Easygoing city sets the bar high for hip gentrification and heritage preservation
Immaculate streets where red and yellow taxis chug past shophouses of faded white and pink. Bustling, decades-old kopitiams, or local coffee shops, decorated with turquoise walls and original floor tiles. Heritage buildings gleaming proudly under the sun, and side streets enlivened by the humorous murals of “Malaysia’s Banksy”, Ernest Zacharevic. Locals handing out flyers for arcane museums under “five-foot way” porticos that provide much-needed shade from the blazing midday sun.
Such is the instantly seductive spell cast by the old town of Ipoh which, despite being voted Asia’s sixth-best destination by Lonely Planet in 2016, retains the aura of the Malaysian tourist industry’s perennial underdog — too quiet and quaint for night owls, perhaps, or too small for an extended stay. But at a little under three hours by train northbound from Kuala Lumpur, ringed by a picturesque valley of limestone karst and sandwiched between a triptych of eminently explorable sites — the glorious greenery of the Cameron Highlands, the Lost World of Tambun theme park and the grand, never-completed colonial folly Kellie’s Castle — there are plenty of compelling reasons to travel to this unsung destination. Ipoh serves up its old-world gentility with a generous side of modern comfort, all laced together in complementary pastel hues like a city-sized box of sugary macarons.
Emerging from obscure small-town beginnings, Ipoh really began to flourish in the 1890s, when miners flocked from China to the fledgling industrial base to exploit the Kinta Valley’s abundant deposits of tin. With the productivity of the valley’s mines, Malaya soon became the world’s biggest producer of the metal. The mining boom survived major knock-backs such as the Great War, free-falling tin prices and the Japanese Occupation, but by the 1970s the glory days were over and the town — later a city — entered a period of decline. While heritage preservation efforts are still ongoing, local government and tourist authorities deserve serious kudos for preserving the low-rise architecture that dominates the old town, with its giant wedding cake of a neoclassical railway station (1917), and colonial throwbacks best exemplified by the HSBC Bank (1931) and, just around the corner from the bank, the Birch Memorial Clock Tower (1909).
“Everywhere you look, it’s all history…”
But it’s a not-for-profit group, IpohWorld — under its apposite slogan “Saving Yesterday for Tomorrow”— that’s largely responsible for kick-starting the city’s heritage revival through a series of exhibitions, a vast online database of period photographs and, most notably, its one-year restoration of Han Chin Pet Soo, a beautiful villa in the old town that brings to life tin miners’ harsh, dissolute experiences in the early 20th century. Spearheaded by curator and IpohWorld managing director Ian Anderson, a Scotsman who’s lived in Malaysia for three decades, the engrossing project has deservedly become Ipoh’s number one attraction since its unveiling in 2015, as well as a favorite subject of artists, along with the vivid royal-blue façade of the neighboring tea museum, Ho Yan Hor. A continual work in progress, the fourth floor has recently been revamped to incorporate an archetypal 1920s bedroom and vintage automobile ephemera from the 1960s.
Leong Meng Fai, an engaging Cantonese native of Ipoh, now manages the museum but confesses he once failed his history exam and found the subject “very dull”. He recounts his first meeting with Ian, an encounter that gave him a new perspective. “When I came in and learned from Ian, that’s when things changed for me. He made me look at things differently. When you come to the museum you don’t read from books but listen to the stories. Likewise, I see many comments from people who say they’re not interested in history or mining, but after the tour they’ve changed their minds. This kind of thing keeps us going.”
Part of what makes Han Chin Pet Soo so compelling — aside from its period detail like rosewood chairs, original mirrors, crockery and pantries standing in water-filled bowls to deter ants — is the immediacy of its subject matter. The building was a clan house where Hakka miners entertained prostitutes and smoked opium, and to this day remains the only place in Ipoh where gambling is legal. “These colorful stories are ones we need to keep telling, because in those days people’s lifestyles were so different compared to now,” says Meng Fai. “The building and the story blend together, even from the first step you take. Everywhere you look, it’s all history — a complete package.” Somewhat euphemistically, he adds: “This is where all the activities and lifestyles started, with Concubine Lane.”
The once-sinful thoroughfare he refers to lies just meters from the villa and — perhaps by virtue of its notoriety — has blossomed in recent years into a fully fledged, Instagram-fêted celebration of the past. Flanked on both sides by a colorful parade of nostalgic outlets — old-school cafés, ais kepal (iceball) vendors, a toy-car museum — and festooned with red lanterns, Concubine Lane is one of two Ipoh epicenters for a young brigade of Panama-hat-toting, espadrille-shod hipsters who’ve become ardent, camera-wielding devotees of the old town.
Lying just a block away, on the intersection of Jalan Sultan Yusof and Jalan Panglima, is the other hipster haven called Kong Heng Square Artisan Market, a loose conglomeration of trendy retailers linked by narrow, mural-bedecked alleyways amid a metal-and-concrete carapace with fashionably chipped paintwork. Its semi-alfresco centerpiece is a courtyard populated by craftwork stalls, a septuagenarian barber called Uncle Thiru operating from a glass box, and boutique owners hawking old clothes and even older vinyls (including an original 1987 12-inch single of “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You” by Glenn Medeiros).
