The Material Culture of Kopitiam Cups

Kopitiam cups 5

Images from roots.sg

The icons of a kopitiam (coffee shop) vary depending on who you ask. A young person who knows the coffee shop as it is today – underneath a Housing Development Board (HDB) block and comprising of several food stalls – identifies with the transparent glass cups with big handles. Those who used to while away their afternoons at the coffee shops before the 1970s, fondly remember the stout porcelain cups with green or blue floral motifs as well as their matching porcelain saucers and spoons.

This porcelain coffee set was the de facto utensils used by coffee shops since they began in the early 20th century (Ong). Pioneered by the people of Fuzhou and Hainan, such establishment peaked in numbers during the Depression Era in the 1930s when many vacant shop lots were up for grabs at low rent. The Hainanese, in particular, many of whom had been cooks for the British, snapped up shophouse units by the dozens to capitalise on what they learned in the British kitchens. As the barriers to entry for selling coffee and tea to the working class was low, coffee shops sprouted across the island beginning from the Hainanese enclave of Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street (Han 24).

These coffee shops enjoyed brisk business, receiving hundreds of customers every day. Despite tea and coffee costing a mere 2 to 4 cents before the war, a flourishing coffee shop could make $70 a day (KKCMRBOA 286). The porcelain coffee set was in many ways useful to the coffee shop assistants coping with this high-speed operation. An assistant typically served several drinks at one go, especially when large groups of customers arrived together. However, the porcelain cup, which became hot when filled with coffee, must be held by its ear. The assistants would have to make multiple trips to the tables if they delivered only two orders each time. With a saucer, they could easily juggle five cups on both their hands and wrists (Ong).

The saucers also served as plates for food. Coffee shops did not have hawker fare like they do today (those that subsequently did were differentiated as “eating houses”), but they sold breakfasts and snacks influenced by the British. Soft-boiled egg, an English breakfast item, was served in a saucer with shell on. To consume them, customers crack the eggs and mixed in dark soy sauce and white pepper before slurping it up from the saucer with a spoon. Some coffee shops also used the saucers to serve cakes they baked or toasts with kaya that they cooked in-house. Using a standard-size plate kept things straight forward for the busy assistants (Ong).

The porcelain wares originated in China, either purchased directly from the Chinese manufacturers or through local importers. An advertisement published in 1959 in the Kheong Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurant & Bar-Owner Association souvenir magazine listed porcelain coffee cups among the kitchenware offered by a wholesaler at Temple Street. These cups came from Jingdezhen, the advertisement claimed, a city known for its high-quality porcelain (74). However, bigger coffee shops bought directly from the manufacturers so that they could have their business name printed on the cups, says the association’s former chairman Mr Ong Siew Ping. Only flourishing establishments could afford to do that, he adds, as the manufacturers only provided this service to those who bought in bulk. Other big buyers of porcelain coffee sets were drinks suppliers, who printed their logos on the cups and gave them to the coffee shops to promote their products to the patrons (Roots; Ong). Such product placement is still practised today but in the form of soft drink cups and parasols.

Kopitiam cups 4 Kopitiam cups 3 Kopitiam cups 1

Besides containing drinks, porcelain cups were used as a tool for communication as coffee shops were also important social venues where people played mahjong, met their blind dates or settled disputes. Members of rival gangs used to negotiate at coffee shops, and instead of “talking” things out, they signalled their intentions by the kind of coffee they ordered, how they placed it on the table, and whether they turned the cup or stirred the milk (Tan). However, this should not be mixed up with drinking coffee from the saucer – a common practice amongst people rushing to work as the coffee would cool quicker when poured onto a saucer. (Ong; PM 44).

In the 1970s, coffee shops began switching to glass cups as the replacements were cheaper, easier to hold — as many as five in one hand — and they eliminated the need of a saucer (Ong). Melamine plates substituted the fragile porcelain saucers for serving eggs and toasts. By the mid-1980s, porcelain wares had largely disappeared that they were reminisced about in the Chinese newspapers (PM 44). Today, the porcelain cup continues to be used by a select group of long established coffee shop chains such as Killiney and Ya Kun Kaya Toast. However, its replacement, the glass cup, which makes a bright, clinking sound when stirring with a metal spoon, has also become an icon in its own right.

 

Works Cited
“Porcelain Cup Used at the ‘Kopitiam’ (Coffeeshop).” Roots, https://roots.sg/Roots/learn/collections/listing/1103119. Accessed 6 Feb 2018.
Ong, Siew Ping. Personal Interview. 2 Feb 2018.
Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurant & Bar-Owner Association Souvenir Magazine. Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurant & Bar-Owner Association, 1959.
Malaysia Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors’ General Association 45th Anniversary. Malaysia Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors’ General Association, 19–.
Tan, Neivelle. Interview Jesley Chua Chee Huan. 21 Feb 1995, http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/viewer?uuid=d1b086c1-115f-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad-OHC001600_007. Accessed 2 Feb 2018.
PM. [The traditional way of making coffee]. Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 31 Jul 1987, p. 44.
Han, Shan Yuan 韩山元. “Ka Fei Wu Liang Fen” 咖啡乌两分 [Black Coffee Cost Two Cents]. Lianhe Wanbao 联合晚报, 20 Dec 1985, p. 24.

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