PSSSSSHT! The tab is pulled. Sssssssssssssstt! The little bubbles and fizz that swirls around in my glass is a sight to behold. Vignettes of classic Coca-Cola moments have formed part of the Malaysian consciousness for the past 85 years: bubbles fizzing on the surface of a cold glass, pulling the tab off a sealed can, the crisp pop of a Coke bottle cap.
Then, of course, it's the drink itself. An elixir on a blistering hot tropical day, there's nothing like a glass of ice-cold Coke to assuage the most raging thirst. It's satisfactory, it's addictive, it's Coke.
Entering Malaya in 1936, Coca-Cola has assimilated into our society with its strong brand image and distinctive taste. Almost every makan place has the familiar logo hung on their walls and emblazoned on their fridges.
Let's face it, the logo is everywhere! "Bang, Coke satu!" I'd call out at the mamak stall. Lo and behold, a glass filled to the brim with ice with a chilled can of Coke on the side would land on my table in no time at all.
Something even more exciting also landed on my table not too long ago.
"Would you like to interview one of our biggest Coca-Cola memorabilia collectors?" I was asked by Adlina Azharuddin, the public relations and communications manager of Coca-Cola Far East Limited. My eyes widened when I discovered that it was none other than the Regent of Perlis, HRH Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra Jamalullail.
I must've gulped a little. What do I know of palace protocols? What do I wear? What do I say? "Yes!" I replied quickly despite nervous thoughts racing through my head. What else can a loyal Coke drinker say except "yes" anyway?
My own childhood memories are littered with Coca-Cola's famous fluted bottles. The old Chinese towkay served us our bottles of coke along with our wantan mee noodles; the Cathay cinema where we watched our movies gave us sepia-tinged memories of eating popcorn while cradling our Coca-Cola bottles with icy fingers as we watched King Kong and Jaws in brilliant technicolour; the tuckshop across the school where we carefully counted our loose change and bought our Coca-Cola drinks along with packets of assam boi; drinking my lukewarm Coca-Cola served in my favourite mug when I was sick with the flu (that was my reward for downing the awful, bitter-tasting cough syrup without complaint). After all, a glass of (even lukewarm) Coke is immediate gratification.
Around the globe, Coca-Cola is consumed more than 60 million times a day. On the desks of some of the executives at the company's offices in Atlanta, Georgia, where Coke originated, are three-minute glasses imprinted with the reminder that every time the sand runs through, another 120,000 drinks of the beverage have been polished off — perhaps by, among others, an Okinawan geisha, a Siamese prince, and a pygmy girl in Africa.
Coca-Cola has been gulped by Florence Chadwick while swimming the Strait of Gibraltar, and by Sir Edmund Hillary while he was mushing towards the South Pole. In the Oval Office, former US president Donald Trump reportedly consumed a dozen Diet Cokes a day, using a red button on the Resolute desk to request the sodas.
It was late pop icon artist Andy Warhol, who summed it best in his 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. "What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest," wrote Warhol.
"You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."
My own personal love story with Coke that began in my childhood still holds strong till today. At this point of writing, there's a tall glass of fizzy Coke next to my laptop. For inspiration, I tell myself blithely.
It's easy to love Coke, really. For one, its ubiquitous presence all around the globe makes it a great way to connect with that sentimental feeling of being "home" no matter where you are. For another, the taste has remained the same for 135 years, evoking the same kind of memories of drinking from the original fluted glass bottles of the past.
While drinking Coke can almost be akin to a religious experience for someone like me, there's a whole segment of people who'd sooner collect the bottles, caps and other Coke collectibles, besides simply drinking it. Enter the Coke collectors who are just as captivated with the brand as loyal Coke drinkers.
Even in the early years of the 20th century, there were tangible objects attached to the Coca-Cola logo that people started collecting very early on. The check-out line at World of Coca-Cola (a museum located in Atlanta, Georgia, showcasing the history of the Coca-Cola Company) today is still brimming with people. You could furnish a house with Coca-Cola logoed items!
It's unsurprising that there's a vibrant community of Coke collectors across the globe. After all, Coke spends about USD$3 billion a year just on advertising alone in 208 countries!
A significant part of Coca-Cola's marketing success is its emphasis on brand over product. Coke doesn't simply sell a drink in a bottle, it sells "happiness" in a bottle. And who wouldn't want to own that little bit of "happiness"?
And right now, I'm travelling to the nation's northernmost state to have an audience with a royal collector who has his very own indelible happy memories tied up to his extensive collection. Another kindred spirit, I think to myself while trying to quell my nervousness. He may be royal, but at least we share a passion in Coca-Cola!
I've never been to Perlis before. It doesn't tend to register on most travellers' radars except as a transit point to Thailand or Langkawi (via Kuala Perlis). It's their loss really. This idyllic, friendly corner of the country is an integral part of the Malay heartland and well worth a visit.
