I interviewed Mak Lan of Lidiana’s in Tanjung Bungah for the 8 March International Women’s Day exhibition.
This is the full interview which I wrote up as a feature story, well, for myself. I did journalism in USM but I never worked for any newspapers so in a way, this is my way of keeping my chops lean and working. Enjoy!
“I’ve been in this business for 36 years and I started due to poverty. Due to poverty, I will stand and work like the Chinese. And like the Chinese, I never give up.”
The interview with Kak Lall Bee binti Ibrahim starts this way. And despite my valiant attempts to speak to her in Malay, she smiles and says she can speak English. And so the rest of the interview happens in English, a language that she’s comfortable with.
“You know, there is this young Chinese boy who comes and talks to me every day. He is so amazed that a 60 plus year old Malay woman can speak English so well!” She laughs. Her eyes gleam impishly.
Kak Lall has come a long way from the days of being a divorcee with 3 children – 2 girls and a boy.
“It’s a different kind of feeling when you’re a divorcee. It’s different than being a widow.” Her eyes soften as she says this.
Today, she drives an SUV with the number plate PLA II. She cheekily remarks that the number plate spells “La ll” – her name.
It is far removed from the days she started with a tri-wheel push cart, selling her nasi campur, by candle light from 6am to 6pm everyday to ensure she had money for her siblings and her children.
And she had 16 siblings to feed. These were the two simple reasons that made her start her nasi campur business. And in the early days, it wasn’t the bustling stall with workers busy frying chicken or dishing out piping hot nasi tomato.
It was a simple push cart with some 10 dishes she’d cook with the help of her aunt. She’d set up her stall opposite the old Tanjung Bungah bus stand. She’d also sell by candle light.
“I borrowed RM100 from a chettiar to get my business started. Every month I’d pay him RM20 in interest. Back then, RM100 was a lot of money!” she exclaims. Pointing to the fried and sambal-stuffed, plump ikan terubok (one of her bestseller dishes), she said that when she started her business 36 years ago, ikan terubok was only 10 sen each. Nowadays fresh ikan terubok costs RM60 per kilo.
Kak Lall says she managed to pay back her chettiar loan in 4 months.
In the early 80s, it was rare to eat out. Tanjung Bungah was a quiet stretch, unlike today where it is peppered with hotels, apartments and restaurants. She often struggled to sell her dishes. Things improved considerably when the hotels started opening up, starting with the Rasa Sayang Hotel. Her customers comprised hotel employees as well as the Chinese who lived around the area.
Later she’d move to where the now “tsunami flats” were.
Back then, she’d open her stall from 6am to 6pm, making a meagre RM40 a day. She’d go to the wholesale market at midnight, buying fresh produce like fish and vegetables. She’d come home, sleep a few hours and wake up at 3am to prepare her dishes with her aunt’s help.
When the food court (where she is now based) was built and opened, she decided to rent a proper space at RM100 per month.
At this humble and nondescript Medan Selera, she recounted that her business in the first year was bad as her regular customers couldn’t find her.
Over time, they discovered her stall and business resumed its brisk pace. Until today, the majority of her customers are Chinese who live around the Tanjung Bungah area. Each Raya, she invites all her best Chinese customers to her open house to thank them for their support.
She has so many Chinese customers eating at her stall that many out of town people have asked if the stall was started by a Chinese.
Kak Lall laughs and believes that her dishes are of quality and with plenty of good variety. That’s the reason why her customers return again and again. Although she isn’t hands-on in the kitchen now (her daughter Nordiana has taken over from her mom), she still visits the stall every day to check on the quality of the food.
“My specialities are my kerabu, black chicken and fried terubok. You know, a few months ago, a TV crew from the UK came to film me making kerabu mempelam. Their chef wanted to learn how it’s done.” Kak Lall points at the black chicken, a dish of sticky, sweet and savoury chicken slow cooked for 5 hours. If the food is not cooked well, she sends the food back to the kitchen.
“I don’t know what to do if I retire! I am so used to being here, at my stall. If I don’t work, it’s hard to pass time!”
