Rocking our Kopitiams

loading Penang's kopitiams come alive with music, dance and performances.

It’s another wrap for the popular music and art event Konsert Kopitiam, held in Penang’s most iconic and humble coffee shops to highlight local talent and preserve traditions.

Low plastic tables spill onto the five-foot way, while inside, patrons chat, slurp their noodles and sip their drinks.

It is a fond, familiar scene. “The kopitiam is a status symbol, a unique thing to Malaysia and Singapore. It’s a coffee shop with nasi kandar and food served on the side, and it has its own character. It’s also an iconic architectural and cultural landmark which never received the recognition it deserves,” says Cecil Rajendra, a poet and lawyer who has been running the Konsert Kopitiam series since 2014 as a corollary of the George Town Festival.

Cecil Rajendra.

His concept is very simple, yet revolutionary: bringing popular music and art back into the coffee shops of way back when, taking them back to their humble origins. “The kopitiam has the role of the pub in London,” says Rajendra. “You can come here, drink a beer, and have some food and a casual chat, no matter who you are. In a way, it resists Penang’s fast gentrification: in a cityscape with too many Starbucks, boutique hotels and tourist trinket shops, the kopitiams still represent real heritage spots. On top of that, you can come here, have a coffee and stay all day if you want. You can’t really do that in any Starbucks,” adds Rajendra.

This year, the kopitiam session rotated for five weeks in five different locations, on and off the island, from August 5 to September 2, following the festival’s month-long programme. The events, lasting between one and a half to two hours, marry Penang’s two great legacies: food, and popular music.

Indeed, the idea is to help preserve the kopitiam tradition against the “barista” culture and the rapid development that is changing Penang’s landscape – one that Rajendra and other participating artists used to know in their heydays.

This year they started at Asia Cafe, in commemoration of the passing of its late owner. As Rajendra emphasises, this is one of the few spots in Penang where one can wash down a plate of nasi kandar with a Tiger Beer. (And look out for the 1950s aluminium plate posters hanging on the walls – they are a real throwback to a generation past.)

The Konsert Kopitiam series has been running since 2014 as a corollary of the George Town Festival.

And it’s not just about the heritage streets of Little India and Chinatown: on the second weekend, the fun moved across the straits to Butterworth at Ho Ho Kopitiam in Lorong Bagan Luar, right next to Butterworth’s Art Walk.

“I am very supportive of the street art,” says Rajendra, “but to me, it must have at least a bit of relevance to local culture to be really great. It’s a very interesting way to retell the story of a forgotten town like Butterworth.” For the rest of the month, the action moved back to some of the island’s better-known kopitiams, namely Sun Kee, on the corner of Lebuh China and Lebuh King; Kedai Kopi Ping Hooi on Lebuh Carnarvon; and Hwa Pin Cafe on Lebuh Gereja. Each session’s menu was pretty straightforward: after an introduction by Rajendra himself, a motley crew of musicians, poets, writers, storytellers, magicians and comedians take the “stage” – nothing more than the kopitiam floor – to delight the crowd with their talents. Among the performers, Prof. Dr Azmi Sharom, a KL-based law professor and activist, came back to Penang to perform. The artists, who span three generations of Penangites, including some of its early musicians, are local; there are indeed no foreigners – if we exclude activist James Lochhead, who has actually been a local resident for several decades.

“There are far too many foreign artists at Penang festivals and events,” says Rajendra, “but I think that every great festival in the world is based instead on the power of local people and the local colour of each particular place. Think of New Orleans, or Edinburgh, for example. But in Penang, I think locals are largely excluded from the biggest festivals. You must start from the grassroots: we are not excluding foreigners, but we prefer to highlight the local talent. The aim of our sessions, regardless, is to delight tourists. But we want them to see some real local art, and offer them a chance to get that cheap cup of coffee they can’t get at fancier establishments.”

It’s unsure whether or not a yearly series of events will help boost the reputation of the kopitiam as a desirable social space. But hats must be tipped off to Rajendra, who’s keeping true to his origins and colours, trying to glorify an aspect of Penang which is probably more overshadowed by a general attitude to persevere with cookie-cutter impersonal reproductions and middle-class ostentation, rather than the urge to grow and gentrify.

If kopitiams and their traditions are killed off in favour of imported beans, Malaysia will lose much more than its character. Like an authentic and frothy kopi-O, it will mistake its original flavour, overshadowed by an exotic (and overpriced) cup of cappuccino.

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