Reactivating Kai Joo Lane
By Patricia Hului
When Kai Joo Cafe operator Rhoda Yap first heard Datuk Wee Hong Seng propose the idea of a night market at Kai Joo Lane, she responded: “That sound likes a lot of work!”
That was about year ago. Since then, the residents and store owners started coming together, forming a committee to make a night market down one of the oldest streets in Kuching a reality.
“I think there were quite a lot of people who understood what was going on in our neighbourhood – that this place was growing more and more quiet and that we were competing with big, suburban malls.”
They realised the need to create excitement and events in Kai Joo Lane.
For Yap, one of the amazing things about the night market at Kai Joo Lane was that it was the result of community teamwork.
“Slowly one by one, everybody brought their expertise and experience to the table,” she said.
Right from the beginning, they realised one critical problem: They did not have enough businesses to populate the area.
“So we are quite open to people to come and trade here.”
Last July, they took to Facebook, encouraging traders offering a variety of heritage food to apply for the night market. The committee then selected traders based on their menu, quality and price.
“While we were evaluating the applications, we were so happy to see so many young people wanting to do business. Then we also have those who have about 30 years’ experience in the food industry.”
With that, she felt that they had a good balance to offer Kuching’s foodies.
But what makes Kai Joo Lane Night Market different from other existing night food bazaars?
Yap answered, location, location, location.
“Old Kuching used to be the hub of all commercial activities. If you look what is going on in Georgetown or some parts of old Singapore, we know that the potential is here.”
But Yap explained what they needed to do first was activate the hearts of people here to start seeing what can actually be.
“The reason why this (night market) is working is because the community of Kai Joo Lane understood what we are trying to achieve here.”
During the day, some of the shops along Kai Joo Lane are closed and appear unoccupied.
According to Yap, some of the lots here are used as additional storage space for vendors on India Street.
“That is why you need this kind of event, to somehow activate the space.”
With this night market, perhaps the attention might shift to Kai Joo Lane.
Yap said, “Hopefully this kind of idea can be contagious. It may not be a night market but this level of attraction could revive old Kuching for the night.”
A Russian idiom perfectly described the packed night market on Sept 2 and 3 when people of all ages flocked here hunting for food: “There is no room for an apple to fall.”
With 30 operators, patrons could feast upon food like belacan beehun, fried mushrooms, kolok mee, satay, eu char koi, Japanese burgers, mocha, grilled goods such as chicken wings, roti canai and more.
As for drinks and desserts, there were fruit juices, freshly pressed sugarcane drinks, ice kantong, crème Brulee to choose from.
Yap said the crowd turnout surpassed most of their expectations, especially when the committee spent only RM50 to advertise.
“We had limited amount of funding so we paid for a sponsored post on Facebook at RM50.”
The online response was huge. Yap pointed out the post on the social media reached 49,000 people.
Yap admitted the committee was still new in handling this night market and none of them anticipated the huge crowd they received on their opening weekend.
“We urge people to be patient and give us the feedback. What we can do, we will implement,” she assured.
Kai Joo Lane night market opens every Friday, Saturday nights.
For more updates, follow them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/kaijoolane/
History of Kai Joo Lane
History has it that the two rows of 32 shops along Kai Joo Lane were built by a Teochew businessman named Teo Kai Joo in 1923. It was then officially named Kai Joo Lane by Charles Brooke.
But the lane was known by the locals as ‘sar lee hung’ means lane of zinc sheets in Teochew or Hokkien.
Why zinc? It was because when first built by Teo, the 32 shops along Kai Joo Lane were made of red-brown bricks with zinc sheet roofing.
The colours of the building eventually faded, but the zinc roofing remained. Hence, ‘sar lee hung’.