City & Country: Yut Kee to make way for boutique hotel

Yut Kee (left) will be moving into its new premises (right, red building) in late May or early June

A ROW of pre-war shophouses in Jalan Dang Wangi, nestled amid skyscrapers, is one of the enduring symbols of the city’s past. Small businesses and money lenders occupy the shophouses, located 15 minutes from the Petronas Twin Towers. Among them is one of Kuala Lumpur’s oldest coffee shops, Yut Kee.

Yut Kee was established by Lee Tai Yut in 1928, who managed the business with his three wives. Known for its traditional Hainanese cuisine, the coffee shop withstood the massive development in Kuala Lumpur that has taken place since then. In Jalan Dang Wangi, there has been the development of Wilayah Complex and CapSquare.

Yut Kee is now run by Jack Lee, the son and only male heir of Tai Yut.

However, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Soon, the coffee shop will be moving to new premises. The shophouse it presently occupies and the one next to it are set to be transformed into a boutique hotel.

“Change is inevitable,” Mohinder Lal Dua, the owner of the properties, tells City & Country. “We have already received the development order from Kuala Lumpur City Council and we are in the final stage of planning.” Mohinder is managing director of M L Vijay Sdn Bhd,  a wholesale textile business that operates from a quaint shop on Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman.

We will be tearing down and constructing a new building in place of the old Yut Kee café” — Mohinder

Mohinder says he is planning to develop an 8-storey, 80-room boutique hotel with a restaurant on the ground floor. The boutique hotel will take up units 33 and 35 on Jalan Dang Wangi, on about 4,000 sq ft of land.

“When my nephew and my son bought units 33 and 35 in 1995, we decided to build an office. However, my nephew changed his mind and ended up selling unit 35 to us. Currently, we feel that a hotel is a better investment,” he says.

“We will be tearing down and constructing a new building in place of the old Yut Kee café. The heritage buildings are on Jalan Kemunting, so our [units] have been given the green light for construction work.”

The appeal of a boutique hotel there is because of its close proximity to Jalan Sultan Ismail, Masjid India and Asian Heritage Row, he says.

But since Mohinder has little experience running a hotel, he intends to lease the building to a hospitality management company. The concept will be left to the operator, he says.

“We are currently in talks with two international public-listed companies to run the hotel. The design will depend on how the chosen company wants to market it to the public … we have not finalised which party we want to lease it to, so we are still open to offers.

“My son and daughter are also involved so I will still need to take their advice into consideration before moving forward with anything,” he adds.

Mohinder’s enthusiasm to redevelop the property is not misplaced, according to Foo Gee Jen, managing director of C H Williams Talhar & Wong Sdn Bhd.

“A lot of the pre-war buildings in Jalan Dang Wangi have been well preserved as City Hall has demanded that its owners maintain the façade. “The F&B businesses in Asian Heritage Row will create demand for boutique hotels along Jalan Alor, Changkat Bukit Bintang and Petaling Street.”

Foo adds that the hotel will attract tourists from Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. “Nowadays, we see a lot of tourists from these countries going for boutique hotels,” he says. “Accessibility to the LRT (light rail transit) and monorail will add to the demand, especially in Dang Wangi and Bukit Bintang.”

James Wong, managing director of VPC Alliance (M) Sdn Bhd agrees with Foo. He says there are a lot of bars and F&B outlets in Asian Heritage Row that can create demand for tourists and locals alike.

Asian Heritage Row, he points out, has been designated by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture as a special entertainment centre in Kuala Lumpur, which means operating hours for businesses are extended to 3am.

In addition, there are many 4- to 5-star hotels like Sheraton and Concorde in the vicinity.

“The majority of the hotels that you find along Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, Jalan Dang Wangi and Jalan Masjid India are actually budget hotels and 2-star hotels, not boutique hotels,” Wong says.

He explains that the Ministry of Tourism and Culture currently does not have a concrete definition of boutique hotels. However, they are very popular in Singapore, and are defined as small hotels with a distinct architectural heritage or design. They typically have between 20 and 150 rooms, and a 3- to 4-star rating.

Wong says Jalan Dang Wangi is an area with much potential. “The Dang Wangi police station is being redeveloped by Crest Builder Sdn Bhd, and will include an office tower and apartment tower. Paired with the existing CapSquare, Jalan Dang Wangi will become another thriving commercial hub.

“On top of that, YTL Corp is proposing a 3-star hotel next to Yut Kee while Oriental Holdings has expressed plans to transform a vacant parking lot into a 4-star hotel. However, the plans are still being formalised.”

According to data from VPC Alliance, there are about 20 budget hotels in Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, Jalan Masjid India, Jalan Medan Tunku and Jalan Bunus.

These include Swiss Hotel, Frenz Hotel, Sahara Hotel, My Home Hotel Premier, Tune Hotel, Cititel Express and Selesa Inn. These establishments have between seven and 244 rooms, with room rates starting from RM65 to RM365.

Based on historical transactions between April 1, 2012, to April 2, 2013, shophouses with built-ups of 1,550 to 2,217 sq ft along Jalan Dang Wangi are worth RM1.4 million to RM2.34 million.

Mervyn (left) and Jack at the coffee shop, which has grown into more than just a way to make ends meet and has become a favourite meeting place for many
Jack's place

Setting foot inside Yut Kee coffee shop, you can barely hear yourself speak over the chatter of the customers. There was barely an empty seat at the marble-top tables.

