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Food and Drinks

Kuala Lumpur food court closures leave diners wondering where their next meal will come from

Two popular food courts were closed in October to make way for developments that will change the face of their neighbourhoods; weeks later, food lovers are still mourning their loss and hawkers weighing whether to set up elsewhere

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 8:34am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 6:47pm

Uncertainty gripped tenants and regular customers at Ming Tien Food Court and Asia Cafe – two popular cooked-food centres in Kuala Lumpur – after it was confirmed they were going to be shut down.

The two-storey Asia Cafe housed about 60 hawker stalls and could seat up to 2,800 people at a time. Patrons didn’t mind that it was dim and dingy. They would go to drink beer and play table football, snooker, and darts on the upper floor.

Before its closure, there were only a few stragglers to be seen. Some stalls had already been vacated, with just abandoned stoves and the odd cooking utensil left behind. The remaining hawkers milled around, ducking into one another’s outlets.

The hawkers had known about the plans for Asia Cafe since 2014. But few believed it was really going to happen, until this year. The situation was similar at Ming Tien.

When both food centres closed their doors at the end of October, their loss was bemoaned by the public. Local media reported that regular customers were “heartbroken” and “distraught”. Facebook pages dedicated to the food courts were created for people to share their memories.

Both buildings will make way for new developments. The owner of the Asia Cafe complex, Mediaraya, plans to replace it will a “small-office home-office (SoHo)” building – with office spaces catering to small businesses and start-ups, where tenants can live and work.

The Ming Tien site was taken over by PPB Group – a conglomerate with interests in a variety of industries, including property development. The building has already been demolished to make way for a new mixed development, comprising a 31-storey serviced apartment building with retail spaces.

Many former patrons and people living nearby are of the view that units in both developments will be sold at high prices and bring more traffic to areas that are already heavily congested. Others, including some hawkers, believe change is inevitable and that business will eventually resume once they’ve set up shop elsewhere.

Rapid change and gentrification is the norm in many parts of the Malaysian capital. Taman Megah, where Ming Tien stood, is a mature neighbourhood that has become a more desirable area to live in over the past decade, considering its proximity to two railway stations, major malls, and numerous shops, cafes and fine dining outlets.

Asia Cafe was in a section of Subang Jaya called SS15, and served a large student population from three nearby universities.

Residents who dined at both food centres routinely are still having trouble digesting the change.

Christina How, a 26-year old public relations consultant, lives near the former Asia Cafe site and will miss her frequent late night trips there with her friend, Hau Han Sen.

“The loss of Asia Cafe is a huge for the community,” she says. “This is where people congregated; it was a landmark and an icon for the area … Now that it’s gone, I don’t know what will happen.

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“Students in the surrounding colleges came here often because it was relatively cheap, but now I don’t think they’d be able to afford most of the restaurants around here, except McDonald’s.”

Hau, 27, works for an asset management company specialising in property, and believes plans for the site are a sign of overdevelopment in the area. “There are too many developments around this state as it is, and so many of them are left empty, or run out of money in the middle of construction and are abandoned,” he says.

Adrian Loo lives in the Taman Megah neighbourhood and had dined at Ming Tien since he was a child. “It’s a real loss for the community because this was where many people met to chat over good food. Any time I had friends visiting from overseas, I’d bring them here,” he recalls.

Some hawkers are less emotional about the closures of the stalls, despite some having worked at the food centres for nearly two decades. Alex Poh, who ran a very popular fried mushroom stall in Asia Cafe, says he might move to the Rock Cafe, a similar food court located several kilometres away.

“Mediaraya [owner of the complex] said we could still be tenants in the new development, but we wouldn’t be able to start [our] business for another two to three years,” he says. “That’s way too long to just wait around. So I don’t know where I’m going yet, but I’m not overly worried about business.

At Asia Cafe, Poh was paying under RM500 (US$122) a month in rent, and had a continuous stream of customers from the time he opened his stall at 5pm until well past midnight. A dish of fried mushrooms started at RM6, and people often ordered large amounts to snack on for dinner or after a few drinks. He says rent at Rock Cafe are unlikely to be much higher than at Asia Cafe.

Poh estimates he served anywhere between 100 and 200 customers a night. “They will follow me,” he says, adding that they can have his phone number and call anytime to find out about his new location. “Business is business,” he says, confidently.

Another hawker, who ran a stall serving oyster omelette, shrugs when asked about his future plans.

Although hawker centres and street food vendors are hugely popular among the public, the authorities do not always regard them with the same fondness, citing safety and hygiene concerns.

In Thailand, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration announced a plan earlier this year to clear the streets of food vendors by the end of 2017. They will be relocated to designated areas where they can be better regulated.

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The Malaysian government played no part in the closure of Ming Tien and Asia Cafe, and has not commented on the development. Local authorities, however, have raised the issue of hygiene, staff, and licences in the past. However, one hawker, who ran a wonton noodle stall in Ming Tien, says the closure was more than likely a purely commercial decision.

“I think the authorities and developers believe that a new high-density condominium will bring more people into the area,” says the hawker, declining to be named. “More people, more money.”

If they wanted to improve this area, they could rebuild this food court and improve it, instead of moving everybody out.
Hau Han Sen

Hawkers at Asia Cafe were offered space in the new SoHo development, but many worry about higher rents in an enclosed, air-conditioned environment.

Ming Tien’s hawkers were offered an opportunity to relocate to a spot in the Cheras municipality, about 20km away, but only about half of the 100 tenants took up the offer.

Hau, the former Asia Cafe regular, says developers rarely consider the fact that hawkers are likely to live close to the places they set up shop.

“Most people would want to live near their work, and this is especially important for hawkers, who have to get up in the early hours to prep and start their day,” he says. “It makes sense that they would want to relocate to somewhere nearby – not 20km away.”

An executive of an urban planning and neighbourhood development start-up (who has requested anonymity), says it’s important to keep connections within communities. The start-up – the only one of its kind in Malaysia – advises local government bodies and authorities.

It’s short-sighted of developers and local authorities to destroy these connections, the executive says.

In the long run, she says, pushing people out will lead to the demise of communities that were once strong. When people are forced out, whether it’s due to lack of jobs or the rent being unaffordable, it leads to stagnation of the local economy, and creates a vacuum in which poverty thrives, observers say.

The redevelopment of old neighbourhoods is necessary, but the connections between people and their communities must be preserved.

Hau questions whether tearing places like Asia Cafe down is the only solution. “Surely if they wanted to improve this area, they could rebuild this food court and improve it, instead of moving everybody out and forcing the community to find new places to frequent,” he says.