In the corner, there’s the capacious Plan B, one of Ipoh’s pioneering destination cafés, which was refurbished from an old furniture warehouse in 2013. Sober, streamlined design, smiley service and a soft urban-beats soundtrack set the tone, while an eclectic menu includes the nasi lemak ayam berempah, an unmissable cornucopia of fried chicken, sambal, anchovies and eggplant in soy dressing.
Burps & Giggles, the much-loved comfort food “art café” that kick-started Ipoh’s nostalgia trip back in 2012, fronts this block alongside the imposing, leafy frontage of the Container Hotel, with its “industrial retro” capsule rooms. But what’s notable is the line of cafés that has followed in its wake, each with its own distinct character. On the corner of Jalan Panglima, the four-year-old Patisserie Boutique holds court in a former mirror shop that’s now decked out in moody monochrome, murals and vintage clocks and fans. Aside from the Anglo-Asian fusion fare — think Shibuya toast, or jacket potatoes with chicken and kimchi — it has other surprising facets. For instance, one of its four owners, 31-year-old Kenneth Lee, has an unmistakable English accent.
Kenneth spent 12 years studying in the UK before returning to his native city to find a new appetite for global tastes in comfortable surrounds. “We chose it for the heritage, mostly,” he says of the location. “Ipoh is famous for its coffee — the white coffee — but we wanted to provide a space that was more Westernized.” At this point his business partner and baker, Nicole Gan, waltzes in with a beaming smile, no doubt reflecting her surprise at the large number of customers filling the café on a typically uneventful Monday morning downtown.
The look and feel that have made Patisserie Boutique a success is a tricky one to pull off; I find that wherever else locals have adopted pure European aesthetics in other city outlets, the result usually falls flat. While it’s justifiably famous for its beansprout-chicken-selling legend Lou Wong — and other specialties like hor fun noodles best enjoyed in a noisy hawker or kopitiam — modern restaurants are not Ipoh’s forte. On a Saturday night, for instance, we found an upscale French brasserie completely empty, while business suburb Greentown holds a string of solid but unremarkable international eateries. Elsewhere in the “new town”, on Jalan Lau Ek Ching, a row of smart contemporary bars — Bricks & Barrels, Mansion Bistro & Bar — has revived a row of disused houses with a modicum of pizzazz.
Old town hits
It’s only back in the old town that you’ll discover gems like the Happy Eight, an intricate design project occupying the entire length of a narrow shophouse on Market Lane. Exceptionally cool in every sense, the layout serves to funnel natural ventilation from under the floor and doors at the side, which open out into a tiny garden with tables repurposed from sewing machines. A fish-feeding area perched on open-mesh steel flooring allows visitors to discreetly indulge the koi swimming below, while wood salvaged from trees felled for road-building is sculpted by artisans into all kinds of forms: bottle holders, birdcages, a horse sculpture and a vast nest. Jungle murals complete the nature theme in the rear-side café, and the front-of-house boutique leads up to an equally enchanting hostel.
Only a few years ago, whimsically designed spaces serving fine coffee blends would have been unthinkable in this stolid city of unflinchingly traditional tastes. But now even Ipoh’s indigenous kopitiam brand, OldTown White Coffee, has gone upmarket in a smart restaurant that forms part of M Boutique Hotel, one of the pioneering upscale stayovers from 2013. While the menu tempts with tried-and-tested heart-stoppers like condensed-milk Hainan toast, cheesy minced chicken with macaroni and gula melaka with ice kacang (palm sugar with shaved ice and red beans), the hotel proper exudes a strong sense of the past through stylized re-creations of colonial-era iconography.
Threaded throughout the building’s four storeys are Malayan-era letter art, “Urban Vintage” furnishing — painted shutters, old trunks, metal chairs, jerry cans — and Malaysian safari photography, while room details hark back to Straits Settlements shophouses. But far from resembling a fusty museum, the hotel matches its predilection for period trappings with winning contemporary detail. Each level has its own stylistic theme (the first floor has tiger-print lightshades and pillows); chic industrial light fittings with tungsten bulbs hang from the ceiling; and there’s a homey environment epitomized by the staff adopting names of characters from videogames, manga franchises and action movies (Doraemon, Pikachu, John Wick, Clark Kent).
So much of Ipoh centers on, to use M Boutique Hotel’s slogan, “the lifestyle of yesteryear”, that it felt fitting to end my tour at one more new space where the past has returned with a touch of quirkiness to reinvigorate the streetscapes of today. Last November saw the opening of Miniature Wonders Art Gallery, a labor-of-love exhibition space that’s the first of its kind in Malaysia, where curator Phoon Lek Kuin has installed intricate dioramas, made almost entirely from dough, which he painstakingly fashioned with his father-in-law Xu Shiying over the course of five years. Each installation represents a scene from Chinese folklore or history, including a re-creation of Xi’an’s terracotta warriors.
From a city that once resisted change to one that’s embracing it with open arms, Ipoh’s recent trajectory points towards a sustainable future for the city — and crucially, not at the expense of older businesses. Young travelers uninspired by their history classes should find, like Leong Men Fai, that the past is no mere backdrop to the city’s modern-day reincarnation but is enmeshed into its contemporary industries with color and ingenuity.
This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Smile magazine.