Traditional Chinese sundry shop goes online to appeal to younger tastes

Bryan Lim, son of Chai Huat Hin founder, Lim Book Chuan, at his shop on Jalan Tun HS Lee in Kuala Lumpur.

KUALA LUMPUR: In the run up to Chinese New Year, sundry shop Chai Huat Hin would usually be abuzz with customers buying the ingredients for huge celebratory meals.

Not this year, said owner Bryan Lim, 43. He is very aware of a recent decline in business.

“It’s mainly because of price hikes,” Lim told FMT. “Everything has gone up over the last three years.”

“We try to keep prices affordable, but imported items are more expensive now because the ringgit is very low.

“Regular customers still buy what they need but in smaller quantities.”

When his father opened the shop on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee in 1972, it was one of the few places supplying the raw ingredients needed for traditional Chinese cooking.

Chai Huat Hin customers select the best ingredients for their meal preparations.

Ingredients in demand included sea cucumber, dried scallop, abalone, fish maw and waxed meat.”

“Today young people don’t cook much. They prefer to eat out at restaurants which serve these delicacies,” said Lim. “They also choose healthier food, going for beans and raw nuts instead of preserved ingredients.

“Most don’t know how to cook traditional dishes, even if they enjoyed them with their grandparents.

“We were looking for a new approach to grow the business, so we thought why not teach youngsters traditional cooking online?”

They started a Facebook page. Recipes highlighted there now include lap mei fan, braised sea cucumber and abalone, fish maw, conch and scallop soup, and eight treasure chicken.

Also featured are herbal drink recipes such as double-boiled pears with chuan bei and ginger tea with red dates and dried longan.

“We hope when they see a recipe they like they’ll come to the shop for the ingredients,” said Lim. “So far it has been encouraging. We offer same day delivery all over the Klang Valley, which helps with busy people.”

Preserved or waxed Chinese sausages, used for Lap Mei Fan (preserved meat rice), among ingredients available at Chai Huat Hin.

A loyal customer, Pang Chin Sian, 65, said, “It’s better here than shopping at the supermarket. The assistants will help you pick out the best ingredients. And you can haggle for a better price.

“You get to exchange New Year greetings with other customers. Chinese New Year is all about the warmth of the family. You can feel it here,” she said.

Another long-time customer, Teng Chee Huat, 50, said Chai Huat Hin has never failed him. Everything you need to cook, whether a simple or lavish meal, they have it here.

“Nothing can beat the Chinese New Year spirit of spending time with your family and cooking up a feast for reunion dinner, and that starts with shopping at a no-frills shop like this.

“The warm smile that greets you at the door is what makes me want to come back each year. The staff at Chai Huat Hin are long-serving, so they know their stock well, down to the quality of dry scallop to recommend to you,” said Teng, wishing everyone happy new year on his way out, loaded with purchases.

Lim wishes he had a lot more customers like Teng and Pang.

He has two current goals. The first is to revive his shop’s fortunes, and the second is to keep Chinese cooking traditions alive.

If he is lucky he may have found an answer that goes some way to achieving both goals at the same time.

He is hoping that his online efforts to get younger people cooking with traditional Chinese ingredients will prove to be his recipe for success.