Toying with time travel is Jao Tim, a café on Jalan Sultan in the heart of Chinatown. Here it stands in 21st-century Kuala Lumpur, flanked by fellow pre-war colonial shop lots boasting worn or contemporised façades and overlooking a bustling street from its first-floor perch.
Yet, Jao Tim does not blur into this blend. By its very entrance, it distinguishes itself in gold, recreating gilded elevator doors popular in the 1920s. A push reveals terrazzo flooring with bronze strips welded on it to spell the initials J or T, depending on where you are standing, and a sturdy staircase — with shabby plaster on one wall and gleaming wooden panelling on the other — beckons.
Further description might first benefit from a little background: Jao Tim is Cantonese for “hotel”, a tribute to the building’s original function upon its construction in 1910. Just over a century later, in 2012, the deed was handed to Jon Teo, an interior designer and photography enthusiast. He allowed the existing tenants to continue operating and when they left last year, he turned his expertise in designing the interiors of food and beverage outlets — through his firm Reinvent, he has worked on The Apartment, TGI Friday’s and Teh Tarik Place, among others — to create a café.
Photography has instilled in him an appreciation of history and how lifestyles influence architecture and landscapes, which drove Teo to research his property at the National Archives of Malaysia. It took six months to piece together a substantial picture of the building and the street it sits on. This neighbourhood bears imprints of his own footsteps as a boy, when his father would take him to Rex Theatre nearby to watch movies like Jurassic Park, but beyond personal sentiment, preserving what is undeniably an exquisite space simply made sense.
“History gives a building legacy,” he says. “We always think of Melaka, Ipoh and Penang as heritage hot spots, but so too is KL. Jao Tim was a hotel a century ago and I wanted to celebrate that. Much of design today exist ‘just because’ and I feel that empty design is often just that — empty. Heritage gives you a natural design story.”
This is most clearly depicted in the view that greets customers upon ascending the staircase, which, like the floors, raised roofing and exposed brick walls, is original. A purpose-built concierge desk, helpfully indicated by gilded alphabets, sits in front of a pigeon-hole cubby, mimicking a hotel reception’s set-up from decades past. Art Deco, introduced in the 1920s, informs the theme, with Teo drawing from the closest significant design period he could find to the 118-year-old building. Expressions of this can be found in gilded accents and bronze fittings, from the old-fashioned flip switches, brass clamshell lamps and track lighting fixtures to expansive jazz, courtesy of vinyl records played on 1980s players. Glenn Miller is on repeat today and the carefully curated selection includes a collector’s edition of Miles Davis’ Filles de Kilimanjaro.
In keeping with the syncopated rhythms, Jao Tim hosts swing dance classes, casual jazz concerts and jam sessions in the narrow but deep space. The front half is occupied by café seating — the wooden furniture, which can seat 50 customers, can be pushed away to clear up a bigger area if necessary — while the concierge desk and long bar on the left and right of the middle walkway are where orders are taken and fulfilled respectively. They also serve to demarcate the empty event space at the back.
The double-volume ceiling offers offers a soaring sense of height. Teo had removed a plaster ceiling and discovered the solid hardwood beams, now left exposed, that hold up the roof. He maintained the grand height in the first half of the space and sliced it carefully in the back with a new mezzanine floor. The latter is carpeted in rubber gym flooring for upcoming yoga and Pilates classes.
A trio of arched windows in the front allow the sun’s rays to colour the hardwood floors, as does the running skylight that stretches along the length of the space. “At around 4pm, the sun hits the windows and enters in warm bars of light. It’s my favourite hour of the day here to sit and read or work,” Teo says.
The brick-and-wood space was designed as a natural blank canvas, one which will soon be filled with artwork and photography as he fulfils his vision of weaving a gallery into the café. Lighting had been installed from the outset to best showcase exhibits.
Even the menu celebrates the hotel legacy and Art Deco proposition, with seasonal drinks themed “a temporary affair” and the word “mistress” heading the names of food, allusions to the cheeky stories hotel rooms can tell and tempting customers to cheat on diets with emblematic root beer and grilled cheese sandwiches, served in flamboyant pink, yellow and green crockery characteristic of the era.
“Art Deco appeared after World War I as a symbol of luxury and modernity to make people feel good,” Teo says of his choice of design theme. “It featured high ceilings for a sense of greater space, gold and brass for luxury and clean lines for modernity. You could walk into any room decked out Art Deco-style and immediately feel better. I trust in that philosophy, and its rationality shows in the regulars who love the space and spend hours here.”
The abundance of natural light, the sense of height and the swinging music collectively conspire to uplift spirits, creating a refuge from the heat and hustle outside so that one can work, daydream or indulge in creative inclinations. Bustling KL might lie beyond the original façade but in here, it could be 1920s New York, a big band is playing and time is of little consequence.
Jao Tim is located at 61, Jalan Sultan, KL. 03 2022 3897. Tues-Thurs & Sun, 11am-7pm; Fri-Sun, 11am-9pm. This article first appeared in issue no 89, Autumn 2018 of Haven.