The delicious scent of freshly baked butter cakes and kaya rolls tempt passers-by. The walls are adorned with faded newspaper clippings about the coffee shop, including some of Jack Lee, the current owner. A large framed photo of Lee Tai Yut – Jack’s father, who founded the coffee shop – takes pride of place on one wall. The faded paint and old-style décor is testament to the many years the kopitiam has been in operation.

Mervyn Lee, the co-manager and Jack’s son, says that is the normal atmosphere you will find at “Jack’s Place”, as the regulars affectionately call it.

Jack, the manager and owner, inherited the place after his father passed away in the late 1940s. Tai Yut left the restaurant to his three wives and only male heir, Jack, who was only three at the time. He was groomed by his mother, Tai Yut’s third wife, to take over, and eventually did so in the mid-1970s.

Since then, the coffee shop has grown into more than just a way to make ends meet and has become a favourite meeting place for many.

Mervyn says it tends to be quite busy during the weekends, while on weekdays, the lunch hour rush is from noon to 2pm. After that, the number of patrons will drop to 40%.

Despite his assurance that there would be a lull after lunch, that didn’t seem to be the case. The clock had already struck four and the only empty tables were far back, closest to the kitchen.

Mervyn smiles and says it is one of those rare occasions where families and patrons come by after the rush so that they can get a place to sit.

“There aren’t that many Chinese restaurants around the area,” he says. “On top of that, word has spread that we are moving so business has picked up quite a bit ... with patrons getting nostalgic and wanting to eat here before we move.”

From the smells emanating from the kitchen, you know that people don’t come just for the décor and the old-world feel. They come for the food.

Yut Kee serves a diverse range of Hainanese delicacies, from noodles to rice and even western food like chicken and pork chop.

“You can still get a good blend. If you have five people eating here, those five can order five different items,” says Mervyn.

“In this area, mamak outlets serving nasi kandar, nasi lemak and mixed rice are a dime a dozen, but Chinese food is something you don’t get a lot of these days.”

Yut Kee serves up its specialities at a low to moderate price range of RM4 to RM14. The must-try item is the Hainanese chicken chop, priced at RM9.50.

True to Mervyn’s word, the chicken is juicy, tender and full of flavour, with a light and sweet gravy slathered over it. The potato wedges that come with it make it a hearty meal that leaves you satisfied, but with space for more.

Do an Internet search on Yut Kee, and you’ll soon find that Roti Babi or pork bread is a firm favourite.

“Our roti babi is a fried pork sandwich, with a combination of crabmeat, onions, lap cheong (Chinese sausage) and minced pork. We stir fry the ingredients and then stuff them into a bread pocket and fry it,” Mervyn says.

He says most of the dishes are from recipes passed down by Tai Yut. Yut Kee also makes its own kaya for its kaya rolls. Together with its butter cakes and home-ground coffee, it is what makes teatime at the coffee shop a real treat.

For the past 12 years, Mervyn has worked full time at the café. Lately, he’s taken an even more active role in the hope that his father will ease up and not work so hard.

“He’s already 70 but he’s not the type to stay at home and will come to the shop almost every day,” he says.

Despite Mervyn’s exuberance, he can’t help but move on to the matter at hand.

Yut Kee received a notice to move four years ago, but it has taken Mohinder Lal Dua, the building’s owner, five years to get a development order.

Now, as the deadline draws near, the Lees maintain their cheerful demeanour despite their anxiety over the future of the business.

“The person who is feeling it the hardest is my father. We’ve been renting these premises since we first opened in 1928,” Mervyn says. “We may hold the record for being one of the longest tenants in KL,” he laughs. Yut Kee has been paying RM5,000 per month.

“We’re still in the midst of getting things sorted out. We plan to move in late April or early May. After we’ve been here for so long, it’s quite hard to take in [the fact] that we won’t be here anymore. We have to close a pivotal chapter in our lives.”

But there’s a silver lining, in the form of the new premises.

The new Yut Kee will be located in Jalan Kemunting, directly behind the present site. And the building it is moving to happens to be Jack’s childhood home, which they own to this day.

The present Yut Kee has 16 tables and can seat 90 customers, but the new premises will enable the capacity to be increased by up to 20%.

Renovations are now being carried out on the new premises, which will relieve Jack of the burden of paying rent. And despite the increase in price of food supplies and inevitable implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), Mervyn assures us that prices will stay the same.

Come late May or early June, Yut Kee will close for at least one week for the Lees to set themselves up in the new premises. Mervyn hopes it won’t take longer than that.

Jack, taking a break from talking to regulars, walks over to sit with us.

According to him, the new location has its positive qualities. For one, it’s not facing the road so they won’t have to deal with so much traffic noise. “It will be considerably quieter. The chatter of patrons will still be there but we wouldn’t want to have it any other way,” he says.

He looks around at the smiling faces that greet him wherever he turns. Yut Kee, he says, has drawn a good number of regulars over the years and that will give them confidence in the big move, and the strength to work hard to keep Yut Kee going in the years to come.

Mervyn jokes, “He still dreams that he can strike the lottery one day and make an offer to the landlord to buy the building. However, despite the shop having to move, I think we’ll be okay.”

There’s no doubt that good food and good service will continue to keep loyal customers flocking to its new home. — By City & Country

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 14, 2014.


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