Hip-hip-hooray for hip-hipster cafes in Malaysia

Every table in this Chinese restaurant was taken, filled with Chinese families enjoying dinner out on a cool Saturday evening. We were lucky to get a table in this sparsely-decorated restaurant which serves famously tender pork ribs. Every diner there that night was Chinese - understandably so, as it's a non-halal eatery. After dinner, we went for coffee at one of the chic cafes which had just opened a few steps down the road. It was one of the newer ones but it closely resembled those that had gone before it.

These cafes have a certain fondness for an industrial-looking backdrop to contrast with rustic mismatching furniture, retro memorabilia and a cutesy menu. These are instantly instagrammable, and that's crucial for any new cafe to gain visibility in this hyper-digital age.

Coffee and cake rule their menus.

But hey, don't knock them even if these cafes seem a tad cookie-cutter at times. They have achieved something that many have failed to do - they have managed to become a place where Malaysians of all races like to gather, together.

The cafes that we entered that Saturday night was as packed as the Chinese restaurant that we just left but its clientele was much more diverse and mixed. Malaysians of different races were occupying the same space.

Of course, not all cafes are created equal. Some attract a more multiracial crowd than the others, and that often depends on the neighbourhood. And yes, not everyone can afford these cafes so they aren't the solution to Malaysia's racial woes.

But in a country where food and drink have become yet another way to divide us, I'd take what I can get. If Indian-Muslim restaurants charted the way in becoming eateries beloved by all races, chic cafes could well be the newest incarnation to fill this gap.

It helps that cafe fare don't offend any religious dietary restriction; everyone can drink coffee and eat cake. And everyone can relate to the nostalgic chocolate tins or old-school record players that often make up the retro decor. These speak of our life together as Malaysians, they are things that we know because we grew up in Malaysia.

The cafes also tend not to be identifiable with any particular community, instead most have chosen a neutral aesthetic with universal appeal.

So, hip or hipster. Take your pick as to how you want to describe these ubiquitous cafes springing up in every corner of Kuala Lumpur and other towns in Malaysia.

They may not be quite the new melting pot but in a country as racially divided as Malaysia, it's a start, of sorts.


This article was first published on June 5, 2014.
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