Time moves differently in this part of the country; acres of green padi fields, beautiful colourful fishing villages and sleepy towns that slumber contentedly when the sunsets dot the landscape.
It's also the place where the best mangoes in the world are produced — Perlis Harumanis mangoes with its slightly creamy and milky taste, as well a very strong and distinct aroma. The name describes it best after all. Harum means fragrant in Malay while manis means sweet.
But the best part of Perlis is the gracious hospitality and the "real village feel", where locals are genuinely interested in visitors with offers of great Malay food paired perfectly with slices of the famed Perlis Harumanis mangoes. With the affable Regent of Perlis hosting our dinner, there's no dearth of both offerings on our table.
Earlier in the morning, we were given a tour of Tuanku's personal collection displayed at the chancellor's office of Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP) main campus located at Pauh Putra.
Glass-encased shelves showcased scores of cans and bottles collected over the years from the many countries the crown prince had visited. The genial Tuanku arrived shortly afterwards to greet a group of starry-eyed Coca-Cola fans (including myself). The collection is impressive, to say the least.
Coca-Cola caps, handbags, posters, artworks, old advertisement with the 1902 slogan: "Delicious and Refreshing", old bottles and specially commissioned ones were arranged artfully by Tuanku himself.
The kindly 53-year-old graciously walked us through his collection, pausing briefly to recall a particular anecdote about how he brings in collection back home without accident.
"I pack them carefully in my shoes!" he confided, smiling broadly. The extensive collection, he added, represents just a small percentage of what he's actually collected over the years. The rest is kept at Istana Arau where he resides.
There's so much history connected to each item on display, and Coca-Cola thrives on creating a nostalgic tie-in to some of the most iconic moments in history. It's easy to immerse yourself in the rich heritage of Coca-Cola as you're surrounded by artifacts from yesterday and today that represent years of Coca-Cola memories.
Later that afternoon, Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra was keen to create more memories with his new visitors. The altruistic prince regularly takes his trusty bicycle through villages across the state to meet B40 families along the way to personally hand them zakat (tithe) aid from the state's Majlis Agama Islam dan Adat Istiadat Melayu Perlis (MAIPs), under the banner "MAIPs Cares", founded by Tuanku himself.
A whopping 644 "MAIPs Cares" cycling excursions led by the prince were organised between 2013 and 2020. This year alone, Tuanku has embarked on at least 31 of such trips through villages, dispensing zakat to the underprivileged prior to the nationwide lockdown.
On this occasion, the well-loved prince brought along his guests to join him on his charitable programme. It's a meaningful end to the morning's tour, with Coca-Cola participating in a philanthropic initiative led by one of their most prolific collectors.
Later at night, as we're seated in one of Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra's favourite restaurants, a huge array of mouthwatering dishes is served up. It's been a great day, the beaming Crown Prince tells us. The avid cyclist is especially pleased after the afternoon's excursion, and he's more than willing to stay back after dinner for a casual conversation.
We all have them: cultural figures whom, beyond any single thing they've done, we're just kind of glad to have around, and whose sensibility seems to jibe in some fundamental way with our own.
Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra may be as royal as they come, but you tend to forget his heritage as you sit with him for a conversation over plates of Perlis' famous mangoes. You also tend to forget about palace protocols when you gaze at his ever-smiling face and twinkling eyes.
He's certainly not short of jokes. "When did you start collecting Coca-Cola memorabilia?" I ask tentatively. "Around 1986 or 1987. Not my age lah. The year!" he quips, eliciting laughs all around. "… And that was also about 40 kilograms ago!" he adds with a grin.
He's referring to the Coca-Cola Commemorative Bottle for Australia's defense of the 1987 America's Cup. "I saw how the price of a bottle shot up from just 90 cents to 25 dollars, and I thought it made great business sense to venture into collecting!" he exclaims, adding: "I bought it, of course, but it never became a 'business' for me."
Collecting Coca-Cola trinkets was a way of documenting his memories from his travels. "I studied in Australia and during my summer holidays, my parents would take me for holidays in Europe," he recalls.
Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra was sent to Carey Grammar School in Melbourne, Australia, where he did his Form Five and then matriculation studies until 1985. He read Economics at La Trobe University, Bundoora, Melbourne, graduating with a Bachelor of Economics (B.Ec) degree in 1989.
"Back in those days, souvenirs were expensive," he shares candidly. "I mean, one little Eiffel Tower as big as this..." he motions with his hands, "…was around RM100! If you were travelling to many countries, it'd be crazy to spend so much. Then I thought, 'Eh, Coca-Cola in every country is different and unique. Why not collect those to document my travels instead?'"
Thanks to his travels, Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra has an expansive collection of Coca-Cola merchandise. And when you see it all together, the brand repetition turns each piece into a part of a whole.
