The Coliseum Cafe - Its 86 years old

The heavily-tinted double-doors and windows give customers privacy when they dine at the 86-year-old Coliseum Cafe & Hotel in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, Kuala Lumpur.
The heavily-tinted double-doors and windows give customers privacy when they dine at the 86-year-old Coliseum Cafe & Hotel in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, Kuala Lumpur.

The Coliseum Cafe & Hotel in Kuala Lumpur is among the last vestiges of the colonial era. It continues to remind Malaysians of the time when a gin tonic was the preferred drink for Englishmen before a lunch of steak. RINA DE SILVA took a walk back into pre-war days when she pushed past the double-door entrance of the 86-year-old restaurant recently.

THE Coliseum Cafe & Hotel at 98-100, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, needs no introduction.

Its English food, Chinese dishes and 1920s ambience have intrigued thousands over the years since it opened its doors in 1921.

Many have entered it for the first time over the decades only to return as often as they could for the time of their lives.

Cliff Stanley, 81, for instance, began frequenting the place as a planter in the 1950s and has never stopped going there.
He remembers that the first thing that he would do on entering the premises was hang his gun belt on the hat-hanger at the entrance.

His guns would share space with pith helmets and jackets of other patrons.

After that it would be a few drinks at the bar with friends before a lunch of sizzling steak.

"The communist trouble was all we planters would talk about then. It was a tense period for all of us," said Stanley who was shot in the hip, legs and near the kidneys between 1951 and 1955.

The retired planter, who came to Malaya at 17 from Leeds, Yorkshire, and stayed, still goes for a drink at Coliseum when friends come from England.

"I take them for a taste of the good old days," says Stanley, who spends most of his time at his Kelana Jaya home these days.

His occasional jaunts to the restaurant in the 1980s would most probably have seen him running into Chong Yoke Kek, who was then a cashier there.

Chong, who left after a few years, came back to run the place in 2005.

Abdul Talib Yacob, 73, also remembers the good old days when he regularly visited the Coliseum.

He cannot forget the restaurant’s practice of allowing some die-hard patrons to settle their bill at the end of the year.

"My annual bonus would go towards my Coliseum bill," said Talib, who is known among friends as "Bill".

When the time came for him to pay his dues, the manager at that time, Wong Chin Wan, would tap him on his shoulder and whisper a gentle reminder.

Such were the days when restaurateurs were more than businessmen and customers more than patrons.

Many remember the easy camaraderie between those who ran Coliseum and those who relished its food and delighted in its drinks.

Chong, one of the restaurant’s seven partners, is cautiously optimistic about the future for the venerable old eatery which is just 14 years away from its centenary.

Coliseum was opened by a group of Hainanese business partners, known as Loi, Lim and Wong, who came from Hainan island in south China.

During the British rule, many Hainanese learnt how to make coffee, bread and cook Western dishes from the British families they worked and lived with.

The hotel offers rooms at RM45 per night with two beds, a rocking chair, a flask for hot water, a sink, a cupboard, an area for footwear and wet clothes and a table with two chairs.

Coliseum captain who knows his stuff

AT 86, Ho Seng Fong (picture) is as sharp as ever.

The restaurant captain, born when Coliseum Cafe & Hotel opened for business, does not ask regulars their orders.

Neither do they bother to remind him about what they fancy from the bar or restaurant.

Ho works from memory, easily remembering their orders and favourite tables.

He has been doing so for 40 years since beginning work at the restaurant.

His favourites include Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Works Minister Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu and former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

He said Abdullah used to come to Coliseum before he became prime minister, his favourite dish being the sizzling sirloin steak.

Ho’s first pay packet in 1967 was RM180 a month, a princely sum at that time.

Mohan Narayanan, 49, and his brother Narasaya, 56, have been working at Coliseum since the age of 16 and 21 respectively.

Their late father, R. Narayanan, and grandfather, Ramasamy, also worked in the kitchen where they kept the fire going besides doing odd-jobs.

Mohan recalls his first few weeks at Coliseum as tough. "I was given two weeks to learn Hainanese or leave."

Former manager Wong Chin Wan used to "shout" at him when he mispronounced words "but I knew that he was good at heart and only wanted me to speak the dialect well".

Mohan’s name was mispronounced in his early days at Coliseum which resulted in him being called Morgan.

He feels proud when his customers call him "Captain Morgan".

Today, the brothers, who speak fluent Hainanese, are restaurant captains.

"I feel proud working here as I get to meet ministers, doctors, lawyers, celebrities and tourists. It is nice to make contacts," said Mohan.

One day in 2000, filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad walked in and asked Mohan to appear in a Bumiputra-Commerce Bank advertisement she was producing. He obliged, playing the role of a customer.

Two years later, he was again called by an advertisement agency to appear in a DHL advertisement in which he played the role of a driver’s assistant.

Daughter: It was father's second home

MENTION Wong Chin Wan to his daughter, Josephine, and expect to be regaled by stories of his years with Coliseum Cafe & Hotel.

She said he came from Hainan island as a teenager to work for his uncle who was one of the original partners.

He ran the place for more than three decades with the help of Chong Yoke Kek’s husband, Loi Teik Pin.

"The place was his second home. He used to rarely leave the place," Josephine, 37, his youngest daughter, said.

She ran Coliseum between 1998 and 2004 after inheriting her father’s share.

This year is a special year for the restaurant with TV stations from Hong Kong and China dropping in to film documentaries in conjunction with Malaysia’s 50th Merdeka celebrations.



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