Like clockwork, Ek Teng Phu Ki has opened for business every day for more than 101 years.
It has stayed open in times of war. It continued serving customers when the coffee shop, arguably Bangkok’s oldest, moved from Yaowapanich Road to Soi Phat Sai 50 years ago. Unsurprisingly, it stayed open last year, too—not only during the pandemic, but also while the fourth-generation owners spent half the year transforming it into an Instagram hotspot, one that wouldn’t be out of place in nearby Soi Nana.
The formerly no-frills cafe, a magnet for elderly members of the Thai-Chinese community, now boasts walls laid with jade-hued tiles, a showpiece wooden menu board, and antique-style marble-top tables.
On the second floor, the two twentysomething brothers who spearheaded the renovation have built a small cocktail bar that opens from 7pm until midnight.
Ironically, if it weren’t for this sweeping overhaul, Ek Teng Phu Ki might have been forced to close for the first time in its history—and that would have meant closing for good.
Image: Ek Teng Phu Ki 50 years ago / courtesy of Ek Teng Phu Ki
“Some of our elderly regulars had passed away and others couldn’t leave the house because of the pandemic. Our sales had dropped about 80 percent [from previous years],” says Thanachot “Boss” Singkinvit, who helped to manage construction in between classes at Assumption University.
Across Chinatown, many long-standing businesses like Ek Teng Phu Ki, which are often passed down from generation to generation, have begun to die out.
Image: The cafe pre-renovations / courtesy of Ek Teng Phu Ki
Poor enforcement of zoning laws, new train lines, and rising property values have seen large projects, like I’m Chinatown, displace some of the cafes, restaurants, and mom-and-pop shops that provide community space for the district’s aging population.
In a New York Times story last year, Tiamsoon Sirisrisak, a lecturer on culture and heritage at Mahidol University, estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the old buildings in Chinatown have already disappeared.
Boss and his older brother Thanawat, however, hope to prove that rumors of Chinatown’s demise might be greatly exaggerated.
Image: Ek Teng Phu Ki on a quiet mid-afternoon
Since wrapping up renovations in December last year, the revamped Ek Teng Phu Ki has become a social media darling. Cheongsam-wearing customers have flocked to Soi Phat Sai to try the old-style olieng and take photos against the Chinese-inspired décor.
New items, like dim sum made from recipes shared by Boss and Thanawat’s grandmother, gorgeously packaged bottles of cha yen and iced Thai coffee, and on-trend baked goods like croissants and cakes, have given the menu a more modern appeal.
The cafe even offers delivery, selling bottled drinks for B60 apiece.
Image: IG user @kanomwhannaka checks in at Ek Teng Phu Ki for her 125,000 followers
At the same time, the regulars—a mix of Hainanese-Thai and Teochew locals—have lent their tacit, yet enduring, support to the family business.
“They want us to succeed, so they’ll sit outside the shop or on the other side of the street to make space for other customers to come inside,” says Boss. He adds that they also buy house-roasted coffee beans—“We roast them every Sunday”—and tea to make at home.
While younger customers, blessed with an abundance of choice on endless social feeds, may not become so loyal as to visit every day, Boss believes they might give Ek Teng Phu Ki a unique selling point, and their buying habits might give it some staying power.
“Before social media, coffee shops like ours were communal spaces. If you wanted to look for a mechanic or repairmen, you’d come to our place. If you needed a new job, you’d come here. Some people would come as strangers but leave as friends,” he says. “We believe that now it can be a place where different generations, young and old, can come together to share ideas.”
Image: Three generations of management, with 21-year-old Boss in the middle
Even with the different bells and whistles, the family hasn’t forgotten where it has come from.
Thanawat, who created the interior and packaging designs, preserved some of the original pink-and-white tiles. Black-and-white photos of the Hainanese immigrants who founded the cafe in 1919 hang above a machine Boss says will be used to roast specialty coffee. An old cuckoo clock ticks away above the jade-colored tiles, facing framed menus from decades gone by.
And the brothers’ grandmother, now over 80 years old, still gets up before dawn to clock in at 4am, work through lunchtime, and hang out in the back when she’s done, holding court over a space that is so much more than a business built by those in her bloodline.
“Our customers have an emotional attachment to this place, and to my grandmother, too,” Boss explains. “It’s a culture. They’re like family to her—to us—and we’re family to them, too.”
Additional reporting by Veerabhatr Sriyananda