Story of A Tenacious Popiah Seller @ Canning Garden, IpohMay 29, 2011 | 8,469 views
It pains me to put today’s post into words. To recount the sheer determination, passion and tenacity that drove and still drives this 74 years-old uncle for more than half a century. To witness with a heavy heart how his hands shook while daintily spreading the mélange of julienned ingredients and sauces on the precariously laid out, freshly steamed popiah* skin on the RM200 slab of wooden board.
(*Popiah is a popular Chinese snack of fresh spring rolls with julienned vegetables and fritters, sometimes with strands of egg omelette and/or crabmeat/dried shrimps, then lightly brushed with chili sauce and sweet sauce)
No words can actually describe this utter admiration that develops into pure respect for what he does best for 54 years (since 1957; coincidentally that was the year we were declared independent from external colonization), and still counting. The laborious hours he spent standing under the scorching hot sun, merely shaded by the canopy that covers barely more than his bike that he has been relying upon for more than a decade now.
Yes, dear Ipoh folks, and the interested readers from wherever you are. Let me share this story on what could possibly be the most legendary popiah seller in all of Ipoh …
He started way back in 1957. He has moved from place to place since then, and now he’s permanently parked at a back lane in Canning Garden of Ipoh. The locals fondly recognize him as the uncle who sells popiah from a mobile stall. Nobody even cares (or dares?) to call him by name. From what I gathered, his surname is Leow. It’s no rocket science really, since the name’s printed on his bike.
Another patient customer related his story to us. He has been eating his popiah since he was 19 years old. And now he has to be in his 40’s. To him, no other popiah comes close. Never mind the uncle’s temperamental nature, which has toned down considerably, according to this man.
We were the first to arrive. Uncle decided to open later than usual on this hot Saturday afternoon; about 3.30pm. Usually, he would be up and running by 2.30pm or so. Nobody dares to query him why, or throw tantrums. We patiently watched him setting up his stall. It took him a good 20 minutes or so, and he made sure everything was in place before he started asking for orders.
If you’re in a rush, or embedded with an impatient gene, then by all means … walk away. No queue numbers, no rushing, no complaining and no temper, please.
If there’s a person who can rightly throw one, it’s the Uncle. After all, he’s not known for being courteous, patient, warm nor chatty. So don’t push your luck. Be an obedient observer, and wait until he asks for your order.
At any one time, he can only prepare 12 rolls of popiah, at most. He grumbled about how he had to change his wooden board, which cost him about RM200. That’s 100 pieces of popiah at retail price, in case you’re wondering.
And watching him in action, it’s almost poetry in motion. Slowly he will lay the pieces of soft, steamed popiah skin on the board. Then slowly he reaches out to the classic melamine mugs of sauces; a sweet, bean sauce aka ‘tim cheong’ and the other chili sauce that packed a rapturous, acerbic punch. Then grabbing a few pieces of fresh lettuce, he tears them by hand and scatters them, but not before scooping generous portions of julienned yambean in a boiling pot of suspiciously lardy broth onto the popiah skin.
The uniformed thin strands of egg omelette and cucumber were proof of how he never neglects the smaller details. And the mash of crab meat on a plate elevated by a single block of ice (to preserve the cool temperature) lifted his popiah to a premium status indefinitely. At RM2.50 per piece, or RM2.00 each for two pieces and above, you can’t help but wonder why he charges slightly more than the others (about RM1.70-RM1.80 per piece, in case you’re wondering).
But for the whole of 30 minutes or so we were standing there, the feeling sank in. The lines on this man’s face, the bulging veins on his weary legs, and the introvert aura portrayed in a nonchalant manner can only mean one thing. He has been through so much. More than 50 years in business, and he still rides on his bike, operates on his own at a back alley, and his eyesight has deteriorated to an extent that his vision is affected.
He himself admitted to this, as there was a lady with us who asked him; “Do you still recognize me, uncle? You used to drive around my neighbourhood back then and sold your popiah from your bike.”
To which he retaliated in his signature sarcasm mode; “I can’t even see the road in front of me properly, how am I supposed to recognize your face?”
Though I don’t hide the fact that I actually prefer Kong Heng’s popiah to his, but if I have to choose for ONE single popiah stall worthy of an accolade, this Uncle wins hands down. Not for the taste, nor the hygiene factor, and definitely NOT for his hospitality.
But more for the legacy and his incomparable story than anything else …
“So, has he touched your life, yet?”
Canning Garden Popiah Stall
Back alley between Jalan Perlis and Jalan RCM Rayan, off Jalan Keliling,
Canning Garden, 31400 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia.
Opens only on Saturday and Sunday, from about 2 to 3pm onwards, until 8pm.
Google Map to this Popiah stall
GPS Coordinates : 4.608652,101.115986
*His son also operates from a stall that opens at night in Nam Kew Restaurant in town, on Jalan Raja Musa Aziz (Anderson Road).