Restoration of heritage shop house brings new life to Main Bazaar

By Jude Toyat
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Lima Tujoh Café and Guesthouse co-owners (from left) Then, Joyce Lee, Hon and Phung Howe Yin.

Lima Tujoh Café and Guesthouse co-owners (from left) Then, Joyce Lee, Hon and Phung Howe Yin.

The Main Bazaar here is an integral part of Kuching’s history.

Apart from being an important trading post and marketplace during the early part of the 18th century, many streets in Main Bazaar have historical origins that mark the beginning of Kuching.

Contrary to popularised belief that Kuching means cat, it is conjectured that Kuching actually derives its name from an old well which used to be on Upper China Street in the Main Bazaar area. In Mandarin, ‘old well’ was ‘ku-ching’.

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“This interesting history inspired us to choose Upper China Street as the perfect location for our newly opened café,” said co-owner of Lima Tujoh Café and Guesthouse Jessica Then.

“The name Lima Tujoh is a local twist of the Sarawakian dialect referring to the original lot number 57.”

Then added that after talking extensively with neighbours in the area, no one actually knew the exact location of the well, but some said it was located at lot number 55.

“We decided to keep the lot number as the name of our café to remind us of the history as we progress, hoping there will be some sort of attachment to this 110-year-old building,” she said.

Lima Tujoh Café and Guesthouse is owned by six co-owners – Joyce Lee, Averil Hon, Christina Hon, Phung Howe Yin, Kenny Lai and Then, all of whom are Kuchingites and good friends who love to travel together.

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In April this year, they decided to travel to Vietnam, managing to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hoi An located in the province of Quang Nam.

“It was really an amazing trip as we strolled along the street near Old Town Hoi An and stumbled upon a café that we really loved; the idea to open a similar café sparked from there,” said Then.

Before they decided on the location for Lima Tujoh Café and Guesthouse, the place belonged to their mutual friend who told them that it was up for rent.

“After spending several days in Vietnam, we got back here on April 7. The next morning we came to this place to have a look at the building and eventually we secured it in the evening. Renovation work started the following Monday (April 11).

“What we actually had in mind was to look for a place that was old, with character and history to it, and we were very lucky in a funny way that this was a decision made in Vietnam,” she said.

The café started operating on Aug 1 serving local dishes with nasi lemak and ayam pansuh as their specialties.

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“The menu here is a collection of childhood memories and stories from our travels,” she said,  adding that their coffee was specially sourced from an independent roaster from Vietnam.

“Aside from the normal coffee drinks, we also serve authentic Vietnamese drip coffee, similar to those you will find everywhere in Vietnam,” said Then, adding that she and her friends prepared the food themselves and no outside cook was hired.

The team behind Lima Tujoh guest house have gone out of their way to preserve the building’s unique features.

According to co-owner Averil Hon, who is also a contractor, the guesthouse’s distinguished features have been delicately restored including its shutter windows, brick wall with lime plastering, belian beams, wooden entrance, wooden hinged door, wooden flooring and even the toilet.

“We would like to keep all the uniqueness of this 19th century heritage shop house.  We try to preserve and restore some of the things we found here and this is how it all turned out.

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As for their future plans, Hon said that they will also be introducing more items on the menu.

“Although we do not want to make the menu into a very extensive one, we will still keep on changing the menu as we go along. It is still going to be kept simple, more homecooked foods.

“We are also planning to establish this place by expanding our guesthouse while keeping the standard of this place intact,” she said.

Hon revealed that since Aug 1, they had managed to accommodate lots of foreign tourists, especially those who came for the Rainforest World Music Festival and Kuching Marathon.

“This place continues to receive guests who come here during their short travel over the weekend. The response is very encouraging and they told us that the building itself was a major attraction for them to come here and spend their nights.

“As for the guesthouse, we are steering a little bit different from our neighbours here because our target market are not bunkers but flash packers. We aim to make this place into something that is affordable and clean, which are the elements that we ourselves look for when we travel,” she added.

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