Confessions of a kopi-kia
Mr Koh Jin San was once slapped by a customer whom he'd kept waiting.
He was hit so hard his nose bled.
"I was angry and in pain, but from then on I learnt to be very careful not to offend customers or make them angry," says the 53-year-old kopi kia as he recounts the incident from more than 30 years ago.
"There was not much I could do but to let it go."
Kopi kia is the person who takes orders for drinks and food from customers in a coffee shop before hollering out the orders. He also makes drinks and kaya toast, and boils eggs for the traditional kopitiam breakfast.
Mr Koh, who has a 27-year-old daughter and a 22-year-old son, has been in the trade for 35 years.
Last Saturday, he was named a "Kopi Master" in the Gold Kili Kopi Kia competition. He imparted tips and trained competitors, who were gunning for top spot in the race to make the best coffee and kaya toast.
The veteran, who picked up his skills from his father, wakes up at 4.30am every day to open his stall at Ayer Rajah Food Centre at 5am.
He spends long hours on his feet, barely getting to sit down once the working crowd starts flocking to his stall before 8am, and when lunch hour comes around.
He says that customers start to queue even before he opens the stall. And sometimes he has to eat breakfast in front of the earliest customers who are waiting patiently for him to start the day.
Mr Koh closes shop at 4pm.
While it may look easy to make a cup of coffee and whip up some toast, Mr Koh maintains that it is challenging to do it well.
"It takes skill and experience to know when the water has boiled enough, how much coffee powder to add and the precise timing needed to brew a perfect cup of coffee," he says in Mandarin.
He committed boo-boos when he started out at the age of 18, such as spilling cups of coffee while serving customers.
"When I got frantic on busy days and panicked, I would also spill coffee powder," he recalls with a chuckle.
Such clumsiness earned him scoldings from his father and disgruntled customers.
He has grown in skill and confidence, but still deals with the occasional grimace from customers who reject his coffee due to different preferences.
"In such cases, I have to make another cup for them, and gulp down the cup they rejected," he says with a laugh.
These days, he earns $200-$300 a day from over 100 customers, many of whom are so loyal they have become friends. "Some of them come so often that I know what they want before they even place the order," he says with a touch of pride.
He has seen people from all walks of life - from tattoo-covered gangsters to wealthy businessmen.
Some businessmen leave him their namecards so he can call them if he ever needs help.
As for the gangs, Mr Koh is not worried about them because they just sit in front of the stall to talk, not to fight.
"Still, I am cautious knowing who they are, so I just concentrate on serving them drinks without speaking too much. Let them do what they want."
His greatest sense of satisfaction comes when his loyal customers bring him souvenirs from their overseas holidays.
"During Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year, my customers bring me mooncakes and Chinese snacks," says Mr Koh.
"Being a kopi kia helps me make friends with so many people and I'm thankful for that."
Still, he laments that the trade may pass into the hands of foreigners, as the next generation scorns the long hours, low pay and humid working environment.
"I used to work from early in the morning to 10pm with no holidays. Young people these days do not want such jobs. It is tough and you need quick hands and a great memory," he explains.
Yet, he believes that kopi kias will not become extinct, even in an ever-changing society, due to the appeal of coffee served in the heartland.
"I know there are cafes that sell expensive gourmet coffees. But they don't compete with us because there are always people who want cheap, traditional coffee," he says.
Secrets of the trade
1. Don't be "paiseh". Use pen and paper if you can't remember the orders. This method is better than frustrating the customers by getting their order wrong or asking them to repeat themselves.
2. Your mood matters. I believe that when a person is happy and worry-free, he can make coffee better and faster. Leave the problems at home when you come to work.
3. Train yourself to multi-task. Being a kopi kia involves taking orders, making coffee, serving food and counting money. Usually, all at the same time. It helps to have quick and agile fingers.