“DAYLIGHT robbery! This is daylight robbery!” My third aunt shrieks the moment she steps foot into the house. Perplexed and concerned, our family members start crowding around her. Had she been waylaid by some ne’er-do-well sort of characters who’d managed to relieve her of her valuables?
However, upon close scrutiny, the precious jade bangle and gold pendant that had been bequeathed by grandmother at her death bed are conspicuously present. Her handbag, meanwhile, remains in pristine condition as too the brand new smart phone in her left palm.
“So, what has been taken?” my uncle asks nonchalantly, knowing that his wife has the uncanny ability of flying into exaggerated rages over the tiniest of matters. My third aunt turns to stare at him with eyes as large as saucers. Shrugging her shoulders, she replies: “Nothing. Who said I lost anything?”
Then, to our utter amazement, she dips into her pocket and fishes out a sweet. A Hacks sweet, to be exact. “Do you know how much Raja’s wife at our mini market is selling this? I was charged 20 sen for just this one sweet. Can you imagine that? When I was a child, that same amount to money would have got me a handful!” the lanky woman exclaims, waving the candy with its white and yellow trademark wrapper high in the air for all to see.
My aunt’s remarks draw instant comments from several of our older family members. Aside from talking about the accelerating rate of inflation, they begin to talk about their childhood. Those were the days when Hacks was just beginning to gain popularity in Malaya. Today, it remains one of the most popular candy brands enjoyed by Malaysians over generations.
My uncle, who has a keen interest in anything sweet, is the first to start the ball rolling. “Do you know that originally Hacks was not a local made brand?” he poses before proceeding to share the rags to riches tale of a young entrepreneur by the name of Abu Backer bin Mohd Hussain who came to Malaya from South India in 1929.
How it started
“Despite his tender age of just 14, Abu Backer already had the determination to succeed in life,” begins my uncle, before continuing: “He worked hard and saved diligently so he could realise his dream of owning his own business. It was in 1945 when he founded a small family-run sundry shop in Penang’s Union Street.”
Right from the start, Abu Backer chose to name his flagship shop “Barkath Stores” as the word “Barkath” means “Blessed” in Arabic.
Barkath Stores, adds my uncle, had a phenomenal start thanks primarily to Abu Backer’s sound business ethics. “He understood the importance of customer service and was willing to deliver to the customer’s doorstep regardless of the quantity bought. Soon people throughout the Pearl of the Orient learnt about his famous motto: We serve you wherever you are.”
Some time in the mid 1950s, Abu Backer began noticing the potential for a particular brand of medicated cough sweets called Hacks. He contacted the manufacturers in England and convinced them that there was a ready market in Malaya for the candy. Within a short period of time, Barkath Stores was appointed as the sole agent for Hacks in Malaya as well as in Singapore.
My youngest aunt joins in after as my uncle heads off towards a cupboard in the hallway. She recalls: “Back in those days, shops similar to Barkath Stores throughout Malaya also sold imported quality biscuits and fruit cakes from England. The Straits Times even ran a commentary back in the 1950s mentioning that Malayans were enjoying a higher standard of living based on the amount of biscuits they consumed.”
The comment mentioned by my youngest aunt was made by the director of Peek, Frean and Co Ltd, Colonel Eaton Hart, who visited Malaya in 1953 to study marketing conditions first hand. At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Hart said that Malaya was at par with North America in terms of market size for British biscuits!
“The Malayan market was so important that British biscuit makers took the trouble to produce specially-designed enamelled tins for customers to give away as wedding and birthday gifts,” she continues, before excusing herself to hunt down a surviving example in her wardrobe.
While waiting, my uncle proudly produces an attractive envelope advertising Elkes Rich Fruit Cake. It was sent from Barkath Stores in Union Street back in June 1958. I look at the handwriting on the cover and start to wonder if it was written by Abu Backer himself. I can just imagine him sitting at his table, writing to his customer in Ipoh’s Station Road. To me, the letter bears testimony to Barkath Stores’ business clout which had expanded to include branches in Butterworth, Kuala Lumpur, Kota Bahru and Singapore!
The English connection
The next milestone in Abu Backer’s long illustrious career happened in 1965 when his imported food business was mired with problems resulting from shipment delays, high duties and price competition. Seizing the moment, the wily Abu Backer turned the setbacks into an opportunity to successfully persuade the Hacks parent company in England to enter into a joint-venture to produce Hacks locally.
