At 101-year-old Ek Teng Phu Ki, Thai-Chinese elders now mingle with cafe-hoppers, as the family-run business adapts to keep up with the times – and its doors open for generations to come.
Like clockwork, Ek Teng Phu Ki has opened for business every day for over 101 years. It served its customers in times of war, and it continued serving them after the coffee shop, arguably Bangkok’s oldest, moved around the corner 50 years ago from Yaowa Phanit Road to Soi Phat. Unsurprisingly, it stayed open last year, too — not only during the pandemic, but also while its fourth-generation owners spent half the year transforming it into an Instagram hotspot, one that wouldn’t be out of place in nearby Soi Nana.
The formerly no-frills cafe, a magnet for elderly members of the Thai-Chinese community, now boasts with jade-hued tiles, a showpiece wooden menu board and antique-style, marble-top tables.
On the second floor, the two twenty-something brothers who spearheaded the renovation have built a small cocktail bar that opens from 7pm until midnight.
Ironically, if it weren’t for this sweeping overhaul, Ek Teng Phu Ki might have been forced to close for the first time – and that would have been for good.
“Some of our elderly regulars had passed away and others couldn’t leave the house because of the pandemic. Our sales had dropped about 80%,” says Thanachot “Boss” Singkinvit, who helped manage the renovation in between classes at Assumption University.
Across Chinatown, many long-standing businesses like Ek Teng Phu Ki, which are often passed down from generation to generation, have begun to die out.
Poor enforcement of zoning laws, new train lines, and rising property values have seen large projects, like I’m Chinatown, displace some of the cafes, restaurants, and mom-and-pop shops that provide community space for the district’s aging population.
Tiamsoon Sirisrisak, a lecturer on culture and heritage at Mahidol University, told the New York Times that 10% to 20% of Chinatown’s heritage buildings had already disappeared.
Boss and his older brother Thanawat, however, hope to prove that rumors of Chinatown’s demise might be exaggerated.
Since wrapping up renovation in December, the revamped Ek Teng Phu Ki has become a social media darling. Cheongsam-wearing customers have flocked to Soi Phat Sai to try the old-style oliang and take photos with the Chinese-inspired decor.
New items, like dim sum made from recipes shared by Boss and Thanawat’s grandmother, gorgeously packaged bottles of cha yen and Thai iced coffee sit alongside on-trend baked goods like croissants and cakes to give the menu modern appeal.
The cafe even offers delivery, selling bottled drinks for THB60 apiece.
At the same time, the regulars – a mix of Hainanese-Thai and Teochew locals – have lent their tacit support to the family business, Boss says.
“They want us to succeed, so they’ll sit outside the shop or on the other side of the street to make space for other customers to come inside,” Boss said. He added that they also buy house-roasted coffee beans – “We roast them every Sunday” – and tea to make at home.
While younger customers, blessed with an abundance of choice from endless social feeds, may not become so loyal as to visit every day, Boss believes they might give Ek Teng Phu Ki a unique selling point, and their buying habits might give it some staying power.
“Before social media, coffee shops like ours were communal spaces. If you wanted to look for a mechanic or repairman, you’d come to our place. If you needed a new job, you’d come here. Some people would come as strangers but leave as friends,” he said. “We believe that now it can be a place where different generations, young and old, can come together to share ideas.”
Even with the different bells and whistles, the family hasn’t forgotten where it has come from.
Thanawat, who created the interior and packaging designs, preserved some of the original’s pink-and-white tiles. Black-and-white photos of the Hainanese immigrants who founded the cafe in 1919 hang above a machine Boss says will be used to roast specialty coffee. An old cuckoo clock ticks away above the jade-colored tiles, facing framed menus from decades gone by.
And the brothers’ grandmother, now in her eighties, still gets up before dawn to clock in at 4am, work through lunchtime and hang out in the back when she’s done, holding court over the space built by her bloodline.
“Our customers have an emotional attachment to this place, and to my grandmother, too,” Boss explains. “It’s a culture. They’re like family to her – to us – and we’re family to them, too.”
Additional reporting by Veerabhatr Sriyananda
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