The (Sri Petaling) Breakfast Club

Sri Petaling. If you spoke of this area in the 1980s, you would most likely get a scrunched-up face or a look of disgust in response. The land was a rubbish dump, resigned to waste away in its mounds of decaying matter. No one went near the place, save for the odd rat. Then, in 1988 when the Commonwealth Games was held in neighbouring Bukit Jalil Stadium, Sri Petaling was given a new lease on life. With a stroke of luck, the area was transformed into a carpark and playground for the games. By the time I turned seven in 1999, Sri Petaling was welcoming new residents — terrace houses were built, condominiums shot up and schools mushroomed all over the now-suburb. It emerged as a new township, Bandar Baru Sri Petaling (Sri Petaling New Town) and it was where I went to school, had weekend breakfasts with family and late night mamak sessions with friends. It was where I grew up. But of all the sappy stories I remember about my childhood in Sri Petaling, it is this one that will be told…

My mother has four children. I was the daughter who tagged along on her routine visits to the morning market. I had always wondered why it was so important for her to go to the market in Sri Petaling. My family lived in another area about 10 kilometres away and we had our own market in Serdang Raya. But this was Mum’s daily routine, even on the weekends. So even though I first went with her because she made me, I also had a burning curiosity to find out what it was about this place that drew her so.

On my first day out with her, I learned the reason. The then-market comprised of pop-ups along a stretch of shophouses and at the start of it was a local kopitiam — that’s where they met every morning. Ladies from all walks of life; there was the young, fair-skinned aunty who was always asking her more experienced friends for cooking advice, the skinny but strong old lady who often proclaimed her love for Guinness stout, and that single, boyish one whose demeanor would easily earn her a spot on the men’s table. They were very different, but also, very similar in the way that they all slurped hot coffee and inhaled bowls of noodle soup vigorously at that hour. I suspect that has rubbed off on me, because I now do the same and it makes me inexplicably happy — perhaps it reminds me of them, and how contented they used to be over the combination.

Every morning at 7.30am sharp, this unlikely group of friends met at a table that always seemed to be magically reserved for them (I later realised that the lady boss at the kopitiam was also a member of their unspoken club). On holiday mornings that I dragged myself out of bed to go to the market with Mum, I became the youngest member among this band of housewives. As I sipped on my Milo and nibbled on a steamed bun, I listened to them chatter away about life — songs about what boiled soup their families were getting that night, how the fishmonger at the end of street was hiking up the prices and their favourite subject, whose kid was better. For just being there, I managed to win my mum that trophy a couple of times. You’re welcome, Ma. The religious affair was short, simple but most of all, it was constant. Some mornings in the car, I’d prod at the possibility that no one would be at the table when we arrive. That never happened. It was certain that come 7.30am, the kopitiam would be bustling at its liveliest hour, our table the centre of attention.

It’s been over 10 years since my family moved a little too far away for daily visits. The market has since been demolished and some of the elderly ladies have passed on, not that these changes would hinder tradition. Mum tells me that the rest of them still convene at the new market, roaring for a good breakfast and buzz to begin their mornings. Every time I see a group of ladies at a coffeeshop, I still think of those aunties who watched me grow up. I think I took away something much more significant than buns at that table. As a child, I could never fully grasp why my mum so faithfully bided by this small but compelling routine. But looking back, I see how special it was — to have something to look forward to every single morning, to sit down with the same people to talk about absolutely anything that came to their mind. That kind of comfort is hard to come by, so if you’re lucky enough to find it, don’t ever let it go.

Sri Petaling is special like that. Like the ladies’ unlikely friendship, this place became an unlikely neighbourhood where people grew to know and care for one another — the kind where you walk down a street and end up saying ‘hello’ more times than you can count. Its hawker centres are not so much places to eat than places to gather and chit-chat over a plate of chee cheong fun for breakfast. Chances are, the aunty selling it would be someone you know. And even as it evolves into this hip, modern town breeding new cafes, restaurants and a massive traffic jam, the essence that first turned this wasteland into a place of life, that feeling of belonging that kept my mum loyal to the market and that irreplaceable familiarity that keeps me coming back to this place, is still here in every nook and corner. Between the friendly couple who sells fresh fish at a restaurant and the mak cik who peddles nasi lemak at a cross-junction, it is still very much here in Sri Petaling.

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