Lidiana has about 30 dishes and more laid out in typical nasi campur style. A good many were stir-fried vegetables and ulam (fresh basil, fresh mint, cucumbers). Her nasi campur stall now opens from 7am right till 9pm daily (except Sunday). Her employees start to prepare and cook at 4.30am in order to open for the breakfast crowd at 7am.
What is striking is that the dishes are cooked in small batches, ensuring as Kak Lall says, quality and freshness. As we talk, her employee (and this is quite interesting – her employees are all women) scoops up a batch of fried chicken from a hot kuali. Dishes are replenished quickly. Kak Lall tells me there is a particular Australian gentleman who buys and eats 8 pieces of this fried chicken from her stall daily!
Lidiana, the name of her business, comes from the names of her 2 daughters, Nordiana and Lidia. At the moment, the business is run by her daughter and her son-in-law. Her grandson, she says, is interested in the business. A lanky teen, he was seen discussing what to buy and how much with his grandmother, as a catering order from a Chinese customer comes in.
“Prawns are expensive these days but my Chinese customers still want to order prawns.” When I told her that Chinese love prawns for their symbolism, she nods.
Despite the rise in fresh ingredients, Lidiana’s has never raised its prices.
“You know how expensive red chillis are these days? But we still make our sambal belacan every day. We may not make as much money but it’s OK, give and take some. It’s nonsense when people say you can’t make money in the food business.”
Many of her KL and Johor customers have no problem hopping on a flight to Penang just to eat at Lidiana. As her food prices are reasonable, many of them would even tip her employees saying that they would never be able to get such good food at such prices in their own cities. Lidiana is packed during school holidays with customers lining up beyond the gate of the food court. On Fridays, Lidiana serves a special dish – nasi tomato and dalca.
I also note that she’s an astute business woman. As the food court gets unbearably warm during noon, Kak Lall invests in cooler fans and places these strategically at her stall so that her customers can eat comfortably.
She reveals that her mother was a good cook and her sisters also have their own food business in Tanjung Tokong and in town.
Lidiana also does catering and special side orders if advance time is given. Some dishes are not on the menu but can be ordered by special request such as crabs.
“I am thankful to God for good health, strength and determination,” Kak Lall says. She also says that the food business is a good business to run because of the cashflow.
She claims she had little education but upon probing, I found out that she had studied in Convent Pulau Tikus up to Form Three. Her eyes grow a bit misty as she talks about how race relations have gone badly. An elderly Chinese lady, clearly a customer, comes by and pats her back. Kak Lall seems fond of all her regulars, whispering to me that the lady was a widow of a rich towkay. She comes by regularly to eat at Lidiana.
“You should see my business on the first day of Chinese New Year,” Kak Lall says. All the Chinese patrons who grew up with her food would come with their families.
“Many people tell me, it’s hard and tiring running a food business. I say, how can you be tired? I was a one woman show when I started. I did the marketing and cooking and setting up stall. I had to drive to the wholesale market at midnight, and start cooking at 3am. It was like this, day in day out.”
“A woman can succeed because she has responsibilities. I’ve seen men who run food businesses. Once they get a bit of money, they tend to spend it all either on gambling or other activities. Over time they’ll spend all their money and then stop running the business.”
“In life, one must struggle against all odds, yet you have to be honest and live up to your own expectations.”
I ask her about travel. This feisty lady has travelled for her umrah, and happily recounted that she’s visited Israel, Turkey, Jordan and China. She thinks she wants to visit India and Syria. A moment later, she shakes her head, “Syria is too dangerous now to visit. Maybe India is better!”
As the fourth child in the family, she was considered one of the elder siblings. When her sisters were about to marry, she’d always help out with the marriage expenses, noting sensibly that a woman should never start her married life with debts!
In retrospect, Kak Lall’s determination seems to stem from her divorce.
At the end of our interview, she pauses a while, collecting her thoughts. Finally she says, “I want to advise divorced women that a divorce is not the end of the world. It is not the end of the world when your husband leaves you.”
Lidiana is at No. 5, Arked Tanjung Bunga, 11200 Tanjung Bunga, Penang. They open everyday, Monday to Saturday, 7am till 9pm (closed on Sunday). They do catering for private events too (please call Mak Lan’s daughter, Nordiana at 016 415 8686 for enquiries).