Kyo Pang is a third-generation Baba Nyonya (also called Peranakan)—an ethic group of people who were the result of a centuries-long history of transculturation and interracial marriage. Pang grew up in Penang, Malaysia, following the culture’s matriarchal traditions. Her mom came from traditional Nyonyas who specialize in sweets, and Pang’s father’s family was known for making coffees and savory food. He inherited a coffee shop and turned it into a restaurant; by the time Pang was 16, she helped her father manage four restaurants across the city.
But even though Pang was raised in the food industry, she was taught that it was for the poorly educated. So she moved to New York in 2009 and studied public relations, advertising and marketing at the City University of New York. For the next five years, she dabbled in nightlife, hotels, fashion, events, and PR.
In 2015, out of nostalgia for the food she grew up with, Pang began cooking and selling Malaysian snacks and coffee at street fairs. She’d sell out in two hours. Pang first opened Kopitiam—named after Malaysian coffee shops—as a four-seat, to-go shop in Chinatown. Torn between pursuing event planning versus following her heart and family legacy, Pang closed the space, only to reopen Kopitiam one year later as a larger cafe. Serving composed, traditional Malaysian dishes, such as pan mee, nasi lemak and pandan chicken, in addition to signature pulled-coffee drinks, Kopitiam made Bon Appétit’s 2019 “Hot 10” list. During COVID-19, Pang worked with Rethink Food NYC to feed low- and no-income people.