Lane of zinc sheets, coffins and opium

Part 1

KUCHING: If you approach India Street from the back entrance of Plaza Merdeka Shopping Mall you’d come across a rather serene narrow passageway on your left. That’s the 96-year old Kai Joo Lane.

When you enter the lane, you might feel a little bit like Harry Potter and his wizard friends running through a wall better known as Platform nine and three-quarters to Hogwarts School. You won’t really know what you’d find along and at the end of the lane.

The first thing you’d notice are beautifully painted murals and two rows of 32 units of two-storey shophouses. You might wonder why there are zinc pieces being attached to the murals which depict the lives of vendors in the lane during the early 1920s.

A beautiful mural by a local artist at Kai Joo Lane. Photo: Ramidi Subari

From zinc sheets, coffins, to Kai Joo

The lane has gone through several transformations. It was first called “Sa Lee Hang” or Zinc Sheet Lane because the roofs of the shop houses were zinc sheets.

Then when coffin-making workshops became prominent at the place, the street name changed to “Kua Cha Hang” or Coffin Lane. These businesses have since closed down.

More than 70 years later, the street became Kai Joo Lane, “Kai Joo” being taken from the name of a Teochew businessman, Teo Kai Joo. Teo was known to be friendly with the third White Rajah Charles Vyner de Windt Brooke who named the lane after him.

Wee shares his memories about one of his favourite spots in Kai Joo Lane. Photo: Ramidi Subari

In one of his favourite coffeeshops at Kai Joo lane, sipping a cup of hot butter coffee, India Street Pedestrian Mall Committee chairman Datuk Wee Hong Seng reminisced about how he used to run around the lane when he was a little boy.

“Those were the good old days and it was from the memories of those days that the initiative came to paint murals in the old heritage site to tell people and tourists, especially the younger generation, about the history of the old streets,” he said.

Wee, who is also a Kuching North City Commission (DBKU) member, pointed out that of the three main vendors on the murals, the first one was a Chinese who pounded grilled squids (called “sotong tutok” in Malay) in the 1960s. The business was closed in the late 1970s.

“The next one was an old woman holding a bowl. She was well-known for her chicken porridge. Currently, her descendants are doing the business, but at Nanas Road.

“The third guy on the mural was a seller of “Tau Hu Hua” which is a delicious silky beancurd dessert served with plain sugar syrup. Today, the family still runs the business at the Open Air Market in front of Electra House,” said Wee.

He then talked about the importance of such murals because without them a part of the history of the place and Kuching in general would be unrecorded and might even be lost.

An elderly Malay man enjoys his cup of hot butter coffee in the afternoon. Photo: Ramidi Subari

Heritage foods

Kai Joo Lane’s famous butter coffee. Photo: Ramidi Subari

In the lane is a “kopitiam” which is more than 70 years old which the locals called Hiap Yak Tea Coffee Shop. It serves arguably the best hot butter coffee in town for RM2 per cup. Black or white coffee with a teaspoon of butter makes you crave for more. For many customers, the coffee must go with a toasted “kaya” sandwich.

Wee pointed out that as you go down the street, you will not miss fresh pineapple tarts sold at the 90-year-old Cheak Hng shop. Other than that are the popular “sio pau”, curry puff, yam puff, and egg tarts. You need to have a strong willpower not to try these delicacies.

Other ubiquitous must-have street foods there are “kolo mee” and “mee Jawa” which you have to get in the morning because they sell fast. Today most of the shops and stalls are run by the second or third generations of the original vendors.

In fact, there’s a lot of hustle and bustle in the lane in the morning, but afternoon time is rather calm on most days.

A signboard of Kai Joo Lane Night Market that has closed down. Photo: Ramidi Subari

Transforming without losing heritage

In line with the Sarawak government’s agenda on preserving and promoting Kuching old heritage sites, Wee supports DBKU Commissioner Datuk Abang Abdul Wahab Abang Julai’s suggestion that all murals should be made to tell some stories and thus have to look somewhat “alive”.

Presently, Kai Joo Lane has “The Lane Hawkers” mural and to add to it, DBKU is planning two more murals depicting opium smokers and coffin making. For that, DBKU is currently working with a local company specialising in content creation using Augmented Reality (AR) technology.

Augmented Reality (AR) is an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real-world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information, sometimes across multiple sensory modalities, including visual, auditory, haptic, somatosensory and olfactory. – Wikipedia, Augmented reality.

AR is actually already incorporated in the “Early Merchants” mural at India Street, and it can be viewed on the ARx application.

However, this sort of advancement is easier said than done because, as Wee said, it needs funds. To solve the problem (or part of it) an application for financial help has been forwarded to the state Tourism Ministry.

Wee hoped that it would be approved as soon possible so that all the AR mural projects could be completed within this year.

The AR is to enhance the artwork. By adding digital and virtual elements, the murals can better project historical and tourism-related information for a more magnified audience engagement.

“The goal is to help viewers understand the interactive stories through animation and three-dimensional (3D) objects,” said Wee, who revealed that Kai Joo Lane will soon be closed to traffic.

He expressed concern that heavy traffic would badly affect the structures of the old shop houses which do not have strong foundations to withstand the vibrations of thousands of moving vehicles.

“If you look at the place, even the floor tiles are damaged. Not only does it cost DBKU a lot of money to maintain; we are afraid the lane might lose its old character and heritage. Thus, the need to close the lane to traffic,” he said.

Efforts are also underway to revive the night market, which closed down two years ago.

“We are looking into solving the issues that led to the closure. I believe that the night market must be restored to its lively past,” he said.

Towards the end of the lane is Kai Joo Café, a perfect place to catch up with friends because the area is not so busy and noisy.

For youngsters especially, Kai Joo Lane is definitely Instagram-worthy at every corner.

Like Wee said, “The cafe with a nice architecture is another place for a good afternoon tea with friends.”

Kai Joo Café is towards the end of Kai Joo Lane. Photo: Ramidi Subari