Death of the Kopi Salesman…

By KF Seetoh - Thursday, Apr 04, 2013

Kopi kia had been providing quick, no frills and fearless service for over a century and now… it may be history. …


“Ai chui mai?” and with an opened, up-facing palm, a lift of his head, a tray of empty cups and saucers meant for the washer lady, balanced on the other hand, the kopi kia asks if you need liquids. You know that these kopi kia (or coffee boys or ladies for that matter), are providing you a slice of your kopitiam culture you’ve always taken for granted – quick service, no-frills and fearless, plus cheap. You can further interrogate them with a “oo kaki cho chui boh?”, as you may like some “homemade” stuff they are popular for, like lemon barley or plum-lime juice. Or you can carry on rudely by replying to your frivolous text messages “WRU?”, as you make them wait before deciding on a 90 cents order of teh peng. You take them for granted. They don’t care.


Now, they are deciding if this service, or part of our kopitiam culture, should be eliminated from our lives. The Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association and the Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurant and Bar Owners Association, in light of the current and projected labour crunch, casually mooted the idea of doing away with these kopi kia or kopi soh (lady) folks, in favour of self-service culture. Naturally, many among the majority able, young, articulate, wired and loud online voices will sound support of this move, citing labour shortage problems and compassionate thought for these under paid and underappreciated workers. “They should be redeployed for better paying work”, a younger “thoughtful” kopitiam liker suggested. Like what? Owner of the coffee bean supply chain, next CEO of Groupon or to replace that Asstion Director of NTUC who went AWOL after some racist online grunts. These kopi kia or kopi soh want life as it is- no KPI, social media reach, rush to buy lower COEs nor a need to be “in”. They are just happy and contented with their humble salary and frill-ess life. I have met, spoken to and befriended more than a few of them. Most work shifts and have ample time-out to live their extraordinarily simple life. They don’t bother about the 5Cs, on the 6th… Contentment.


Let me share some alternative observations. Women with prams and an extra kid in tow, the older or physically challenged (on wheel chair and in crutches) and the infirmed, plus those who feel the stress building up in the cold, wired modern office in a balmy afternoon. They head to that kopitiam – sitting alfresco, staring blankly at a wall in Zen-ful expression to cool that pressured mind and then someone utters “ai chui mai”. All of them, hears it as “you need help?” and yes, they need coffee, tea, a snack or to trouble these kopi kia to order a plate of mee rebus from the corner stall. They had been providing “help” for over a century and now… it may be history.


If you like them to be around and not mindlessly give in to any unthoughtful ideas that this uniquely Singapore labour shortage problem can yield, think about these kopi boys and ladies. Think about the less blessed and those in need. If you think they are grossly underpaid for such work, as you gulp that $5 plastic cuppa of that self-service fast coffee chain brew, think of how you may want to offer a whisker more for your next kopi-o. It’s strange isn’t it, like they say in local patio “pay less got service at kopitiam dowan…pay more and no service at starbucks or food courts…wan”. The balance should be- pay a bit more and get service. OR, like a local paper suggested, leave some gratification in their tips box, the only kinda off-line real life dropbox service these kopi kia can appreciate.


And we’re only talking about coffeeshop labour woes. Woeful if some genius suggests “why not go all the way- full vending machine stations in kopitiams and press button hawker stalls (like how you can get piping hot hor fun in NUS now at the push of a button). What if they decided to have driverless cabs (google has already successfully tested such cars), great idea for the trend geeks- until they faint in the cab and nobody notices.


Share with us all your favourite “serviced” kopitiam and tell us who is the friendliest kopi soh or kia you’ve come across. I want to go have kopi there now.