Click-clack. Click-clack. The sound of my slender heels hitting the rickety narrow wooden stairs of A Jamal Mohamed & Co sundry shop located on Jalan Tengku Kelana in the Little India enclave in Klang pierces the silence as I gingerly make my way upstairs to the staff “quarters”.
“Come on through. We should be comfortable here,” bellows a stocky, bespectacled gentleman jovially as he ushers me in from the gloom of the corridor before proceeding to gather more chairs for the rest of my entourage.
Scanning my surrounds, I note with interest that it’s a modest, cosy space furnished with a simple table, some chairs, a few beds and cupboards. A single fan whirs comfortingly, providing some respite from the day’s humidity. “This is where my staff stay,” offers the gentleman, his words slicing into my thoughts and returning me to the present where he’s already seated across from me, ready to tell his story.
Clad in casual checks, 50-year-old Mohamed Rafeeq Jamal Mohamed Batcha is the third generation proprietor of this traditional sundry shop business, which was started by his grandfather, Jamal Mohamed, back in 1916.
Just like any other old school businesses, which are battling the challenges brought about by the changing tides of time, Mohammed Rafeeq concedes that the landscape he has found himself in today is a world away from when his enterprising grandfather, and indeed later, his father, started it all.
His voice dips low when he recalls: “It was my grandfather and his brother-in-law who started the business. The original shop was big and located somewhere near the old bridge. Years later, the partnership ended and grandfather, a native of Klang, continued on alone.”
Back then, it was purely a wholesale business and people would flock to the shop for things like rice, all manner of grains, spices and their daily provisions. Business was brisk as there was hardly any competition in the area, which was, back in the 60s, known as Rembau Street.
“There were probably only two or three shops selling similar things then,” elaborates Mohamed Rafeeq, before adding: “Grandfather, who was also the president of the Indian mosque committee here, passed away in 1968 — at the age of 70 plus — and my father and his brother subsequently took over, shifting the business to this present site.”
Instead of continuing with a wholesale business model, his father, shares Mohamed Rafeeq, opted to offer a retail option too. It was a sound decision and the family’s sundry shop continued to be well frequented by the locals, despite the emergence of a few more sundry shops in the area. “Father passed away in 2011 and not long after, I took over the reins. And here I am to this day,” says the genial 50-year-old with a background in Commerce.
A NEW ERA
When he assumed the mantle, Mohamed Rafeeq, the only son in the family, decided to slow down the wholesale side to concentrate on retail. It was a decision which was supported wholeheartedly by his wife, who handles the admin side of the operations. She was adamant to see this “old” business evolve.
It was a necessary move, concedes the soft-spoken Klang-ite, who was, prior to taking over the shop, working at his father-in-law’s restaurant, Restoran Insaf, in Kuala Lumpur for 20 years.
Says Mohamed Rafeeq: “Back in my grandfather’s day and even my father’s, there were no big supermarkets or hypermarkets to contend with. Now there are just so many, and small, traditional businesses like ours, have to be on our toes. We may not be able to compete in terms of size and offerings, but what we can continue to maintain is our quality.”
Some people say that the prices of his wares are slightly higher than what’s being offered at the local hypermarkets, but, what price quality, insists Mohamed Rafeeq.”From my grandfather, to my father, and now me… we’ve never compromised on our quality. We’ve been consistent all these years. People know what they’re getting when they buy from us! Yes, we’re losing customers to hypermarkets which are selling goods at discounted prices, but despite the decline, we’ve managed to maintain the business from local residents, especially those looking for good quality spices.”
Another thing he’s truly proud of is the relationship that he has been able to forge with his loyal customers. “It’s our advantage over the bigger, more impersonal hypermarkets,” he states matter-of-factly. “We can offer the personal touch. Generations of families have walked through our door and we know people by name. Customers who see me on the floor, day in, day out, call me by my name. Relationships are built here on this shop floor.”
HIS TIME TO SHINE
Despite the mushrooming of more sundry shops in the area (22 at last count), most of which selling similar goods, Mohamed Rafeeq’s well-stocked outlet with its rows and rows of delightful offerings stacked on wooden shelves, has been able to garner a loyal following.
