an indian hair-itage

kamahl stairs
kamahl soft focus

“those are not haircuts, i don’t even know what to call them,” elam seliam says with a shake of his head and a wry smile, referring to the unisex hair salons that today’s youngsters like to frequent. the 54-year-old indian barber holds firm to the belief that a good cut, neat trim and a clean shave are what make the man and at his 36-year-old saloon in taman tun dr ismail, he delivers just that to a loyal stable of customers who have stayed with him through the decades.

elam comes from a long lineage of barbers and growing up, he always knew that he too would someday make it his calling. he saw barbering as an elegant profession and admits that he was also enticed by the crisp white jackets that barbers traditionally wore. “they looked so smart in them,” says elam. “and the customers were such refined gentlemen.”

after completing his ‘o’ levels (now known as spm) in 1973, he trained at his father’s saloon in batu road (today’s jalan tunku abdul rahman) for about a year and stayed on to gain experience for two more before venturing out. he and his older brother elam poorranan set up kamahl hair cutting saloon in 1978, in taman tun dr ismail. the name was a tribute to a popular indian singer in australia at the time. while kamahl himself never set foot in the shop, his family members used to frequent elam’s father’s saloon.

the location was an easy choice for the brothers, who grew up in a nearby chinese village nicknamed cowboy town that was located where glomac damansara now stands. houses then were wooden shoplots that hosted small businesses downstairs while families occupied the upper levels. we were among the earliest establishments in taman tun and the first indian barber shop here for a long time,” elam recalls. “the only other surviving business that i remember from that time is restoran ismail. the wet market didn’t open until about 10 years later.”

he saw barbering as an elegant profession and admits that he was also enticed by the crisp white jackets that barbers traditionally wore

kamahl, in fact, was originally located in the same row as the restaurant and stayed there for a good 29 years until the rental went up beyond their means, in 2007. his brother was also running another saloon nearby at the time, so elam decided that he would set up his own. after resting for a few months, he re-opened kamahl in the current location.

b y poh remembers that period well. he had been frequenting kamahl at the old premise for as long as he could recall and was taken by surprise when it closed down. “he didn’t even inform his customers, i was so angry!” says poh, but with a twinkle in his eyes as he settles into one of three vintage barber chairs that elam inherited from his father, for his regular trim. “i went around trying other barbers but was not satisfied.” as luck would have it, one day poh chanced upon a flyer that elam had distributed around the area – pasted on a tree. the rest is happy history as the two resumed their barber-client relationship.

kamahl by poh
kamahl tools

the previous kamahl was not only bigger and busier, poh recalls, but also “much neater!” elam responds with a smile, explaining that he had to settle for a first floor unit as rental for ground floor lots are too high. he transported everything from the old shop to this second address but with less space to move around, things became understandably cluttered.

mirrors are embellished with stickers while rows of pink bay rum and yellow ice eau de cologne, contained in recycled liquor bottles, sit above. the tables are covered with a myriad barbering tools and hairstyling accessories – everything from scissors to blades and old-school talcum powders (remember cuticura and holiday on ice?).

like the walls flanking the entrance and staircase that leads to the saloon, painted barber’s poles pop out against a rich turquoise background. altogether, it’s colourful and chaotic but is not without its charm. not that it matters to his customers, mostly malay and chinese men in their 40s or older who have been frequenting his saloon for years, and include prolific personalities and public figures. many have become friends. in fact, as poh tells it, “i always call ahead before coming for a cut because this fellow has many friends so he has many appointments.”

poh also remembers that back at the old shop, elam barely had to lift a finger himself as he had a stable of “about 20 staff” to tend to customers; elam says he only had five staff, all from india and they have since returned to their home countries. today, he works with just one employee.

on average, it takes elam about 30 minutes to complete a haircut. working in silence but letting his hands do all the talking, he takes his time to ensure that every bit of unwanted hair is trimmed or shave and the side cut – the hairline behind the ears – are neat. this is the traditional indian barber style, he says, which is about doing everything properly and with an attention to detail.

kamahl soft verti
kamahl leather paddle
kamahl neck twist
kamahl talc


elam usually finishes by applying a splash of cologne to the forehead or running it through the hair and also pats it on the back of the neck. then, holding a towel in both hands, he cradles the customer’s head gently and carefully but swiftly gives their neck a twist in each direction.

