Fiction / June 2015 (Issue 28)

Ah Yap Hot and Cold Drinks

by Daryl Wei Jie Lim

It was a lazy morning at the hawker centre, and I was sipping my kopi-gau siu dai, marvelling at the supernatural warmth of the cup that contained it. I don't know what Ah Yap, the proprietor of the coffee stall, does to his cups—those thick glass ones, cut like a crystal—but when he serves them, they are like coals. Nowhere else I know does it like that. The advantage of these volcanic cups is that you can have your food and your coffee will still be hot by the time you get to it. I've never really spoken to Ah Yap though, despite ordering coffee from him all the time. Our exchanges are restricted to coffee: where I'm sitting; what?; huh?; what's your order again? (I've never ordered anything else but kopi-gau siu dai); how much is it? (of course, I know it's eighty cents, it's just my attempt to make conversation, which fails all the time); thank you; his grunts. He's a grumpy gremlin of a man, old yet ageless, and he reserves his warmth—when he smiles I am actually perturbed—for a few special customers. I am not one of them, but I don't really mind. One can only be friends with so many people, and at his age, I don't think one really makes friends anymore. I find myself struggling to bother with new people in my life, and I'm not even thirty yet.

That day was no different. Ah Yap delivered my coffee without a word and took the eighty cents. Perhaps this time his grunt was somewhat friendlier than usual. I immediately took a sip to taste, as I tend to do (I've sent bad coffee back, though never at Ah Yap's), and it was as good as ever: thick, milky and in its smoothness one could taste hints of chocolate. In good Singaporean coffee, the gold standard is an ineffable richness: I ascribe it to old coffee pots. It's something Ah Yap's coffee has; it is something that's becoming impossible to find. In Chinese, one would say gu zao wei: the flavour of the past. This phrase betrays the nostalgic tendencies of us Chinese: the implied superiority of the past, its primeval purity, and by contrast, the ever-failing present. Perhaps this is why the population of these parts is so prone to nostalgia.

Although my nose was buried in the cup, I glanced up for a bit, and I noticed Ah Yap giving a man a squeeze on the shoulder on the way back to his stall. I think he also muttered something in Hokkien, apparently friendly (or not—it's sometimes hard to tell in Hokkien). One of the special customers, then. But what was unusual was what this man had on his other shoulder: a bright yellow bird, its orange feet resting in the hollow between his collarbone and neck. Yes, an uncaged bird, probably a pet, clinging to his shoulder. It stood, making small steps to the left and right inside the hollow. But it never once flapped its wings, nor did it make a semblance of an attempt to fly.

I stared at the bird for a minute or two. It was entirely comfortable; it didn't move much. Its passivity rebuked my attempt to find it out of place. Were its wings clipped, I wondered. And just as I wondered this, I caught a quick flicker of yellow. That movement of the wing impressed itself upon my vision like a daub of bright paint, lingering on my eyeball for a long minute. I wanted to see it again, but it wouldn't oblige me. By the end of this exercise, I was the one left feeling horribly out of place.

Then the surroundings pulled me back—the hardness of the chair; the smell of boiling noodles; leaves being dragged in from the outside; the warming chatter and bark of hawker centre patrons; the nearly full cup of coffee on my table, still warm and a workhorse of aroma—and I got up, leaving my coffee unguarded, and made my way to the noodle stall, to order bak chor mee, extra noodles, extra vinegar and most importantly, extra lard.


I left the office late; I think it must have been close to ten. It was a Thursday, and also the third late night for me that week. Exhaustion has this thing of cleaving my limbs from me, leaving a diminished, faltering core with no sense of a body. And so I blundered out of the station, my legs threatening to buckle. It's a short walk home, but I wanted to stop many times along the way. Just sit down on bare pavement for a bit, like the construction workers. They are happy to sit anywhere: on pavement, on grass or on steps. (I can't remember the last time I sat on grass.) Sometimes it's a group of them, sharing food wrapped in brown paper, eating with their hands, drinking from cans of cheap beer. But more often I see groups of them not talking to each other. Instead, they stand around staring at their phones, scrolling and typing, bound by their desire to be with someone else, technology unravelling contingent community.

At the traffic light, perversely, I decided to walk on ahead, instead of crossing the road, which would have taken me home.

The shops in the neighbourhood were all shuttered. Clinic, supermarket, provision shop, bicycle repair shop, optician, bakery, Chinese medical hall, 4D shop, all closed, except for two places. The self-service laundromat glowed—no, it glowered. The sharp light, the silver of the washing machines, the unbearable bright blue of the walls seemed to accuse would-be users of sins. I've never seen anyone use it. The coffee shop was open but none of the stalls were, and a lone cleaning lady was clearing up the last of the plates. Her task was Sisyphean: her lethargy—or perhaps it was mine—made it seem that way. As she cleared the plates she discovered more she hadn't noticed, on other tables: small dishes, bowls, a stray chopstick. She then made her way to them, sighing loudly as she did. She wasn't old, despite her movements, but young and heavily lipsticked. I realised as I walked past the coffee shop, that she was actually a beer lady. Above, the blocks, lit slabs riddled with families, obeyed some unpromulgated curfew.

