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Gentrification Is Hurting Kuala Lumpur's Iconic Coffee Shops

Traditional kopitiams, which serve sweetened coffee in no-frills surroundings, are a part of Malaysian national identity, but their survival is precarious.
Patrons in a traditional coffeehouse in Kuala Lumpur.
Patrons in a traditional coffeehouse in Kuala Lumpur.Hannah Jambunathan, 2019

In Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, traditional coffeehouses are a deluge on the senses. Large fans blast across the room, working against the sweltering heat, and workers shout orders to one another over clamorous chatter. People perch on plastic stools, drinking sticky, sweetened coffee out of green-patterned ceramic cups with matching saucers. Amid the intense bustle, a lone man usually stands in the rear of the shop, straining dark coffee through a cloth filter and letting it spatter into multiple mugs at once.

Kopitiams (the word translates to “coffee shop” in the Chinese Hokkien dialect) are the oldest surviving coffeehouses in Malaysia. Many have been in existence since the colonial era; coffee was briefly a cash crop for the British in the late 19th century. These open-air coffee shops form historic spaces of community gathering, and over time, have come to be seen as precious bastions of diversity and civic dialogue in multicultural Malaysia.