Soon after that, Abu Backer sent his eldest son, Barkath Ali bin Abu Backer, to England. Barkath Ali, who was in his late teens at that time, was tasked to learn all he could about the Hacks manufacturing processes and marketing strategies. After his year-long tenure in England, the Barkath Stores heir returned and successfully launched Hacks Malaysia’s first manufacturing base in Mak Mandin, Penang.
Aside from the regular flavour, the Mak Mandin factory began producing the medicated cough drops in four other versions: clove & apple, blackcurrant, mandarin & ginger and honey lemon. Until today, the latter holds the record for being the most popular Hacks flavour among Malaysians.
The mere mention of Mak Mandin triggers a burst of laughter in my youngest aunt who had just returned triumphantly to her seat with a large plastic bag in her hand. We all turn towards her, eager to know what had tickled her funny bone.
She cheekily withholds her tale and keeps us in suspense, insisting that we view the contents in her plastic bag first. We patiently look on as she produces a special 1959 illustrated catalogue for Peek, Frean and Co Ltd’s biscuits. The presence of Queen Elizabeth II’s royal warrant of appointment on the front cover is a sure indication of the brand’s superior quality.
Apart from listing the different types of biscuits exported to Malaya at that time, the 16-page booklet also illustrated the available container designs for customers to choose from. These ranged from traditional English countryside scenes to tropical themed ones. The design we all like best features a Malayan kingfisher diving into a pond filled with blossoming water lilies. This design clearly showed that the biscuit manufacturers in England were willing to go out of their way to win the hearts of their Malayan consumers.
Keeping the best for last, my youngest aunt lifts a red and yellow tin from her plastic bag and holds it aloft. The Peek, Frean and Co Ltd biscuit tin with its long handle really looks like a traditional Chinese wedding gift basket. The pair of majestic phoenixes on the cover coupled with the Chinese character representing double happiness emblazoned on the sides suggest its purpose as a wedding gift.
Unlike the catalogue we saw earlier, the royal warrant of appointment on the tin comes with the words “late King George VI”. This is interesting as it shows that the tin was produced some time after the death of King George VI in early February 1952 and before the company formally received the royal warrant of appointment from his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II!
Returning the two precious possessions back into the protective plastic bag, my youngest aunt looks at us with a smile. We all return her gaze, desperately willing her to weave her tale involving Mak Mandin, which is a major industrial area in Penang today.
Tale of a small village
According to my aunt, Mak Mandin was a small unnamed village back in the late 18th century. It only comprised a smattering of village huts built at the banks of the Perai River. One day, a trio of robbers and murderers known simply as Mat, Man and Din escaped from the Province Wellesley Police Station and sought refuge in the forested area near the village.
The villagers were deeply concerned when they learnt about the fugitives in their vicinity. Nothing was more important than the safety of their loved ones. They kept on asking the local policemen for the latest developments, hoping that Mat, Man and Din had already been apprehended. A few weeks later, much to the relief of the villagers, news arrived saying that the wanted men had been apprehended by the authorities in southern Kedah.
By that time, however, the village had already become famous throughout the area thanks to the notoriety of the fugitives. Long after the trio had been taken into custody, people still referred to the village as the place where Mat, Man and Din eluded the police dragnet.
Chuckling, my aunt continues: “It seems that Mak Mandin today is a corruption of the names of the wanted men! Take this with a pinch of salt though. It’s probably just a story. Although Mat, Man and Din are common names in our society, I just can’t bring myself to believe the coincidence of having all three together at the same time!”
A grin on his face, my uncle decides to continue his tale: “In the late 1960s, Abu Backer acquired the rights to distribute the Sunquick orange concentrate in Malaysia. Then, within just a decade, Barkath Stores managed to secure the rights to manufacture the popular drink locally. To keep up with his expanding business, Abu Backer then decided to build two additional factories in Mak Mandin.”
Barkath Ali, at the tender age of just 24, took over the reins of the company following the death of his father in 1975. He continued to build on the strong foundations provided by his father and finally fulfilled Abu Backer’s lifelong dream of buying over in perpetuity the Hacks trademark for Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and India in the 1980s.
Today, Barkath Stores has grown to a conglomerate comprising 22 companies engaged in a diverse range of activities. It’s one of the few truly Malaysian companies that has withstood the test of time, providing trusted products to people over generations.
Realising that it’s almost noon, I quickly bid my relations farewell and thank them for helping me to understand what life was like in Malaya in the past. Suffice to say, I’ll never look at another Hacks sweet the same way again.