop and drink it. “But these days, it is just passers-by, tourists and regulars.” 

Back in the late 90s, when Father Chang and Mother Chang were the caretakers of Khee Hiang. The open window was where patrons used to pass by, order a cup of tea to drink and go.