GEORGE TOWN, Feb 16 ― Back in 1953, a young couple started selling Chinese medicated tea from a pushcart stall along Cintra Street.
Chan So Han and her husband, Lim Ah Kong, did that for 38 years before the latter died in 1991, leaving Chan to fend for herself and their eight children.
Chan almost wanted to give up the stall but she thought of the four younger children who were still studying and needed her support.
“One had just started studying in Universiti Sains Malaysia, another was halfway through his course in university so I had to continue selling medicated tea,” she said.
With the help of her second and fourth daughters, she continued to operate the roadside stall at Cintra Street before finally opening Shong Hor Hin Medicated Tea at a shophouse along Kimberley Street.
“We opened the shop in 1995 so finally we didn’t have to be subjected to weather conditions,” the 85-year-old said.
One of her daughters continued to operate the roadside stall until she closed it a few years ago.
Chan said she would not have been able to continue without the support of her family: her father Chan Swee Foo who taught her the recipes for her medicated teas, her mother who babysat all her eight children over the years and her grandmother who helped her boil the tea.
Swee Foo was a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner who imported herbs from China and sold Chinese medicines and herbs.
“Operating this stall was hard labour with barely enough rest in between operation hours,” Chan said.
Even when her husband was still alive, they woke up at 6am to start preparing the ingredients for the teas and boiling them in large pots.
“The foo cha takes five hours to boil so we have to start preparing really early,” she said.
The foo cha (which is Cantonese for bitter tea) is known as kor teh in Hokkien. She also had to prepare the tek chia (bamboo cane tea) and kek hwa teh (chrysanthemum tea).
“Our stall opens till late, usually 1am, and when we push the stall back, we have to clean and wash everything before going to sleep and then after after a few hours, the day starts again,” she said.
It is much easier at the shop as she no longer has to push the cart back but the work involved remains the same although in the last two decades, her daughters helped her in most of the operations.
It was not an easy decision for Chan to call it quits especially when she had kept the business going for 65 years.
“My children and grandchildren kept telling me to close it down as they felt it was time I retire and rest instead of working so hard each day preparing the ingredients and the teas,” she said.
The oldest of her children is 63 years old, and her two daughters who had always helped her in the business also wanted to retire.
“They both needed to rest, they’ve helped me since small, they’d come back from school, eat, finish their homework and automatically help me at the stall,” she said. Both are already in their 60s and 50s now.
“I am old. I am 85 years old, I can’t keep going on like this, what if I fall down? Although it breaks my heart to close a business that I spent almost my whole life doing, I have no choice.
“As with everything in life, there must be an ending and this is the end of the road for the shop. I started it with my husband so now it is up to me to close it and say goodbye,” she said.
The shop closed on January 26 and to “protect” her regular customers’ feelings, instead of a notice of closure, she put up a “temporary closure” notice at the entrance.
“I don’t want my customers to celebrate Chinese New Year with such bad news so I termed it as temporary closure. This is so that they will think we are only taking some time off to rest,” she said when met at the shophouse along Kimberley Street.
Even as she tells us stories of her medicated tea stall at the shophouse, some regular customers saw the open doorway and stepped in to ask her when she would open again.
Each time she turned them away gently, telling them she needed to take a break and that she doesn’t know when the shop will open again. Each time she thanked them profusely for their support.
“You know the most heartbreaking thing about closing this shop are my regular customers. They have been with us for so many years, they keep coming back and supporting us, I feel so sad to let them down this way,” she said.
Chan has 18 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren but none of her grandchildren are interested in taking over the business.
“All of them have their own careers, I think each month, they probably earn more than what I earn each year from this shop,” she said.
She added that they have all seen how much work and the hours she put in each day for the shop and were not interested in it.
As with most traditional trades within George Town where businesses are operated on the ground floor while the owners live upstairs, Chan still lives on the first floor of the shophouse and will continue living there with one of her sons.
“All my pots and kettles I used are still here, I have yet to dispose of them, we will see what to do with these later. For now, I rest and truly retire after so many years,” she said.
The Shong Hor Hin Medicated Tea stall was one of the traditional trades in George Town that make up the living heritage of the Unesco heritage site.
It is one of many such trades that are slowly giving way to urbanisation and simply, a lack of interest among the younger generation to carry on.