“this is to help them relax and loosen their neck muscles, but one must be precise and well trained to do it,” elam explains. “the customer also needs to stay relaxed. if i feel that their neck and muscles are very tense, i won’t do it.”

shaving is done the old-school way: a face brush, first sterilised with dettol, is used to apply shaving cream onto the face before elam gets to work with a small blade. a hot towel, kept warm in a steamer, is used to pat the skin and then to finish, a light dusting of talcum powder is applied to the face.

elam shares an important tip about barbering: “stand tall and firm, keep a straight posture and your hands steady – this is what we call a barber’s class. only then can you do a good job and give a good cut.” elam’s proudest moment was when his late father, who died of colon cancer a few years after kamahl opened, visited his saloon to not only give his blessings but told elam that he had indeed mastered the barber’s class. watch him at work and you will agree.


> kamahl hair dressing saloon is at no 4a 1st floor, jalan tun mohd fuad 2, taman tun dr ismail, kl
tel 012 219 6430 opens 8.45am-8.30pm prices rm12 for a cut, rm10 for a shave or get the combo for rm20

this story first appeared in the malay mail online and crave


dainty feet

third-generation shoemakers wah aik are still making beaded nyonya sandals and bound feet shoes by hand, continuing a family legacy that began over 100 years ago.

wah aik shopfront
wah aik pink
wah aik leather blue

every single coloured bead, each swathe of fabric or leather, the smallest details of shoemaking – nothing escapes the sharp eyes of yeo keng yam, simon and raymond yeo. into their 50s and 60s, the yeo brothers are the grandchildren of the late yeo eng tong, who arrived in melaka from hainan island more than a century ago, armed with skills that he had honed under the tutelage of a master shoemaker. his know-how covered footwear for the armed forces and nurses, men’s leather oxfords and profitably at the time, three-inch golden lotus shoes for women with bound feet.

he opened wah aik shoemaker in what is now known as jonker street and in adapting to local life, also learned to make traditional beaded sandals that the nyonyas wore to complement their form-fitting kebaya. his specialty extended to traditional wedding shoes, leather slip-ons that bore intricate floral patterns embroidered from silver thread. “we can’t make them these days,” says raymond as he picks a pair gingerly from a cabinet that holds a small selection of the antique beauties, “because you can’t even find this type of thread anymore!”

the several pairs that the yeos still have in their possession are precious inheritance from their grandfather and are now part of the prized display at their shop on jalan tokong, several hundred metres from the original premise, which they had to give up in 2000 due to rising rent. “we transported the entire store, lock stock and barrel to this current address. all our families and friends came out to help on moving day,” raymond recalls, pointing out that practically every piece of furniture and all the shoemaking equipment they still use – a sewing machine and wooden shoe moulds among them – were from their grandfather’s time.

wah aik patterns
wah aik making of

in essence then, wah aik is not just a retail outlet but a living museum of melaka fashion from the 19th century. at the time, the practice of binding women’s feet – considered a status and beauty symbol – was very much alive and so it was that the late yeo made many a pair of bound feet shoes. some of his handiwork is now part of the exhibit at the shop, including a couple of models made of silk and one that’s made of grey leather. “back then, the leather versions were more common as they’re sturdy enough for daily wear, whereas the silk ones are worn on special occasions,” says raymond.

the latter have velvet insoles and leather soles, and it is these that the brothers continue to produce today. selling for rm95 a pair and mainly to tourists, they look no different from the ones in the display case except for one feature: the original designs had rounded fronts that reflected the shape of bound feet whereas today’s versions have slim, tapered tips as they’re clearly not meant to be worn but are collectors’ items.

