Travel Back in Time at these Adorable Old-School Eateries

Across Southeast Asia, time-capsule cafés and bars provide a glimpse of—and a reassuring anchor to—neighborhood diners in simpler times. Story and photos by Lester V. Ledesma.

Oct 23, 2020

A dwindling breed of mom-and-pop shops remains suspended in time—for now. Between the new estates and shiny high-rises leading development in Southeast Asia is a handful of tiny, dusty neighborhood hangouts that haven’t changed in decades. They serve a loyal clientele with no hint of hipster irony or “retro flair” (they’re older than retro, after all). Most will eventually close down, while a few might go commercial. Visit them while you still can—they won’t be around for much longer.

Chinese Connections

Hainanese immigrants left their mark by establishing some of the earliest local cafés in Southeast Asia. From Bangkok to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia their signature specialties are the same: thick, syrupy coffee called caffe bolan or caffe olliang in Thai, and simply kopi in Singapore and Malaysia. These are often served alongside charcoal-grilled bread slathered with sweet kaya (sangkaya in Thai) coconut jam. At Bangkok Chinatown’s Ek Teng Phu Ki (163 Phat Sai Rd.; 66-83/441-4111), Chinese classics play on a battered radio while salty old locals chatter in Teochew and Thai.

A few doors down, Eiah Sae (103-105 Phat Sai Rd.; 66-2/221-0549) sports the same faded paintings that have graced its walls since 1928. The atmosphere is much the same in Singapore’s Keng Wah Sung (783 Geylang Rd.; 65/67-443-784), the last in a chain of family-owned coffee houses dating back to the 1940s. Over here, regulars are greeted by name, and their coffee preferences are brewed from memory.

Grandpa Watering Holes

Malaysia’s trendy bar scene dwells on that vintage feel from the “good old days.” However, there are a few truly old-school drinking joints that operate below the hipster radar. In the heritage town of Ipoh, the circa-1931 Sinhalese Bar (No.2, Jalan Bijeh Timah; 60-52/412-235) still caters to the local South Asian community. Owner Alfred Perera took over from his father in 1960, and has kept the premises unchanged all these years. Bottled beers and hard liquor comprise the drink list, while the bar chow consists simply of fried sausages and muruku tidbits.

Farther south in historic Malacca, Doris Lee keeps the century-old Sin Hiap Hin (5, Kampung Jawa Rd.) stocked with locally made traditional liquor. Established by her father-in-law in 1920, this antique bar used to cater to workers and stevedores from the nearby Malacca River. Now its old-timers, and the odd tourist, that keep her company from 9 a.m. 6 p.m. Ask her nicely and she might tell you about her shop’s second floor—it used to be an opium den.

Hidden Hangouts

It’s amazing that, despite their popularity among locals, this pair of neighborhood coffeehouses has operated discretely for decades. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find these spots on your own. Located inside the busy Lapaz Public Market in Iloilo, Philippines, Madge Cafe (in the mall at Luna on the corner of Huervana Street) has been a haven for blue-collar workers, office folks and landed gentry since the 1930s. Although the place has barely changed—plywood walls, plastic chairs and all—the founder’s grandson has introduced new menu entries such as rice meals and iced coffee. They also have an impressive wall of mugs bearing the names of longtime patrons.

Hanoi’s Dinh Caphe (13 Đinh Tiên Hoàng; 84-24/3824-2960), on the other hand, is located on the second floor of an old French colonial mansion. Despite not having a signboard, it is frequented by Hanoian students taking a break from school. This coffeehouse has a good pedigree: its owner Mrs. Bich is the daughter of Mr. Nguyen Giang, the bartender who invented Hanoi’s famous egg coffee, or caphe trung, in the 1940s.

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