PATHUM THANI — A coffee shop to the northwest of Bangkok has been serving cups of joe since the time Thailand was still a country called Siam, bustling merchants hawked their wares from canals, and much of the capital did not have running water.
The “Tia Yong Lii” cafe turns 114 this year under the weathered, experienced hands of uncle Ananchai Teeralapsuwon, who took on the cafe 30 years ago. The job was passed down from his father, and his grandfather before that.
“It’s my duty at this point,” Ananchai, 60, said. “I have to care for my father’s work, until my body breaks down.”
The founded in 1906, Tia Yong Lii coffee shop is located in the 12th Canal Market (Talad Khlong Sip Song) in Pathum Thani province. Save for a small som tum stand across from the shop, Tia Yong Lii is the only sign of life in the market that used to be a trading hotspot in the early 20th century.
“If not sure if the cafe will continue after I’m gone, since there are no prospects here. But if any of my kids, nephews, or nieces want to do it, they’re welcome to,” Ananchai said.
Some online coffeeshop reviews as well as biking enthusiasts recently started to bring attention to the relatively unknown cafe; Ananchai says the place has remained largely unchanged since his father’s time – vintage Ovaltine cans, dirt-cheap drinks, and an entire wall filled with family photos and graduation certificates.
There’s even a side-by-side photo of Ananchai’s father making coffee, next to a photo of a younger Ananchai brewing a cup in the same exact spot.
“This side is weddings, and this other side is education,” Ananchai said, pointing to either side of a small chalkboard with the latest winning lottery numbers. “Before, few people owned a radio. My father decided to put up this board and write the latest lottery numbers, and it’s become a tradition.”
“Tia” is the family surname, while “Yong Lii” roughly translates to “a house with only good stories” in Teochew.
Ananchai is the eleventh of 12 children, and finished school at Matthayom 3, the equivalent of Grade 9 and has worked at the shop since. Even as a child, he helped his parents by washing dishes before his father taught him how to roast coffee beans.
In the dark of every early morning, Ananchai hand-roasts coffee beans over a charcoal fire, laboring over the hot coals for 30 to 50 minutes. He uses the same robusta beans sourced from the south of Thailand as his dad did.
“Nhor Kao,” which means “two mouths” in Teochew, is a mixture of coffee and tea and condensed milk for the hot version, sugar for the cold. The double serving of caffeine goes straight to one’s brain and tugs open the eyelids, and is a surprisingly fitting mixture, similar to oliang coffee with a tea flavor.
“Jum Ba” is a mixture of red syrup and coffee, where the red syrup floats on top. The name comes from a word used to call dancers, since the colorful drink resembles some dancer costumes – a bright red top with black shorts.
All drinks cost only 10 baht, 15 baht for takeaway.
“I’m not going to increase the price. I can live off of it, and the customers can comfortably purchase it,” Ananchai said. “I still get enough profit to live off of. There’s no reason for me to try to make more, especially at my age when my kids are all grown up.”
“I don’t want customers to worry about how much things will cost here.”
Days Gone By
In its heyday, the 12th Canal Market “was comparable to Venice.” The floating market has several rice mills, many food vendors, and even an independent movie theater, according to a small exhibit made by the local district in the small children’s library next to the cafe.
In 1890 the then-king of Siam, King Rama V, decreed that canals be dug in the area to provide transport. Soon, the uninhabited fields started to fill up with Thai residents.
Starting in 1897, Westerners, Chinese, and Vietnamese moved into the area. Local Catholics built what is now called the Holy Family Church nearby in 1889.
Ananchai’s agong (grandfather), a Teochew immigrant, began selling coffee from a boat in the khlong in 1906. He saved up money until he was able to build his cafe onland, frequented by market goers.
“Before, those who loved Thai films, farang films would come. Chinese who came to watch the Beijing opera would come as well, paddling by boat in endless streams of people,” the explainer text says. “Everyone was still going strong until midnight. But now all that is left are the memories of the elderly.”
Ananchai recalls that the market, which had several gold shops, shrunk significantly in 1988 when more buildings were built closer to the main road and away from the khlongs, with many shops closing in 1997.
“We only got by because of regulars propping us up in those years,” Ananchi said.
Revival Is Brewing
Today, the 12th Canal Market is home to just two shops and a quiet canal lined with bougainvillea trees. Light slants through the wooden beams of the market roof, necklaced with cobwebs. Shops shuttered long ago are filled with napping residents in the hot, still air. Occasionally, stray dogs jog by, or a motorcycle takes a shortcut through the empty path.
A savior arrived in 2005 – in the form of a fleet on two wheels.
“The bikers came around that time. Biking groups found my shop, and helped make a social media page for me; helped me post things online,” he said. Ananchai started offering free bananas on tables as snacks. They were originally used as spirit offerings, but the bikers came by hungry and he only had eggs to serve them (two soft-boiled eggs for 15 baht).
Then came showbiz.
“Camera crews started to film some scenes of soap operas here,” he said. Channel 3’s 2013 soap opera “Tong Nua Kao” filmed some of their scenes at the 12th Canal Market.
Nowadays, the occasional visitor is Ananchai’s favorite type:
“People who come here hoping for great food might be disappointed. But shutterbugs will definitely find great angles to take photos here,” he said. “I’m amazed at how creative the reviews and photos they post online are. They took photos of my shop in ways I never could have imagined.”
Keeping up with the times, Ananchai holds up a freshly-brewed cup of Thai tea coffee while flashing the “mini heart” sign.
“People who are into this kind of thing, an old place with an old shopkeeper and quality tasting coffee will like it,” Ananchai said. “People come because we hold on to who we are.”
Tia Yong Lii is open every day from 6am to 6pm, as Ananchai takes no days off.