We can pick out individual items — the big Coke poster, the cap made up of coke cans, the special Coke handbag — but there's so much stuff that it merges into one. It's like living in a Coca-Cola world.
Yet, his collection is also wrapped in nostalgia: a yearning for a happier, simpler times, which chimes with present-day Tuanku and his childhood memories.
"When I was as young as six, I loved Coca-Cola so much I didn't drink anything else!" he confesses. "When I was a student in Australia, I'd spend my money on buying 1.2 litres of Coca-Cola. I drank it all day! Of course, now at this age, I only drink water!" Ah, so the Tuanku and I have something in common. But unlike the fitness enthusiast, I'm nursing a glass of Coke while chatting with him.
The Manchester United fan is proud of his ever-expanding collection nonetheless. "Do you derive a particular satisfaction from collecting Coke-related memorabilia?" I ask. He pauses thoughtfully before shrugging his shoulders helplessly. "I can't really say. It's become like second nature to me. Whenever I go anywhere, I immediately look out for Coca-Cola cans and buy them!"
The most important aspect of his collection, he muses, are the memories that are attached to it. "I remember the time and place where I bought my cans or bottles. Those memories are important to me."
I can't help but like his collection. I like its spirit: the time spent, the delight in the find, the lining up for display. Collecting things you like is a hunt for happiness and order. In an unhappy, disordered world, we all want a bit of that.
More importantly, the fizzy tonic represents a sugar-fuelled dream that brings together childish hopes and nostalgic memories. It's designed to make you happy, and a bit fired up.
Another can of Coke appears at our table. It's for me, of course. Psssssht! The tab is pulled. Sssssssssssssstt! The little bubbles and fizz that swirls around in my glass is still a sight to behold.
As Warhol succinctly puts it: "All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good." I know that, and I suspect, so does the benevolent Regent of Perlis who smiles knowingly as I take yet another sip of Coca-Cola.
FUN FACTS ABOUT COCA-COLA
1. A pharmacist invented Coke
The drink Coca-Cola was originated in 1886 by an Atlanta pharmacist, John S. Pemberton (1831-1888), at his Pemberton Chemical Company. It was first sold in Jacobs' Pharmacy at a cost of five cents (about 3p) a glass.
2. Coca-Cola's typography is trademarked
You won't see other logos with the Coca-Cola font, and that's no coincidence. In 1893, the company registered the trademark for "Spencerian script" with the US Patent Office.
3. The Coca-Cola original recipe is kept in a secret vault
You can't see the recipe itself, but you can see where it's kept. At the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, you can visit The Vault of the Secret Formula exhibit, where the recipe is held. Only a few people in the world know the secret formula of Coca-Cola!
4. Coke was the first product featured on a Time magazine cover
In 1950, Time featured a cover illustration that showed the Earth drinking from a Coke bottle. The artwork shows just how popular Coke had become. But according to the company, the illustration wasn't what the magazine originally wanted. The magazine wanted to have a photo of the then-president of the Coca-Cola Company, Robert Woodruff, on the cover. But he refused stating that the product is the only important element in the company.
5. Coca-Cola is the most popular trademark in the world
Studies have shown that Coca-Cola is among the most-admired and best-known trademarks in the world. In fact, it's documented that "Coca-Cola" is the second-most widely understood term in the world, after "okay".
6. It's still the most widely drunk cola in the world
If all the Coca-Cola ever produced were in 8-ounce contour bottles, and these bottles were laid end to end, they'd reach to the moon and back 2,051 times. That is one round trip per day for five years, seven months and 14 days!
7. Coke was the first soda in space
In 1985, astronauts drank Coke on the Challenger space shuttle. That marked the first soft drink consumption in space, according to the Coca-Cola Company.
8. Coca-Cola invented the six-pack
While the term "six-pack" tends to conjure images of beer nowadays, it was originally a way to buy and carry multiple bottles of Coke. It was Coca-Cola Company founder Asa Candler who conceived of a carton to enable customers to conveniently take six bottles of Coke home at a time.
9. Coke remains one of the longest-running Olympic sponsors
Never one to miss an advertising opportunity, Coca-Cola was one of the first Olympic sponsors, beginning its sponsorship at the Summer Games hosted in Amsterdam in 1928.
10. The iconic bottle design was created to distinguish Coke from its imitators
The tremendous success and growth of Coca-Cola encouraged other competitors to try to imitate Coke by offering bottles with slight variations on the trademarked name and distinctive script logo.
Bottle manufacturers were asked to submit designs for a bottle for Coca-Cola that was "…so distinctive that it could be recognised by feel in the dark or identified lying broken on the ground."
The Root Glass Company in Terre Haute, Indiana, designed the distinctive shape, and it was patented on Nov 16, 1915. This contour bottle was the only packaging used by the Coca-Cola Company for 40 years until the king-size package was introduced in 1955. In 1960, the contour bottle was granted registration as a trademark by the US Patent Office.