The story of Sei Kee Café exemplifies some of the cultural and societal changes that China and Macau currently face.
The smell of roasting coffee and egg omelets permeates the air in Sei Kee Café (世記咖啡), a small coffee shop nestled between Portuguese-designed buildings on Largo Santo Agostinho Street (崗頂前地) next to St. Austin’s Church in Macau.
Founded in 1965, Sei Kee Café offers the colonial old-town feeling of Macau and continues making its unique coffees and milk teas from a Charcoal stove using clay pots. Despite its historical charm and traditional ways, the family owned coffee shop faces difficulty in keeping the business running.
A sketch of Sei Kee Cafe from 1965
Au Lam Kwan, the founder or Sei Kee Café managed to successfully run the shop for 48 years and continues to help the café at the age of 85 with the same vivacity she had at the age of 37.
When Au and her husband first opened the café, she recalled that the workload was heavy and there was little profit. “A bottle of coffee only cost one cent in the past,” smiled Au, “every day, we needed to wake up at 5a.m. to prepare, but my husband enjoyed it so much.”
In the 1960s, citizens of Macau had less career opportunities unlike today, where grand hotels and casinos drive the region’s economy. Due to the lack of jobs, Au, like so many of her peers at the time, established her own business.
Au never employed outside staff and all servers were family relatives. “We couldn’t afford the salary of employees,” she said. “But the advantage was, it kept our family close.”
Au Lam Kwan telling her story at home
Her hard work, however, may be trumped if the business is unable to renew its license and the government decides to terminate the shop.
“Sei Kee Café isn’t just a business; it represents the love of my family. Although the license may return to the government in the future, our family’s love will last forever,” said Au.
Hoping to keep the family and business intact, Au passed the business license on to her daughter, who unfortunately struggled in attracting more customers to the shop without adequate knowledge about the business and industry.
“People in this era can’t tolerate hardship. They are better educated and not willing to work at outdoor cafés like this,” Au said. She had given up on the thought of her grandchildren working for the family business.
It was in that moment when Alvin Au, grandson and successful advertising agency worker from Hong Kong decided to step in and assume responsibility for Sei Kee Café.
Alvin Au current owner of his remodeled Sei Kee Cafe
Realizing the family relevance and business potential of Sei Kee Café, Alvin Au moved back to Macau in 2013 and began working immediately.
“If I don’t preserve this coal baked coffee to more people, very soon, this local coffee culture will be eliminated by the global coffee chains,” said Alvin Au.
His drive to preserve his family’s legacy and also retain Macau’s unique brewing tradition while making the shop more appealing to younger consumers prompted Alvin Au to make dramatic changes to Sei Kee Café.
Macau’s traditional clay-pot brewing style at Sei Kee Cafe.
Firstly, Alvin Au opened a Sei Kee Café take-out shop near the ruins of St. Paul’s cathedral, a major tourist destination for those visiting Macau. Opening a take-out shop in that location diversified his customer base while also lowering labor costs. The new shop resembles the old one with colonial wooden chairs, sketches on the wall from the original shop in the 1960s etc., and the retro decoration of the shop has attracted new customers thus far.
With the weight of his family’s business, competition from international and domestic coffee shops such as Starbucks, and the high rent costs for both locations, Alvin Au still has many hurdles to face.
“I don’t want to disappoint my grandfather,” he said and continues to work tirelessly from dawn to late nights.
Sei Kee Café today, other than the hodgepodge of tourists, has regular customers ranging from police officers to teenagers. “Nowadays, teenagers are becoming more interested in traditional things,” said Au, “they like to try traditional foods and visit historical places. They have strong ideas on cultural protection.”
Although Au had prepared for the worst for Sei Kee Café, her grandson’s commitment to the family business has given her new hope. “From the bottom of my heart,” she said, “I hope SEI KEE CAFÉ can be handed down from generation to generation.”
Alvin Au’s strategy of leveraging Sei Kee Café’s traditional clay-pot brewing methods and marketing the shop in a retro fashion has led to increased customer interest and retention. While the expansion of global coffee chains dominates the international playing field, Alvin Au used this to the shop’s advantage.
Sei Kee Café’s unique yet traditional method of brewing clay-pot beverages, local presence and personal touch differentiates it from any other global coffee chain. It has become a novelty and a successful example of how remodeling yet preserving the old can still appeal to the new.