KUALA LUMPUR: It takes more than just good food and skilful chefs for Sek Yuen, a restaurant specialising in Cantonese cuisine, to remain popular in the Kuala Lumpur culinary scene for over 70 years.
A united family - now in its fourth generation - has been running the business since 1948. They have grown the eatery from just one shop lot to several along the same road in downtown Pudu.
It is this family spirit that has helped the business thrive, and weather tough times such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.
While 10 family members work full-time as chefs and service crew alongside several dozens of employees, more than 80 descendants of the three founding brothers are also involved in the operations one way or another, especially during the busy festive seasons.
Chinese New Year, for instance, sees young and old family members busying themselves in the dining hall, as the neon sign of yee sang (prosperity raw fish salad) - displayed only during the festival - glows below the restaurant’s sign.
“We were always reminded to be tolerant, to respect each other and to be open to discussion,” Phang Kwai Choong, 57, a member of the third generation, said.
His uncle Phang Yew Kee, 61, added: “Of course disagreements are inevitable, but they’re a healthy part of the business.”
The Phangs have fond memories growing up in this single-storey, free-standing building between rows of shophouses.
It was where they spent their time after school, washing dishes, chopping wood, building fire in the wood stoves, assisting their older cousins to roast Sek Yuen’s signature Pei Pa Duck, and attending to big and small chores.
“Interestingly, the skills were passed down from one generation to the next. It all happened naturally. You paired up to work, and you ended up taking over the elder family member’s task,” Kwai Choong said.
These days, Pang Yong Seng, 72, a cousin of Yew Kee, is the main chef of Sek Yuen.
From no-frills everyday dishes like fried rice and stewed noodles, to elaborate, sumptuous items such as eight treasure braised whole duck, Sek Yuen continues to tempt food connoisseurs with traditional flavours that can be hard to find elsewhere.
LABOUR INTENSIVE TRADITIONAL DISHES A CROWD PULLER
At Sek Yuen, diners are spoilt for choice with its 25-page menu. But it all began with one humble dish - wantan mee - peddled from a push cart by the three founders, Phang Chew Kan, Phang Meng Yun and Phang Shue Tang.
They gradually expanded their offerings and established Sek Yuen in 1948. The name of the restaurant means “a suitable place for gathering”, according to Kwai Chong.
The current structure was built in 1953. Dimsum was initially part of the menu, catering to early risers like rubber tappers, newspaper vendors and market traders.
Fast forward to decades later, neighbouring Bukit Bintang district has morphed into a glitzy shopping and entertainment destination, while development has spilled across into Pudu.
But Sek Yuen’s art deco facade and airy, bright interior have remained unchanged.
Tables and chairs that have been standing since day one, aged but functional ceiling fans, the original signage, wall clocks and black-and-white photos in the non air-conditioned hall exude old-world charm.
It is this quaint ambiance that has attracted film and advertisement production crews to choose Sek Yuen for scenes reminiscent of yesteryears. A young couple also hosted their wedding dinner here last year, a nod to Sek Yuen’s former glory as a popular wedding banquet venue.
With its fame spreading far and wide, Sek Yuen expanded to an air-conditioned unit next door in 1971, and three nearby additional shop lots were rented to cater to the demand.
Given the labour intensive preparation, certain dishes have to be ordered two days in advance.
The Phangs are particularly proud of their eight treasure duck - a whole duck deboned and stuffed with lotus seeds, gingko, mushrooms, pork belly and others. It is then braised for four hours. There is also a pork knuckle version of this dish.
Deboning the duck and pork knuckle and rendering them a “bag” to hold the “treasures” takes years of practice and a mastery of knife skills, a chore Yong Seng can complete in mere minutes.
Equally intriguing is “xing hua ji” - fish paste and almond flakes spread on a sheet of chicken skin and then deep-fried and cut into bite-size. Only trained chefs can retrieve the poultry skin without tearing a hole.
Other heritage dishes packed with old-fashioned flavours include jelly chicken with jelly fish, a cold dish served with salad sauce whipped up from scratch as well as stir-fried dried scallop with egg and crab meat, relished in crisp lettuce.
The handmade crab balls are also popular among customers. Crab meat, water chestnut, pork and fish are minced into a paste and then wrapped in beancurd sheets, steamed and lastly deep-fried.
To accompany the dishes, Yew Kee’s brother Phang Ee Chin, 67, recommended the steamed rice that comes in individual servings - a bowl of unassuming soft, fluffy grains. “Ask us if we still have steamed rice next time you come,” he said.
STAYING UNITED IN THE FACE OF CHALLENGES
Things, of course, were not always smooth-sailing.
Kwai Choong recalled several years of slow business in the 1980s when other restaurants equipped with karaoke systems were preferred for merry, boisterous banquets.
“People wanted something more impressive and we didn’t have that. We could only watch others enjoying brisk business,” said Yong Seng.
The economic downturns in the 1980s and 1990s have also dealt serious blows to businesses in general, as people watched their spending and refrained from dining out.
The current coronavirus pandemic, too, has reduced Sek Yuen’s business to just 20 per cent.
Since people were discouraged to venture out of their homes while the virus lurked, the restaurant with a capacity of 90 tables only provided takeaways during the movement control order period. Dining in has just resumed on Tuesday (Jun 9).
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The usually crowded dining halls abuzz with chatter and laughter stayed quiet, as employees watched workers nearby getting swabbed by medical staff in protective gear and enforcement officers making their rounds to ensure compliance of social distancing rules.
But the family was quick to adapt in order to weather the challenges. Following an internal discussion, they uploaded their menu online and started a delivery service, with family members taking turns to be delivery drivers.
Meal boxes and set meals for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations were also rolled out.
“Our customers said they are happy that they can still taste the ‘traditional flavours’ during the pandemic,” Kwai Choong said.
The cashier’s till that has replaced the abacus at Sek Yuen will soon be joined by cashless e-wallet facilities. Digitising the ordering system is also in the works as a step towards modernisation.
They are also thinking of developing frozen products to diversify their offerings.
Above all, the close family ties will tide them over. Overhead costs can be controlled with family members stepping forward to help out, Yew Kee said.
“Sek Yuen is our pride. It has been standing strong for so long,” Ee Chin declared. “We persevere over the years.”
Kwai Choong chimed in: “We have always been working hand-in-hand. We grew up here, and we are deeply attached to Sek Yuen.”