Our group did an exercise to help us hone our observations skills. We were to station overselves in a place (home, train station, kopi tiam, hospital, airport, etc) and just observe using our senses and write down our observation. Here’s mine.

It is 7.30 am. I take forever to get myself dressed. I am both half asleep and hungry. Armed with a pen and scratch paper, I make my way to the nearby coffee shop. I expect to see a crowd – that was the way it was when I went there two months ago after it was newly renovated. The newness has died down. There are fewer people than I expected.

The upgraded coffee shop is clean and airy – miles of improvement from the dark, cramped and dirty looking shop that I remember. Half the stalls are still dark. The poh piah seller arrives and begins turning on the lights to prepare for a hopeful business day.

The permanently fixed tables have orange tops and backless chairs. I am spoilt for choice as to where to sit.

I scan the backlit sign boards that show mouth-watering familiar local favourites like char kway teow and chicken rice; iced lemon tea, lime juice, half-boiled eggs and kaya toast, but my mind is already made up – it’s oily crispy roti prata for me this morning. There is no queue and I get my order very quickly.

I plunk myself strategically. Good morning senses.

There is a quiet hum of the fast spinning ceiling fans above. Mental spoons clink again the cups as customers stir their kopi or teh. The kopi counter is crowded with cups and canned drinks. A neat row of cigarettes of every brand are in the display just above the counter. Coffee servers in blue and white stripped polo shirts and a Tiger beer logo ply around to take orders.

An Ah Pek with thinning hair comes to me and asks, “Ai lim kopi mai?” (Do you want to drink coffee?) Around his waist is a leather pouch. His feet are clad in purple imitation Crocs sandals.

Teh,” (tea) I tell him. As he walks toward the coffee counter, he yells at the top of his lungs, “kopi siew tai” (coffee less sugar) from someone else’s order. He turns back, looks at me from four tables away and shouts to me, “Siow cheah, teh ah?” (Miss, is it tea?) I nod my head. He is already three steps from the counter lady when he yells again, “Teeeeeeeeeh.”

He brings my teeeeeeh to me and as he approaches me, asks customers seated along the way, “Ai lim kopi mai?” He picks up new orders and without looking back, shouts back at the counter lady another order.

A greying cleaner in her 50s comes to my table. She is curious. She peers into my paper, admires my handwriting and asks “What are you writing?” in Mandarin. She speaks in a whisper I can hardly hear. As she talks, her hand sweeps her rag across my already clean table – a display for her bosses to know that she is not being negligent in her work. She said she never went to school.

Close to the main entrance, just at the right side above the coffee stall is a bronze statue of Buddha sits crossed legged in a two by three feet altar watching over the ins and outs of the coffee shop. A small concealed down light illuminates the god. Three offering plates of fresh pineapple, oranges, and bananas, and a wine glass filled with oil with an unlit oil wick are arranged in a row in front of the god. Someone is obviously taking good care of the god. There is an urn for joss stick but nothing is burning at the moment.

In the smoking area, a shrivelled looking old man sits alone. His toothless mouth is sunken in, as if he is sucking something. The Ah Pek with his no-longer-hot-half-drank coffee and a half-smoked cigarette in his hand stares pensively into space. He flicks the ash on the floor instead of the make-do condensed milk ash tray. The milk label is still new. He puts his cigarette in his mouth to free his hands, lifts up his shoeless right foot across his lap and begins to scratch, rub, and peel at the ankle and ball of his heels.

A young long haired woman drags a ladder to climbs up to the altar. When she reaches the top, a plump woman hands her a cup of hot freshly brewed coffee for the Buddha. Ah, there is a concealed cupboard at the side of the altar where the matches, joss sticks and oil are kept. She removes the remains of the old coil of joss and puts a new one on to the ash filled urn. I smell the pungent smoke invade the air.

While all this is happening, I hear the loud ahems of someone desperately trying to clear what seem to be flam-congested lungs. He sneezes and coughs incessantly and then makes a disgustingly loud “kaaaak” sound as if he is ready to spit on the floor. I peep from the corner of my eye. The dark skinned man with a songkot blows his clogged up nose out into his tissue.

I take my cue to pack up and go home as more people start to fill the no longer quiet coffee shop.