The Editor writes a love letter to a small hole in the wall that holds a piece of her heart.
In between the wood panels that frame the brick walls and the mosaic cube tiles that pave the floor, there are a lot of memories contained within the Coliseum restaurant and hotel. This shouldn’t be surprising given that the building has been standing on what used to be known as Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman) since 1921, and has not changed since it was adopted from its original inception as a pre-war British Resident’s home.
The iconic building has had no structural changes since 1921, and its new owners trumpet this fact proudly. The Coliseum is, indelibly, a part of Malaysian heritage, because it is the memories that define it.
Speaking to the restaurant’s General Manager Terence Ong and his colleague Kenneth Abdullah, the Operations Manager, you’d most likely need an entire day in which to fully absorb the building’s collection of anecdotes – and there are so many.
The anecdotes are contained in the memory of those who serve its customers daily; they are recorded for posterity in the numerous photographs that cover the walls; some in the mementoes donated to the restaurant by loyal oft-returning patrons, and some in framed hard-to-find sketches penned by nationally-loved cartoonists.
On a mid-week afternoon, when the rude blares of the ceaseless traffic of Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman threaten to drive a person to the edge of sanity, the Coliseum remains not only a welcome pit stop on the tourist circuit, but also a firm favourite for local diners, evidenced by the many chattering faces at not-empty tables.
So if you sit in a corner, as I did, of the pebble-floored bar area that is separated from the main dining area, you’ll see several patrons seated or standing, with their unhurried postures, by the wooden bar, or quietly reading or chatting with their companions, while a busload of tourists enter, slightly dazed from the outside heat, but quickly settling into the Coliseum’s cool and distinctly laidback atmosphere: that of relaxed casual-ness, the kind of decades past, when people did not allow a busy life to intrude on their time, or on their thoughts.
That is, if your thoughts can ignore the sudden assault that is the smell of a sizzling steak, accompanied by the distinct hiss of the hot plate as it is carefully brought to a diner’s table, and the copious amount of smoke rising from the plate in billows big enough to ruin a lady’s coiffed hair.
(If you are, unlike the returning droves of diners that populate the place daily, extremely fussy about the delicious aroma of hot food lingering on your freshly-washed hair or clothes, best you avoid coming to eat here.)
But you might see the quirky humour in a wait staff quickly moving behind you as he solicitously places a large, white cotton bib – yes, a BIB – to protect the front of your clothes from the sputtering sauce of said sizzler steak. It seems, then, that several people do find this eccentric (and practical) feature quite endearing, as – the managers explain to me – dozens of diners already have their own bib inscribed with their names here.
The Coliseum represents more than just what Ong refers to as “colonial-type cuisine” (a blend of Hainanese cuisine fused with Western staples) or that it is “the oldest steakhouse in the country.”
The Coliseum represents a memory of their loved ones, one that, unlike many other buildings or physical icons, is still standing, and has no plans to be reinvented into a beastly modern farce that may be found incongruous with its original surroundings.
To many Malaysians born around the 40s and 50s, a mention of the Coliseum elicits a waterfall of stories. If you ask a man in his 60s, for example, more often than not, the story would most likely follow the line of,
“I used to bring your mother here on dates when we were in the University,”
followed by the storyteller’s knowing chuckle, and a bemused quizzical look on the part of the story’s recipient.
For others, it may seem fitting that they bring their entire family of siblings and their spouses for Sunday lunch to commemorate their mother’s birthday simply because their late father frequented the place often.
So whether you choose to sit in the bright, street-fronting dining area that is decorated with the original furnishings of leather-cushioned wooden chairs and the original tables, where the walls play silent host to the hat and coat hooks, or in the cavernous hall of the smoking area in the back section where the clang of cooking pots overwhelm the incessant buzz of chatter, one aspect is inescapable:
the place speaks, albeit unobtrusively, of a time when people had proper , long conversations about life, rather than individually peering soullessly into a hand-held device containing bits and bytes.
And there is little chance of the latter happening here, because there is no Wifi in the Coliseum. So yes, you are forced to put down that digital device, and have a face-to-face interaction.
Like some people who reject modern life’s insistence that our days would be incomplete without our phones and computers, it seems obvious – but in a genteel, well-mannered way – that the Coliseum’s occupants choose to engage each other in a way that was the norm of years past. Modern life does not intrude into the Coliseum beyond the convenience of its appliances.
From the bare light bulbs suspended on single wires to the white cotton tablecloths and napkins (none of the scratchy machine-made disposable serviettes here, thank you very much), this is taking time out to eat and relax, the simple, old-fashioned way.
As its managers relate, Coliseum patrons embody the muhibbah 1Malaysia concept, long before we had to be reminded of it via public banners. Nobody cared if you were Malay, Chinese, Indian or an expatriate here – they were here for the food, the ambience, the no-frills style, and they didn’t mind the noise or the smoke.
Abdullah shares that many expatriate customers return every five to ten years to delight in the fact that the Coliseum is unchanged; therein lays its attraction.
And the menu? Well, the menu used to contain over 900 items, I am told, when the Hailam chefs brought in by the British didn’t write down the recipes, but instead committed them to memory. Very little has changed, except for the number of menu items listed (i.e. remarkably less now.) It is, simply, one of the still-standing best examples of Malaysia’s colonial heritage, from the white-washed walls to the wooden-framed double doors.
As if to punctuate the moment, Kenneth shows me a memento.
Sargent Claude Pratt of the British Army had his going-away party at the Coliseum in 1941, and the menu was signed by his friends. His daughter Janice, after going through her late father’s belongings, found the signed menu, made a copy, returned to the Coliseum 60 years later, and donated it to the restaurant where it is now beautifully preserved and framed, and naturally, hung on the walls, alongside the numerous haphazard collages of pictures of beaming faces and happy times.
There is a group of Japanese ladies, I am told, which dines at the Coliseum weekly without fail, for their ladies-only lunch, and if someone had not sat down and taken the time to tell me, this piece of information would be absorbed into the walls, together with the stories of past and former great statesmen who have walked in here and contributed to its history while they took time off from creating national history.
And then there is the story of another former British Army office, who currently resides in Australia and returns to visit the Coliseum each year, who courted his lady friend here, and brings her back here decades on, after she became his wife.
This is the kind of pull the place has: the pull of history, the engraving of memory.
And then there is the pull of loyalty, such is the case of the worker, Captain Goh, who recently retired from working at the Coliseum at the age of 91. Returning customers delight in the fact that many familiar faces remain among the kitchen and wait staff, such as 74-year-old waiter Foo Meng Kai, who has been with the Coliseum for more than 30 years.
There is a lot of history contained in the four walls of the Coliseum, but it’s not the dry facts and figures kind of history: there is a lot of personal history borne of the time spent within, by its patrons, who return with their children and grandchildren, to find little has changed, pleasingly so.
Structurally, the Coliseum is intact: from its original floors and walls to its well-tended chairs and tables. While what you see from the outside is that the building has been preserved, to many, it represents – simply and more significantly – a preservation of their memories.
After all, what is the history of a place, if not for the human history that fills it walls?