I was walking towards the hawker centre, of course, and it struck me: institutions obscure their history and make themselves look like they have always been there. Thus the hawker centre hides the machinations of the bureaucracy which dreamt it up. It is, in fact, a temple to the sanitary. Designed to gather up the itinerant, unlicensed street hawkers, it is still constantly policed for signs of uncleanliness. Stalls are given ratings from A to D for hygiene; the cleaning schedules of hawker centres become political issues.

And yet, the place was somehow filthy that night: the kind of charming filth that reminds people of Malaysia, except this was Singapore. Strands of battered noodles caked in black dirt littered the floor; prawn shells glistening with spit; dirty plates uncleared on tables; ants in procession; roaches trundling. Birds were feasting on leftovers, and from time to time, there was an outburst of hideous flapping. I didn't see any rats though.

Everything here too was closed, it seemed, but nonetheless I walked to Ah Yap's stall, hopeful. But he was open, white light valiant against the dark. Its appearance warmed me up like a fireplace does for a sodden hill-walker.

Ah Yap was washing up. I don't like interrupting people, especially not hawkers, so I tend to stand around awkwardly at stalls until the hawker notices me. Sometimes I clear my throat or cough a little. Often, bolder people just shout and get their orders in before I do. But this time there wasn't anyone, and so I spoke up.

"Uncle, you still have coffee?" I asked, in Mandarin.

He didn't turn around. "No, don't have."

"Then what do you have?"

"Teh lah. Canned drinks also. Beer."

"OK. Any recommendations?"

I don't think anyone's ever asked him for recommendations. And so, despite my best efforts, a silence.

"Aiyah, what recommendation? Still have some teh left. You like kopi-gau siu dai, correct or not? I make the same. Teh-gau siu dai. You go sit down. I need to wash these cups." He didn't sound irritated.

This was the most we'd spoken to each other, though I was still talking to his back. I headed towards a table and sat down on a hard, white disc, which provided no relief for my back, torn up by hours at the desk. Nonetheless, I sighed as I sat down. There was no noise but the whirring of Ah Yap's fridge and the flamelike crackling of dead leaves outside.

He brought me my teh, took my money, then sat a table away, not looking at me. His polo tee, once white, was splotched with the colours of teh (sand), kopi (chocolate) and kopi-gau (dark chocolate), a sort of Singaporean tricolour. A dirty towel, folded into quarters, hung around his neck. His lower lip was much larger than his upper, I noticed for the first time, and it wobbled and trembled occasionally. He kept rubbing the tip of this right thumb against his index finger.

Ah Yap's teh was excellent: sweet, fragrant, rich and so thick I could feel the tannins puckering my tongue and my cheeks, despite the condensed milk. I made an appreciative noise, a deep rumble of appreciation.

"Good ah?"

"Yes, uncle, very good. Very fragrant, very thick."

"Those who know how to drink their tea and coffee order teh-gau siu dai or kopi-gau siu dai." He didn't seem to have really heard me. "Young men usually don't know how to drink kopi-gau siu dai. So when you ordered it, I was surprised. Siu dai is less sugar, but people think I just put less condensed milk. But like that the proportion of milk, coffee and water becomes wrong. You must replace some of the condensed milk with evaporated milk, which is not sweet. So kopi-gau siu dai has everything."

As an afterthought he added, "But I only drink kopi-o kosong these days, because of my diabetes."

I don't remember much else of what Ah Yap and I talked about that night, intermittently and without much direction. He was, however, as you might have noted, unusually talkative. It wasn't so much a discussion, more a spring-clean of his cluttered old-person mind, with me nodding and agreeing. I've never spoken to him at this length again, though now I'm considered a regular. I did ask him about the man with the bird on his shoulder though; it turns out the man thinks it might be a reincarnation of his dead wife.


He said he was mixed, but really with a name like Firdaus (or was it Faisal?) he was definitely just Malay. He picked me up in that most cliched of ways—by asking for a light. He was smoking reds, and I was pretending to smoke some menthols. I don't think he noticed that as he finished three sticks, I had lit just one and avoided smoking it as best as I could. We talked a lot about that year's National Day Parade for some reason. I desperately wanted to lick his smooth, flawless, shimmering dark skin. But I don't remember anything else of our flirting chat. It didn't help that I'd had two Long Islands, which tasted terrible but were made very, very strong.

We took a taxi back to mine, before midnight, to avoid the surcharge, or at least that was how I was thinking. We made out a little bit, but I spent most of the time watching the meter dance, wishing my house was closer to town, though overjoyed that no one else was home that weekend. My parents were in Bali. I couldn't stop touching, feeling and absolutely trying to get a sense of his skin, which was shining in the moonlight as we got out of the taxi.

Did he ask if I had some coffee at home? Or did I suggest that we have a cup of coffee first before heading up, so I could sober up? (Have you heard of whisky dick?) He almost tripped over an uncovered drain on the way to the hawker centre. I held his hand for five seconds after that, before it became unbearable to do so in public.

