Tough times no match for KL’s candy uncle

An array of sweets and snacks laid out in rows to tempt passers-by.

KUALA LUMPUR: Seventy-four-year-old Boo Long Tee lowers his newspaper slightly and peers over his spectacles at the people walking into his store.

Decades ago, he would not have had time to read a newspaper, with all the customers coming in and out to get their “fix”, from cream crackers made in Ipoh to Trebor sweets imported all the way from the UK.

But with the emergence of hypermarkets and the mushrooming of 24-hour convenience stores in the city, he now has a bit more time on his hands.

Boo is the owner of Chiap Tong, one of Kuala Lumpur’s oldest biscuit and candy stores, founded in 1942.

Biscuit tins line the shelves at Chiap Tong.

“Now, business is so-so, which is fine by me. If it was too good, then it would be difficult for me,” says Boo who runs the store on Jalan Tun HS Lee entirely by himself.

Nowadays, he tells FMT, he has less than 50 customers a day, many of them regulars who buy biscuits for their office pantry.

Ice gem biscuits, whose popularity has stood the test of time.

This is a far cry from the over 100 he served in the 1960s when he started working at the shop.

“My cousin Boo Hong Miu opened Chiap Tong in 1942 in Lorong Pudu. He was a pioneer in this business.

“Chiap Tong means ‘come together’. To me, it’s the coming together of the different types of biscuits and candies in one place and the different people who come here, every race and every age.”

Boo Long Tee owns Chiap Tong, one of Kuala Lumpur’s oldest biscuit and candy stores.

Boo left his hometown of Muar, Johor, at the age of 18 to work for his cousin in 1967.

Then, he says, there were fewer choices and customers bought the biscuits by weight, either half a kati or one kati’s worth.

“We had lemon cream biscuits and cream crackers. The more popular ones were the Marie biscuits and Biskut Tawar,” he says, adding that these old-time delights are still popular.

Chiap Tong is situated in a row of old shop lots at Jalan Tun HS Lee.

Also popular are White Rabbit sweets, kuih bangkit and ice gem biscuits, which are small, round biscuits topped with colourful icing.

“Back then, the biscuits were cheap – you could buy an entire tin for RM3.”

These biscuits would be brought in from Melaka, Perak and even as far as Penang and Singapore.

Lemon cream biscuits, still a hit with customers.

Now his small shop sells biscuits and candies from Malaysia, Thailand, and China. These are sold in packs or by weight, though in grams rather than in katis.

Boo, who took over the business after Hong Miu passed away in the 1970s, says business is busiest around Chinese New Year, although it was better before supermarkets and hypermarkets came about.

“Those days, we would open until midnight because people would come in and out to buy goodies for the festivities.”

Boo Long Tee’s trusty weighing scale.

He says the shop moved several times around the city because of rising rentals before ending up in its current location in the 1980s. But while business has dwindled, Boo has no plans to retire.

“Humans are like cars – if you do not use them, after a while they won’t be able to start. As long as we can work, we cannot retire. Even millionaires need to work.”

Chiap Tong still uses its old signboard with Chinese characters.

Despite his slight frame, Boo says he has no problem doing all the heavy lifting in the shop by himself and his daily schedule is a testament to his good health.

Every day, he wakes at 5am and takes a KTM or MRT to the nearest stop and walks to the shop to open it at 7.30am. He usually calls it a day at 3pm.

“I only close whenever I want to go on holiday with my family,” he says, adding that his wife and three kids do not mind that he continues to work although there is no need to.

“They all know I want to work. I will only stop when my body can no longer function,” he says with a smile.

When that day comes, Boo says he will see if any relatives want to take over Chiap Tong as he did from his cousin. Otherwise, he will close the business for good.

“My children don’t want to take over. They studied overseas and can earn a lot more. So I’ll see what happens then.”