“Customers are very smart now,” he adds. “They’re more discerning and know what they want.” Noting my baffled expression, the father-of-four smiles before elaborating: “For example, when they do their shopping in the hypermarkets, everything is already pre-packed. We sell our goods — like rice, grains, spices, and so on — loose. Customers actually want to see and touch what they’re buying. They want to weigh the items themselves. It’s like going back to the past again, with those traditional sundry shops…”
His customers, he says, converge here for, among other things, their stock of rice and garam masala spices, a blend of ground spices. “You know we grind our own masala biryani spices here,” poses Mohamed Rafeeq, pride lacing his voice. “It’s my grandfather’s recipe. I remember being told that my grandmother never did any of the cooking in the household. It was grandfather who was a whizz in the kitchen.”
He too is somewhat of a maestro in the kitchen, confides Mohamed Rafeeq proudly. “All the men in our family can cook!” he exclaims with a chuckle. “Aside from this sundry shop, I also have a newly-opened fine dining restaurant in Bangsar. It’s a modern Indian restaurant called Signature of Spices, and my wife is the head chef there. I also help to run it.”
Looking ahead, Mohamed Rafeeq, who has pulled through various trials and tribulations, acknowledges that there will be more challenges to contend with. One that he’s truly concerned with is who to pass the baton to once he hangs up his well-weathered boots.
Wistfully, he confides that none of his children have shown any interest to continue the family’s legacy. “I think I’m the last generation of this line. My elder daughter, 22, is studying Chemical Engineering and my son is just not interested. But of course, I wouldn’t want to force them to do what they don’t want.”
His voice low, Mohamed Rafeeq continues: “They see just how consumed we are with this business; the time and energy we invest in it, and the sacrifices we make. From 6am to 10pm, I’m with my businesses. Only Hari Raya I give myself two days off and also for Deepavali too. They don’t want that kind of life.”
A pause ensues as a blanket of sombreness suddenly envelops us all. The sound from the whirring fan suddenly becomes unbearably loud in the silence. But then, with a shrug of his broad shoulders, Mohamed Rafeeq continues: “I can’t dwell on that. This is my golden opportunity to make this business that I’ve inherited, a success. Of course, when it all started no one actually thought about where it was headed, but I’ll take my chance. I must do everything I can to keep this shop standing strong — 103 years later.”
A. Jamal Mohamed & Co, 42, Jalan Tengku Kelana, Kawasan 1, Klang, Selangor
As much as local business owners want to preserve their decades-old or even century-old businesses, they also hope that they can work together as a community to preserve treasures that lend character and history to their businesses, such as the Klang River that brought them to the area in the first place.
Like these business owners, it’s important for everyone to appreciate that the unique character of our local community is often strongly influenced by the presence of local businesses. The distinctiveness of our local community can increase our overall satisfaction with where we live and enhance the value of our homes and property. Furthermore, having unique and interesting local businesses and attractions elevates the tourism pull of a town.
This is one of the inspirations behind the Klang Municipal Council (MPK)’s bold move to become the nation’s first Royal Heritage and Digital City in Malaysia by 2035, through the MPK’s 2035 Local Plan (Replacement) initiative. The aim is to empower Klang as a world-class royal heritage and competitive port city by emphasising sustainable and holistic development and by focusing on its extensive digital connectivity while maintaining its rich heritage.
This initiative is further spurred by the Selangor Maritime Gateway, a project by the Selangor State Government managed by Landasan Lumayan Sdn Bhd - an environmental conservation and sustainable development company, to rejuvenate the Klang River and the areas around it in Selangor.
In the pipelines are a new interactive destination playground and park at Pengkalan Batu and an ecotourism site called Mangrove Point, both within the Klang area, which will open in stages beginning early 2020. Plans are also underway to return the Klang River to its former glory with a river taxi system that will offer an alternative means of transport — connecting various towns, villages and tourism spots along the river.
These undertakings are designed to breathe new life into the city of Klang, its businesses and its heritage, and improve the lives of the people that call this city by the river home. It’s hoped that with the continued support of local communities and new tourist arrivals in the wake of the upcoming attractions and promotions for Klang, businesses like A. Jamal & Co, will continue to thrive and serve customers for generations to come.