wah aik making of blue
wah aik stuff
wah aik sewing
wah aik tools
wah aik man at work
wah aik red shoe

what has not changed is the process itself; whether it’s the dainty bound feet shoes or delicate beaded nyonya slippers, every component is still executed by hand just as the brothers had been taught by their grandfather and later, their father. that includes cutting the different fabric and leather parts into defined shapes, sewing the parts together, punching the eyelets and for the nyonya shoes, stringing and sewing every single bead. they take customised orders for both types of shoes, offering a selection of patterned silk for the former while the latter comes in a number of designs – flats or heels, slip-ons or with straps – and choice of coloured leather. there is also a variety of beaded patterns to choose from, striking motifs in vibrant palettes, one more elaborate than the last.

although the brothers make it look effortless, observe them at work and it’s evident just how laborious every step of the shoemaking process is and how precise they need to be. with the bound feet shoes, there is the added challenge of having to shape the upper by hands as there is no mould for it.

every component is still executed by hand just as the brothers had been taught by their grandfather and later, their father
wah aik newspaper clips
wah aik shoes in drawer
wah aik silver thread shoes

the yeo brothers took over the family business some 30 years ago and are intent on keeping it going for as long as they can. their next generation has, to date, not expressed any interest in taking over and even their location is not secure; the landlord may be selling off the unit soon, which means that wah aik may have to up and move again. but if they do, you can be assured that they will keep the shop’s furnishings and displays as is.


> wah aik shoemaker melaka no 56 jalan tokong, melaka, malaysia tel +606 284 9726/+606 317 1901 opens 9.30am-5.30am daily


this story first appeared in the edge review

history on a plate


one of kl’s longest surviving hainanese kopitiams, yut kee is legendary for its food and well-loved for its atmospheric settings. but you won’t get to enjoy the latter for much longer; the landlord is taking back this corner lot and turning it, as well as the neighbouring shop, into a budget hotel. The new yut kee is being built, thankfully just behind the current premise, and you can get a glimpse of it through the kitchen in the back.

the food will likely remain the same even after they shift base but the existing atmospheric ambience will certainly be lost, having developed organically over 86 years, its vintage well reflected in the green and beige mosaic floor tiles, simplistic menu board, antiquated power switches and marble table tops. it won’t take much stretch of the imagination to transport one to the malaya of yore; there’s something cinematic about yut kee, as if a sepia-tone air envelops the surrounds and rises above the din from the guests’ chatter that typically fills the air anytime of the day.

you can tell the regulars from the occasional customer; they’re the ones who are not bothered by the queue outside because they know that the staff, clad in bright green polo t-shirts bearing the kopitiam’s name, won’t make you wait long for a table. they’re the ones who don’t need to scan the menu or ponder over what to order, and more tellingly, they don’t over order. condensed milk-sweetened kopi kaw and a slice of buttery marble cake. toast with butter and kaya. half-boiled eggs with splashes of kicap and dashings of pepper. chicken chop swimming in a brown gravy. roti babi, unctuous and comforting, and best enjoyed with a few drops of lea & perrins. hailam fried bihun, a masterpiece of excellent wok hei paired with a flawless sambal. and on sundays, roast pork with apple sauce.


the food can be inconsistent though; we bit into soggy butter cake once. the kopi is not always kaw enough, the kaya could sometimes do with more yolks. even the eggs, on a rare bad day, can be overdone. so no, yut kee’s food is not without its flaws but it is also hardly terrible. what is consistent is the friendly, efficient service of the well-trained staff under the watchful eyes of the very hands-on second and third generation owners. at least one of them is around to man the cashier and oversee things at all times.

that, perhaps, is the key to yut kee’s constant (and still rising) popularity through the decades – the simple fact that it started as a family business and is still run as one, lending a homey touch to everything from service to food and the general atmosphere. and you’ll always want to go back, even if the food may not always be the best because really, there’s no place like home.


kedai makanan yut kee 35 jalan dang wangi, kl tel +603 2298 8108 opens 8am-6pm, tue-sun; closed mon note yut kee is expected to move out of its current premises by mar 2014