After 94 years, it’s goodbye for Swatow Lane Ice Kacang

By Opalyn Mok

GEORGE TOWN, April 20 — It all started with a small pushcart by the road in 1923, when a Chinese immigrant Lee Kar Tee sold his first ang thau sng (ice kacang) here.

Today, the small pushcart is long gone and the stall has moved into the New World Park Hawker Centre, just a few metres from the original site, where it is run by Lee’s grandsons and great-grandsons.

Business has been slow at the New World Park hawker centre in recent years.

But that, too, will be gone in 10 days. The Lee Brothers Swatow Lane Ais Kacang stall, as it is called today, will no longer operate from the spot where it was founded after this.

“The costs of being the anchor tenant here is too high, we can’t afford it any more,” said one of the great-grandsons, Bernard Lee.

He said they were already paying over RM56,000 each month to cover the rental of all 27 stalls in the hawker centre.

“Next month onwards, we were told to pay additional costs for cleaners and grease traps, which brings the overhead to RM60,000... too high for us to cover, especially when business here has been slow in recent years,” he said.

The ice kacang stall is the anchor tenant for the hawker centre, so the Lees are tasked with managing and collecting rent from all the stalls in the centre each month.

Bernard’s father, Eng Lai, 67, said business fell drastically since 2015, when there were rumours of New World Park being closed down to make way for a new mixed development project.

The Lee Brothers Swatow Lane ice kacang stall will close down after April 30, 2017.

“Before that, we were doing fine, we can cover costs, all the stalls were fully occupied and we have a lot of customers coming here but after that news of development in 2015, everything took a turn (for the worse),” Eng Lai said.

Six stalls gave up after two years and moved on, he said, meaning the Lees were paying rental for the unoccupied lots.

Eng Lai said he and his brother, Eng Huat, and two sisters used to run the ice kacang stall by the roadside after taking over in 1963.

“We enjoyed really brisk business then but we were not extremely rich or anything, we were able to make an honest income,” he said.

For many years, Swatow Lane was a collection of about 15 stalls selling local hawker fare such as char koay teow, curry mee and rojak.

It was located next to a plot that used to be an open-air entertainment spot called Sin Sei Kai, Hokkien for “the new world”.

Sin Sei Kai was a popular back in the 1930s and up to the 1960s, and was home to live performances including striptease shows by the famous cabaret dancer, Rose Chan.

The current New World Park hawker complex was built in 2007 and the stalls were shifted into the complex.

PPB Group Bhd that owns and manages the site had announced a plan for a mixed-development project for the site in early 2016.

Most of the restaurants on the other section of the complex have closed and moved out since, leaving only a few outlets.

“I don’t know what’s going on, they told me they are not doing any development, but since then, business has been very bad, customers have stopped coming here, maybe because they thought we are closed,” Eng Lai said.

He said it was a difficult decision to close down the stall after so many years.

“Costs are too high, how much longer can we take it? We might as well close the stall and move elsewhere,” he said.

Bernard said they might reconsider continuing on there if the management would release them from the anchor tenancy.

“If we are only in charge of our own stall, we can continue on, but we can’t be bearing the costs of all the stalls,” he said.

He said they have been actively seeking for a place to relocate in the past one year but to no avail.

“I guess after April 30, we will take a short holiday while we continue looking for a new place to open. We hope to look for a place around this vicinity, we don’t want to go too far,” he said.