Baba Can More Than Cook

In celebration of Limapulo at The Row turning three, we spoke to Uncle John and Alan Yun, the duo behind the Peranakan success.

Many a stories have been written about Limapulo, the Peranakan treasure located in the newly-refurbished The Row, Kuala Lumpur. The authenticity of its flavours, the charming ambience and warm hospitality of the restaurant have since become the talk of the town. The owners of the establishment – the endearing Uncle John and charismatic Alan Yun – are as equally famous as their establishment, if not more, in their own rights; casual rock stars well-respected in the neighbourhood and beyond.

Nonetheless, how much do we actually know about the community father figure and his godson?

The exterior of Limapulo.

Uncle John may now be a mainstay of The Row, the atas part of Jalan Doraisamy, but that has not always been the case. Before becoming a successful restaurateur that he is today, the resident Baba of The Row has put on many hats – some which gave him more satisfaction than others.

Growing up as the eldest son in an underprivileged family, Uncle John – as he is ingenuously known to patrons as well as anyone who has had the privilege of knowing him – had to learn everything quickly.

“I grew up watching my mother cooking and quickly learnt to cook myself. I also had a lot of other chores; I had to carry water because there was no water at home, chop firewood because there was no gas, go to the swamp to catch fish and pluck vegetables from farms. Food was scarce back then,” he shares.

Through all these struggles, Uncle John was able to pinpoint his number one passion in life: cooking. However, before getting the chance to pursue cooking full time, he had to take up many other roles.

“Cooking has always been my passion but I also lead a very cool life. I was a teacher, researcher, tourist guide and even owned my own travel agency for many years,” divulges Uncle John.

Married by then to fellow Peranakan celebrity chef Florence Tan, Uncle John and his wife decided to adopt a little boy together.

“However, at the age of 13, my son had a massive stroke and became semi-paralysed,” Uncle John reveals.

Immediately after, Uncle John halted his travel agency operations to take care of his boy full-time. He bought a piece of land in Malacca, on which he began an orchard and built a house to look after both his son and aged mother, so that they could spend the rest of their lives in the countryside.

“So there I was in Malacca for 16 years until my son passed away and my mother too passed a few years after that,” Uncle John reminisces.

Then, with more time on his hands he began helping his friend at the latter’s farm and became an organic farmer. Meanwhile, Uncle John was also looking after his own orchard.

“I mowed the grass until it looked like a golf course. I also had many types of fruit trees; durian, mangosteen, coconut. I had a small pond so I reared fish. I reared chicken too.”

“Unfortunately, a few years after I joined my friend at his farm, he passed away. By then I had sold off my own orchard. Age was catching up and I was not able to mow the grass anymore,” explains Uncle John.

After a short stint as a tuition teacher in the village in Malacca, Uncle John joined his brother in his first Peranakan restaurant venture in Damansara.

That was when Uncle John met businessman and current godson Alan Yun for the first time. They immediately hit it off, their age difference immaterial to the joy they found in each other’s company.

“I was merely a sleeping partner in the restaurant when Uncle John came about. But we immediately became the best of friends and now he is my godfather,” says Alan.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Alan Yun is a local celebrity, and by local I don’t just mean at Jalan Doraisamy. A familiar face in television commercials, the amiable gentleman is also a singer and actor, having appeared in the critically-acclaimed films Sepet and Gubra, directed by the immensely-talented late Yasmin Ahmad.

Although having worked with heavyweights in other industries, Alan still holds the greatest respect for Uncle John. They left their meeting place in Damansara together, opening up Lima Blas in Changkat with another friend. They stayed there for a year before coming home to The Row, where Limapulo stands firmly today.

“In the many years that I’ve spent with Uncle John so far, I’ve never seen him stop working. Despite his age, whether he’s ill or otherwise, he still goes to the market in the wee hours of the morning because he feels that it’s his responsibility to do so,” says Alan of Uncle John, who has been the creative mind behind many restaurants.

“The younger staff members here, including myself, are constantly inspired by him. Every time I feel like giving up I think about Uncle John and his perseverance and I feel energised,” he continues.

From Kota Damansara to Changkat and now at Jalan Doraisamy, Uncle John and Alan Yun have been through thick and thin. Theirs is a companionship that is tested and true, mainly owing to their smarts as well as easy-going nature.

Limapulo charms patrons with its rustic ambience.

“I handle the operations and branding while Uncle John concentrates on the food, creativity and recipe. You can see from our menu that we don’t have a lot of options but we present signature dishes that people would serve during festive occasions in a Baba Nyonya household.”

“Uncle John and I, we treasure each other. We always put ourselves in each other’s position. We don’t have big expectations on each other as well. But we trust in each other. I think that’s the most important factor in a partnership,” shares Alan.

The legacy of the Peranakan culture and cuisine is also a shared interest that binds them closer. Alan plans to make cooking classes a mainstay in Limapulo’s roster to increase the public’s awareness on Peranakan culture and food.

“I try to carry forward Uncle John’s legacy by organising cooking classes conducted by him. We give out to the students the exact recipe that we use in our restaurant. Touch wood, if the restaurant is not around in the future, at least the students will still carry the recipe with them.

Uncle John and Alan Yun conducting a cooking class.
Uncle John imparts his culinary wisdom to an eager student.

Uncle John shares the same sentiment as Alan.

“Money at this time is no longer of utility to me. I lead a very simple life. At this age, there’s no point in getting rich. I don’t look forward to getting rich.”

“Currently, in the Klang Valley, there are not many Peranakan restaurants run by an original Baba or Nyonya. I only look forward for people to know authentic Peranakan cuisine,” says the inspiring Baba.

So the next time you’re at The Row, if you see a wise-looking man sitting outside a restaurant on a lounge chair, say hi – we assure you it’ll be Uncle John.

50, Jalan Doraisamy
50300 Kuala Lumpur.

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Vimal Palasekaran

Vimal Palasekaran

Loud laugher. TV buff. Hispanophone.
Vimal Palasekaran

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