CAMERON HIGHLANDS: In a small, unassuming cafe at a food court in Tanah Rata, an elderly couple quietly goes about their business of feeding customers from their cramped kitchen.
The time is 4.15pm, which means the couple have already been operating their food stall, the Yong Teng Cafe at the Majlis Daerah Stalls, for nine hours. There’s 45 more minutes to go before they can begin thinking about going home.
We take our seats at one of the tables, and quickly enough the woman only known as Madam Teng grabs several menus and brings them over to us.
Not a word is spoken. Instead, she gives us the menus, places sheets of blank paper on the table and hands us a pen.
Madam Teng is deaf and mute. So is her husband, See Poh, who runs the stall with her.
Both in their 70s now, they have served up famously tasty meals here for the last 20 years.
Their recommended food choice? Pancakes, with various fruit toppings: strawberries, peaches, bananas and apples. Or have it plain, if you want.
And the “national meal” – nasi lemak with curry chicken and eggs is supposed to be good. We might like that.
We study the menus and peer at the photos on the wall. Finally, we write down our choices.
She reads our order, and gives us a thumbs up and a grin. It seems she approves of our selections.
We chat with her through hand gestures, and pen and paper. There’s some difficulty, but the absence of spoken words is a hurdle, not a barrier.
We learn that the secret to their delicious pancakes will remain just that – a secret. “We do not want to share our recipe with anyone,” she writes.
Pancakes are not the only choice. There are toasts, and a host of other local fares like fried koay teow, chee cheong fun, lontong and fried rice.
For those in the mood for western food, they have burgers, and a choice of American breakfasts, served with baked beans and omnipresent chicken sausages.
Trip Advisor reviews rate the café highly, especially the friendly and prompt service. But while we are there, some customers are evidently not happy about having to wait and leave in a huff, after shouting their dissatisfaction.
The couple has obviously seen it all before and just continue doing what they do: taking written orders and dishing up good food as fast as they can. We shouldn’t forget they are in their seventies and it’s been a long day.
They open at 7am, but there’s always a lot to do before that.
While the rest of Cameron Highlands is fast asleep they’re up and about well before dawn preparing ingredients for the day.
They close up at 5pm after a mere ten hours of constant cooking and serving, but of course that’s not the end of their working day. There’s cleaning to be done.
It would be tough enough to stay cheerful working such a schedule without the extra burden of being unable to communicate through speech either with customers or each other.
Madam Teng tells us that the couple were both born deaf and mute. They met at school, in Penang, became childhood sweethearts and the rest is history.
They raised a family but their children have gone off to seek their fortunes. Their son now lives in Kuala Lumpur, and their daughter in New Zealand.
They have visited their daughter several times. They even went skiing once.
“New Zealand is good to go for a holiday. But not to live. We prefer to stay in Cameron Highlands.
“I was sad when our children had to leave us. But they need to earn a living and that means going away.”
The couple will be taking a break from the café for Chinese New Year, when they will once again reunite with their children.
Asked what challenges they face in keeping the cafe running, See Poh noted that customer numbers have dropped since the recent introduction of the smoking ban.
They have also been trying to obtain halal certification for the cafe, so far without success.
They don’t intend to run the Yong Teng Café for much longer. Maybe two more years dishing up homemade pancakes and chicken sausage breakfasts.
“We’ll retire in 2022 at the latest,” See Poh says. “We’re tired.”
It occurs to us that “exhausted” would probably better describe anyone working such a punishing schedule at their age or indeed any age.
As we take our leave, Madam Teng signals ‘I love you’, and gestures for us to do the same in return.
She then signs, “Thanks. See you again.”
It’s a touching end to a good meal.
So if they do finally call it a day, and if anyone fancies working at least 16-hour-days dishing up nasi lemak and burgers for sometimes loudly impatient customers, the Yong Teng Café could be available soon.