Sin Hiap Hin Bar, Java Lane, Melaka

A rare example of living heritage can be found at Sin Hiap Hin, a drinking hole at No.5 Jalan Jawa (Java Lane) in the Kampung Jawa area of Melaka.

Doris the landlady.

I went there recently (Feb 2019) and had a couple of drinks served by the friendly and chatty landlady, Doris Lee, who told me a bit about its history.

Sin Hiap Hin – ‘100 years of the best tasting medicine in Malaysia’ according to a recent Australian customer.

This bar has been around for a century and is a hangover (excuse the pun!) from the days when this was a seedy part of town with opium dens, gambling joints and brothels. Indeed, Doris told me that this place used to be an opium den before it became a bar, pointing up the stairs where the opium smokers would puff their way to oblivion.

The area is much quieter now and the bar’s neighbours include an old fashioned barber shop, where you can have a cut-throat shave and your ear wax removed, and a pet shop selling songbirds in elaborate bamboo cages.

The antique license notice is hard to make out but probably says ‘ Licensed to sell intoxicating liquor for consumption on the premises’.

This a bar for hardened drinkers. For a start it opens at 9 o’clock in the morning and is often closed by 6pm. The interior is rather Spartan. This is not the place to catch a Premier League match while munching grilled buffalo wings and surfing the web. All there are here are half a dozen wooden stools, an ashtray (remember those?) and a vintage wooden bar which has been polished by countless elbows and beer slops. The shelves you see in the photo are the originals from when the bar opened and contain Chinese herbal liquor, rice wine, Indian whisky, cheap hard spirits and beers.

No Wave & PIN Here – Cash Only Please

The bar used to be popular with boatmen working on the Melaka river which is just a stone’s throw away. During colonial times it had many British officials among its clientele. It’s the sort of place that you could imagine Nabby Adams, the boozy policeman in Anthony Burgess’ novel Time for a Tiger, would like to frequent for an early morning beer to quench his insatiable thirst.

Japanese soldiers frequented this bar too during their brief but brutal occupation of Melaka in the 1940s. Swigging rice wine in Sin Hiap Hin’s somewhat dingy atmosphere no doubt brought home nostalgic memories of those tiny bars in cities like Tokyo or Osaka

Since there are no boatmen anymore and the Brits and Japs have long gone, patrons are more likely to be those down on their luck or low income workers tanking up on strong drinks for just a few Ringgit per shot.

Business from local workers is not what it used to be but thanks to blogs like mine, a steady stream of tourists, both local and foreigners, have discovered this place and drop in to soak up the atmosphere of days gone by. A wall calendar serving as a visitors’ book records comments left by tourists from Australia, UK, France, Germany, Poland, Canada and Malaysia, all praising the atmosphere, the local rice wine and the ‘cute aunty’ (Doris).

Pandan-Flavoured Malacca Rice Wine

At Doris’s suggestion I tried a glass of Pandan flavoured Malacca rice wine which she sells for RM 7 per half-peg. It has been made by a local firm in Melaka since 1908 which must make it one of the longest established booze manufacturers in Malaysia, much older than Tiger or Anchor beer for example. The taste is powerful, like Korean soju, with a smoky pandan aroma. The alcohol content is 27%. Doris said you’ll only find this drink at her bar. Other flavours include lychee. You can buy a bottle for only RM 15 which is a nice souvenir to take home.

I’m sure Doris and her husband, who is the great grandson of the founder, would welcome your business if you are in the area.

Time for a Tiger in Kuala Kangsar

One of Kuala Kangsar’s more famous former residents was the novelist Anthony Burgess (1917-1993), who was employed as an English teacher at the prestigious Malay College from 1954 to 1956.  His first published novel, Time for a Tiger (1956), drew on his experiences at Kuala Kangsar, which in the book goes under the fictitious name of Kuala Hantu.

Since I was visiting Kuala Kangsar I thought it would be fun to try to find some of the places which would have been familiar to Burgess and the characters in his novel. 

The Long Day Wanes by Anthony Burgess
My battered copy of Burgess’ Malayan Trilogy of which ‘Time for a Tiger’ is the first novel. The sequels ‘The Enemy in the Blanket’ and ‘Beds in the East’ are set in Kota Bharu, Kelantan where Burgess worked after Kuala Kangsar.

