The old soul in me has always been fascinated by fallen aristocracies, and Ipoh emits the same lingering nostalgia of a boomtown gone bust. Decades later, Ipoh appears to struggle to evoke romantic memories in those who know it and the imagination of those who have yet to experience it.
One of the many murals of Ipoh’s Old Town. Picture is mine
Unlike Penang, Ipoh does not have that somewhat closely-knit hodgepodge of cultures and sensibilities typical of a trading post. The sights, sounds and flavours of Ipoh’s Old Town are markedly Chinese, with a smattering of Indian and a smattering still of an emerging hipster culture yet to find its foothold.
Chinese businessmen in 1880s Ipoh became tycoons overnight thanks to the rapid growth of the tin-mining industry which fizzled out as quickly as it had caught on in the 1970s when tin prices began to plummet with depleting tin deposits. That had left many legends in its wake such as the Wife, Concubine and First Concubine Lanes which were a gift from tycoon Yao Tet Shin to his wife and concubines respectively. It was said that the lanes were where tycoons of the golden era hid their mistresses in the hope of keeping them under public radar; this I found absurd considering how closely packed together the shop houses were that gossip probably spread like wildfire even without Facebook, had it been available then.
The moustachioed Indian man peddling kachang puteh. Photo is my own.
Of the three lanes, only Concubine Lane was restored to its near-original splendour and filled with peddlers of knick-knacks and snacks that harked back to a distant past; some of them familiar to its neighbours Penang and Singapore. You could perch on a low stool for a small bowl of ta fu fa (more known as tau huey back home in Singapore), grab a cone of kachang puteh from a moustachioed Indian man, or a classic caramel pudding at the usually packed-to-the-attaps Ipoh Kong Heng Restaurant.
In my travels, I have often stumbled upon the customary eccentric ang moh feathering his retirement nest in historical towns in the Far East. Filling the quota for Ipoh is John Lomax who owns the homestay on 27 Concubine Lane. John has taken such pains to preserve and maintain the shop house to look and feel exactly as it did back in its heyday that it would win the approval of the spirits of departed tenants visiting during the Hungry Ghost Month.
Unfortunately many buildings in the Old Town have been left to decay, the rare exception being colonial buildings that still house the first banks set up here by the British such as the Standard Chartered bank.
I was made privy to how challenging and costly conservation of old buildings in these parts can be at a reclaimed shophouse on Jalan Sambanthan Road, christened 22, Hale Street after the road’s original name. The shop house had been mostly rotting from the inside and harbouring all manners of vermin when Puan Sri Dato’ Sandra Lee Wei Feng took it on with the vision of turning it into a heritage gallery. Today it peddles handicrafts made by under-privileged trainees and staff from Persatuan Daybreak, a non-government organisation (NGO) for people with disabilities. When I was there, the F&B part of it was just coming to its feet. In a few months, visitors can expect to enjoy a native Ipoh menu of snacks and meals rather than just kopi ‘o’ and teh ‘c’.
That is me holding the microphone, moderating the Same Same But Different Panel.
Photo by Shah Rizal Baharudin.
In August this year, 22 Hale Street hosted literary and visual arts activities organised by CausewayEXchange (CEX), a festival whose objective is to bridge the performing, visual and literary arts scenes in Malaysia and Singapore as well as introducing Singapore’s artistic and creative people to new audiences across the causeway.
At CEX Ipoh, I moderated a discussion called Same-Same but Different paneled by Singapore Literature Prize poets Sim Piak How and Yong Shu Hoong alongside Malaysian poets Wani Ardy, Bridget Eu and Paul Gnanaselvam to a rapt, multiracial audience of Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur denizens.
I have been guilty of not having seen a Teater Ekamatra production for some years so I grabbed the chance to catch two of four monologues collectively titled Projek Suitcase. I am happy to report that “Half a Dot” and “Balik” had struck me with the same rawness and honesty that the troupe has always been known for.
Actor Norisman Mustafa in “Half a Dot” doing his best impression of a duck.
Photo by Shah Rizal Baharudin
Directed by theatre and TV stalwart, Khairudin Samsudin and performed by Norisman Mustafa, “Half a Dot” explores the journey of a Malay-Muslim homosexual man as he comes to terms with his sexuality and attempts to bridge the chasm between who he is and what society, particularly his father, expects him to be. It ended with Norisman urging the audience to reckon with their own prejudices against homosexuality. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the front row; if there had been such a thing. Probably noticing that I had not flinched when he did his catwalk, Norisman gave me a tiny rubber ball to hurl at him at the end of his performance, as if, in his words, “he was the worst scum on earth”. I did not do so, and neither did a middle-aged Malay uncle with his hijab-wearing wife.
Chokodok from the outside in full Rastafarian colours. Photo by Shah Rizal Baharudin
Ipoh goes to sleep at around 9pm. Being a largely Muslim city, pubs serving alcohol in the Old Town are few and mostly patronised by local Chinese and tourists. Thankfully reggae-loving non-drinkers can hang out at Chokodok Reggae Bar and Backpackers’ Hostel which is located just past the old police station on Hugh Low Street.
As Chokodok does not serve any alcohol, it is technically not a pub; in fact it is more like the typical after-dark hangout on Singapore’s Arab Street before shisha was banned (shisha fans alert!). With dreadlocks nearly sweeping the floor, owner Wira Malik set up the reggae bar in homage to Bob Marley and later added the hostel to accommodate budget travellers.
Inside the Chokodok. Photo is mine.
Rather sweet and flavoured smoothies, milkshakes and lassi on the menu appeal to the sweet-toothed while Malaysian dishes are cooked by Wira’s mother. There is 'live' music on the weekends and if you’re keen to jam, you’d have to clamber up the wooden platform roughly cobbled to the wall and ceiling and loaded with musical instruments. When I told Ipoh Echo journalist Ili Aqilah that regular patrons had assured us that the platform was safe, she laughed, claiming that members of the town council have wagged a finger at Wira more than once to do something about stabilising the platform.
I might have left Ipoh without the niggling feeling that I was missing something had I been given more time to explore it. Perhaps it was the casual mourners watching ads directed by the late Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad at her museum at Kong Heng or the numerous decaying buildings longing for a new lease of life that made me feel that Ipoh has some way to go in fully acknowledging and embracing its heritage. However, I am hopeful that colour will soon return to parts of its history which had faded after the decline of the tin-mining industry. Just give it a few years, and a handful of property developers.
Photos belong to me and Shah Rizal Baharudin.