Family tussle over famed Penang stall

The small sign over an alleyway on the busy Penang Road is easy to miss but it's hardly needed anyway. Everyone knows where Line Clear is located.

This oddly named stall selling nasi kandar, an Indian-Muslim specialty of rice and curries, is so popular with locals and tourists that there are long queues at all times, including the wee hours.

It is open around the clock every day, except on a Tuesday every fortnight. First set up as a tea stall in 1930, its curry-splattered counter today is laden with dishes ranging from fish head curry to giant prawns, five types of chicken, and fried fish and squid roe.

Penang takes its nasi kandar very seriously. Nasi kandar literally means rice balanced on a pole - which was how it was sold in those days. Of the hundreds of nasi kandar stalls on the island, Line Clear sits somewhere at the top of the totem pole.

It is run by the descendants of four brothers who had left Tamil Nadu in India to seek their fortunes in Penang.

But who actually started the stall has become a matter of heated dispute as there are now two factions tussling for ownership.

Lawyers, municipal officers and the Penang Muslim League have entered the picture as mediators.

Line Clear became famous five to six years ago, some say, after it was recommended by a contestant in a Malaysian reality TV show.

Two years ago, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain ate there, and had his visit immortalised in a photograph at the stall.

Its magic, say fans, is the mix of curries that gives it a unique blend of spicy flavours.

The current owner Abdul Hamid S.N. Seeni Pakeer, 64, said it is because of its fresh seafood bought directly from fishermen in Kedah.

He said it began as a "kettle business" by his father S.N. Seeni Pakeer in 1930 to sell tea at half a sen a mug. It closed during the Japanese Occupation, reopened in 1948 and began selling nasi kandar 10 years later. The original meal was a simple one of rice with fish curry, minced meat, half a duck's egg and okra.

Mr Hamid said his father later brought his brothers from India to join him and another brother in running the stall. The dispute is now between the children, grandchildren and in-laws of these four brothers.

It began some years ago when Mr Hamid failed to comply with the rotation agreement under which the four heirs operated the stall for one year each.

His cousin Latif Rahmatullah, who is now leading the faction against Mr Hamid, said the rotation agreement came about because the stall had been jointly owned by all the brothers.

Mr Latif, 53, and two of his cousins want Mr Hamid, to hand over the stall according to the rotation system.

But Mr Hamid, who said the stall had belonged solely to his father, wants to continue running it, with a share of profits going to the other claimants.

"If they don't want this, we have to go to court," he said.

Given the impasse, the Penang Municipal Council's licensing director Azman Sirun has told the family to find a solution.

This is not the only disagreement over Line Clear. The story of its name also has versions.

Mr Hamid said it was earlier known as Lorong Nasi Kandar, as lorong means alleyway. It later became Line Clear as youths used to call out to the workers "Mamak, line clear kah?" (Mamak, is the line clear?), to ask if they could be served promptly.

Mr Latif, however, thought it was because the workers called out "Line Clear" to beckon to the next customer.

Whichever it is, Line Clear is now firmly on the tourist trail, and clearly a big money-spinner.

This article was first published on June 15, 2014.
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