One of the main characters in Time for a Tiger is Victor Crabbe, who shared many of Burgess’ own characteristics and, like Burgess, was in the Colonial Education Service and a resident master at Malay College (or Mansor School as it is called in the novel).

Malay College Kuala Kangsar
Malay College (Mansor School) was known as the Eton of the East and reserved for Malayan boys of ‘good family’. Crabbe (and Burgess in real life) could not get on with his boss, the headmaster, and requested a transfer.

Burgess and his wife were accommodated in a second floor flat at King’s Pavilion which was once the grand residence of Sir Hugh Low, the British Adviser to the State of Perak, but by 1954 served as the prep school to Malay College. During the War, the Japanese had used the building as a torture and interrogation centre and Burgess’ bathroom was still stained with dried blood which was impossible to remove. Burgess houseboy and others claimed the house was haunted. The grounds were infested with snakes while scorpions used to get into the shoes and beds of the students under Burgess’ care.

King's Pavilion, Kuala Kangsar
Burgess (and Crabbe) lived in a second floor flat in this building which today is a girls’ school. The flat was located on a low hill overlooking the Perak River about twenty minutes’ sweaty walk away from Malay College. Burgess had to walk because he could not drive (and Crabbe would not drive after a nasty accident in which his first wife died).

Burgess was not the most faithful of husbands. He had an affair while at KualaKangsar with a pretty Malay divorcée called Rahimah who worked as a waitress in a Chinese coffee shop. In the novel, Crabbe too had a mistress, a dance hostess with the same name. Kuala Kangsar today does not seem the sort of town to have hostess bars but I could be wrong.

My favourite character in the book is Nabby Adams, a six-foot eight policeman from Northamptonshire who was in charge of the police transport pool, though he was seldom sober enough to drive. He was an alcoholic who liked to start off the day with three large bottles of Tiger (or Anchor, or Carlsberg) though he was known to polish off a full bottle of gin before breakfast (not that he ever ate breakfast). Nabby’s unquenchable thirst caused him to rack up unmanageable debts at all the dingy Chinese-owned drinking kedai-kedai that he liked to frequent.

Postcard of a 'Kuala Kangsar' coffee shop but is actually in Taiping.
I spent some time in Kuala Kangsar trying to find this kedai, thinking it the sort of place that Nabby Adams might have liked.

Peace Hotel in Taiping
I eventually located it, not in Kuala Kangsar at all but in Taiping (40 km away) which would have been too far for Nabby to go to just for a drink since it was the time of the Emergency and this would have been a dangerous journey.

Kedai Kopi in Kuala Kangsar
Most of the coffee shops in Kuala Kangsar these days are of the sort which do not serve alcohol. Nabby Adams would have died of thirst!

Yat Lai restaurant in Kuala Kangsar
This place certainly looks old enough to have been around in Burgess’ time. Perhaps they still serve beers, if they ever open, to go with the ‘Western Food’.

One place that still exists that Burgess and Nabby Adams would certainly recognise is the Idris Club (in the book it is thinly disguised as Iblis Club). This was the social hub for the Europeans living in Kuala Kangsar and still today has the elite of the area among its members, though now virtually all Malaysians of course.

Idris Club, Kuala Kangsar
The Idris Club in Kuala Kangsar is named after Sultan Idris I. In Time for a Tiger it went under the pseudonym of Iblis Club.

For Nabby Adams  this was the drinking hole of last resort because had to keep his bar tab within reason and also he would not like to get drunk in front of his fellow Brits in case word got back to his bosses. But still, if somebody else was paying, Nabby would have a Tiger or six here.

Idris Club interior
The somewhat drab interior of the Idris Club has probably not changed much since the 1950s. There’s still a bar which was unfortunately padlocked when I visited but then it was nine o’clock in the morning!

While doing my research for this article I found that a gentleman called Geoffrey Grigson has travelled extensively in Burgess’ footsteps and has produced a series of entertaining You Tube videos called In Search of Anthony Burgess. If you are a Burgess fan I recommend you take a look.