Ah Yap was open, as expected, and I ordered my usual, while Firdaus asked for a kopi-o. I went on for a bit, incoherently, about how good the coffee was, about how much care Ah Yap put into his craft, how he deserved to be recognised as much as, no, more than, the espresso-brewing baristas. Firdaus lit up another cigarette as I spoke, nodding but not speaking.

When the coffee came, I noted how smooth Ah Yap's hands were; past his wrists the savage, surprising wrinkling began. I remember him not looking at me as I paid for the coffee. I took my time with mine, while Firdaus gulped his down, despite the legendary heat of Ah Yap's coffee cups. He began to drum his fingers against the stained white table, and asked me for some of my menthols, joking that he was sick of destroying his lungs.

After I finished my coffee, I decided that I wasn't ready, made my excuses, and bundled him into a taxi home. He didn't seem too annoyed, and even asked for my number so we could meet up again.


Sometimes, on the weekends, when I have nothing to do, I make myself some terrible instant coffee—purgatory after the paradise of Ah Yap's kopi—and sit down in front of my MacBook and surf the net the entire day. Loserish? Perhaps. But I love the sense of time surging, its flow momentarily washing away stains of care and worry—before it is reduced to a trickle that brings a pang of awareness. Not just killing time, but serial-murdering it. Then being haunted by its ghost as the day comes to its end, and I'm still in pajamas, with a quarter-cup of terrible instant coffee now unutterably vile.

But you know the routine. Links on Wikipedia lead to other pages. (Most commonly, "philosophy.") That day, among other things, I read about Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang (construction started in 1987 and it's still unfinished); the antiretroviral drug Truvada, used to prevent HIV infection after exposure (gay men who take it daily and have unprotected sex are labelled "Truvada whores"); the Greek lyric poet Anacreon (one fragment of his works simply reads: "Herotima, you public, public road"); unsolved murders in the United States; the landmark US Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage. I was also checking my email every half hour. I don't have Twitter though.

In between refreshing my news feed and checking for notifications on Facebook, I decided to make a fanpage for Ah Yap's stall, called "Ah Yap Hot and Cold Drinks." The write-up read:

Ah Yap is a grumpy demigod of the uncle baristas of Singapore. His eighty cents kopi (or even better, kopi-gau siu dai) beats Starbucks (of course!), but also the hipster cafes which were once hardware stores or medical halls or morgues or brothels. There is no artisanal toast, soda or water here. Nor eggs Benedict; not even French toast. Ah Yap is unlikely to say much to you, unless you speak Hokkien in a particularly surly manner. He probably won't forget your order. He will deliver your coffee with trademark languidness and reluctance. He is not old, but in fact, ageless. Like Lee Kuan Yew, he may live forever. We certainly hope he does.

By the end of the day it, inexplicably, had four likes and that made me feel a little bit better than usual about having just pissed an entire day away. But then I had a couple of arguments with idiots online —all of them safely behind pseudonyms, and I the only real person—and I felt the sweet, devastating sense of waste coming back.

The last thing I read before surrendering to an unrestful sleep was the article on the two by-elections in Singapore in 1961, possibly the PAP's annus horribilis. (There's also a Wiki article on "annus horribilis.") It lost two by-elections that year, one to the defector Ong Eng Guan, who by some accounts nearly became Prime Minister, and the other to David Marshall and his newly formed Workers' Party. By the end of the July, after expelling thirteen members, Lee Kuan Yew's government had a majority of a single seat in the Legislative Assembly.

Glibly, I tell myself sometimes I feel as if I have a one-seat majority in my own brain. A year later, in July 1963, the PAP lost its majority due to a defection, gained it again, then lost it once more with the death of the Minister for Labour, Ahmad Ibrahim. Lee Kuan Yew, sick of it all, decided to call a fresh election instead of yet another by-election. I'm straining the analogy now, or maybe it was never a viable one to begin with, but I wish I could dissolve the assembly in my head and get the neurons to elect a new one.

It's hard to sleep when you've done nothing all day.


Saturday morning, and after my bowl of century egg and pork porridge, I head over to Ah Yap's for my coffee. The taste of century egg haunts my mouth; unctuous, otherworldly, it seems to rouse long-dormant tastebuds on the roof of my mouth. Only stupid ang mohs eat it raw as a dare, and then proclaim it horrible, the inedible food of the inscrutable. Having said that, a Latvian man, his hip bone threatening to pierce my side, once told me that century egg was, for him, a delicacy that outranked truffles or caviar.

Coffee, I've found, manages to overwhelm nearly everything, if you let it, at least for the moment. In that way, it's not that different from its apparent antithesis, alcohol.

But the grey shutter is down, and I've never known Ah Yap to be closed on a weekend. The man who had the bird on his shoulder is sitting at a table, without the bird, and I go up to him, and ask him if he knows why Ah Yap isn't open today.

He tells me that he's heard from other patrons, the grapevine of ah peks, that Ah Yap's suffered a very bad stroke, and might never brew another cup of coffee. But he opines that the kopi served by the middle-aged proprietor of another stall in the middle of the hawker centre, "the one with the red signboard, next to the duck rice," is nearly as good, though ten to twenty cents more expensive.

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