A Handful of Beans

On the southern Thai isle of Phuket, one small coffee roastery is drawing on 50 years of heritage to create a unique new brand, as well as probably the island's best coffee

No-one knows much about Tan Cheng Long. Fleeing the civil war in his homeland, he arrived in Phuket on a slow boat from China in the early 1950s armed with only the clothes on his back, and the knowledge of how to roast coffee – really good coffee.

In 1958 he rented a small, Chinese-style one-storey shop house from temple land belonging to the Jui Tui shrine, in the heart of what is now known as the Phuket Old Town, and put up a sign that read ‘Hock Hoe Lee’, meaning “Lucky”. From this humble wooden building, he began to roast Brazilian coffee beans imported via Penang. Soon, hordes of Chinese tin miners were beating a thirsty path to the shop on Ranong Road.

While hailing from a nation of tea drinkers, strong coffee gave the labourers – most of whom worked long hours for little pay in terrible conditions – the buzz they needed to keep going. Before too long, Cheng Long (who later on would take on a Thai surname, Tanpacharapisuit) became the king of Phuket coffee, his roasted beans – of which he made a fresh batch every day to ensure quality – supplying street side vendors and restaurants alike across the island. The sacks bore the simple yet proud stamp “A1” (though there is actually a distinction within ‘A1’, between best, good and normal).

Business was good enough for him to enrol his eldest son, Somboon, in school in Penang (historically, Phuket’s Chinese population would send their children to the then British colony for an English-style education, as well as to learn Hokkien and English). When Somboon returned from Malaya, now a man, he joined his father in the hot, humid interior of the coffee roasting shop. Over time, he learned the intricate techniques and skills that would allow him to follow in the master’s footsteps.

Like any son, however, he also had new ideas. One was to roast Thai coffee beans rather than the Brazilian imports by way of Penang that his father had mostly used up until that point. The other was to rethink the traditional cha yen, or Thai iced tea, by instead using Ceylon tea leaves. Grown in the island nation now called Sri Lanka, Ceylon black tea is famed for its golden colour and intense flavour. It proved to be a master stroke, and in the 1980s made Hock Hoe Lee famous for tea as well as coffee. However, while pleased with the success of his tea experiment, Somboon remained dedicated to roasting coffee beans, in the same ways his father, Cheng Long, had taught him. It would be left to his daughter and son-in-law to chart the next step.

Ruengrit “Oh” Petchvorakul is from an old Bangkok family, with a house on New Petchaburi Road, not far from the historic Bangkok Hospital. Like many young Thais of his generation, he was sent overseas for his final years of university, in his case studying electrical engineering at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. While living in the United States. he realised that he could never be happy in the corporate environment that lay ahead of him. “It was not the life I was waiting for.” It couldn’t have been a more opportune time then to meet Somboon’s eldest daughter, Jutamas “Jaea” Tanpacharapisuit, who was studying on the same course in L.A.

As they came to know each other, fall in love, and eventually marry, Oh came to learn about her family's historic business, roasting coffee to perfection on the tropical southern Thai island of Phuket, a place about which he admits he knew very little at the time. “It sounds crazy, but I'd never really heard of Phuket before, I didn't even know where it was exactly.” He remembers meeting his future father-in-law, recalling that that his first impressions of Somboon were of a man that was, “Old school in traditions, didn’t think much of people from the big city, but was obsessed by coffee.”

“He can easily tell what kind of bean people will like,” relates Oh, “If it's old, if it's new, if it's been properly processed. He knows how to play with the heat and fire when he roasts the beans. He will deliver coffee to any shop in Phuket, but when he comes back he will often complain that the retailer isn't using his roasted beans properly.”

However, using his international experience – after his studies he had spent a year travelling across the U.S. – Oh knew that just selling roasted coffee was a limited market, with little scope for future development. “Phuket had changed, half of the island's population were now foreigners.” They needed to evolve Hock Hoe Lee. However, Somboon was resistant to change. After all, the business had thrived under his father, and continued to succeed under his watch. So when the young couple went to him and suggested opening a cafe, in order to raise the profile of the brand, the older man hesitated. After all, didn’t everyone in Phuket already know his coffee?

Oh knew change must come, “We had to open our own cafe, otherwise no-one would ever have the chance to taste our own coffee.” The clincher though was the ultimatum delivered by Oh and Jaea that they would not continue the Hock Hoe Lee name, unless they could start a cafe. His hand forced, and with his other two daughters uninterested in taking over from him, Somboon gave in. For the newly married pair though, this was not a victory to celebrate, instead it was the chance to save the family business – Somboon and Cheng Long’s combined five decades of hard work – from oblivion.

Oh remembers thinking at the time, “This family has been doing this for more than 50 years. If there is to be a Phuket coffee brand that becomes famous, it has to be us – there’s no-one else.” Looking for a place to build the first ever Hock Hoe Lee cafe, the obvious location was a small patch of empty land owned by his wife's family on the road to Rawai, a quiet neighbourhood of beach bars and private villas in the south of Phuket. Here they built a row of shophouses, renting out the other properties – the extra income helps fund operations – but keeping the corner unit for the new cafe.

Everything had to be created from scratch, from the logo – the sign on the original shop in the Old Town simply reads ‘Hock Hoe Lee’ in Thai, Chinese and English scripts – to the colours and even the packaging. Inspiration for the couple came from the muted designs and neutral palettes of coffee shops they had experienced in their travels across the U.S. Despite the revamp, the original intention was to just focus on the coffee. Back in Oh’s hometown of Bangkok, locals are often too busy to sit down for a leisurely latte, choosing instead to grab and go. However, they quickly discovered that in Phuket, people have a lot more time, and wanted a meal with their coffee. As such, they now serve a selection of Western-style breakfasts, snacks and sandwiches.

Despite its slightly out of the way location, the Hock Hoe Lee cafe has built up a loyal following of coffee aficionados. With an admirable pursuit of excellence that his father-in-law must surely be proud of, Oh says that, “If I cannot do it well, I won't do it at all.” With dual purpose, the cafe also functions as an outlet in which to sell their own roasted coffee. Their 1kg bags of blends range in price from 300 baht for regular Thai coffee to 1,250 baht for Doi Chang Arabica. This 100 per cent A grade bean is grown at high altitude and hand picked in the cool climes of northern Thailand.

They must be doing something right, as Oh is frequently asked if the store is part of a franchise. It’s something he takes as a compliment. Less clear is what his father-in-law thinks about the endeavour.  After some thought, Oh says “It’s like a whole new world to him.” On the whole though, Somboon is content to let the next generation find a new future for Hock Hoe Lee. Being rich or famous doesn’t concern him – what drives the older man on is the determination to produce the best roasted coffee in Phuket.

After all, apart from his son-in-law and eldest daughter, no-one else alive knows the secret coffee roasting processes that were passed down to him by his father – the poor Chinaman who arrived in Phuket with nothing but knowledge and a handful of beans.