How Ipoh got its groove back

Ipoh, Malaysia – September 2019

During a short stopover in Kuala Lumpur recently, my parents and I took my grandmother on a day trip to Ipoh, which is a two hour drive away (not counting potential traffic jam delays).

The state capital of Perak and Malaysia’s third largest city, Ipoh sits nestled in amongst towering limestone formations, bisected by the Kinta river into an old town and a new town. It grew from a small village in the 1880s after tin deposits were found in the vicinity, and peaked during the 1920s tin mining boom. Unfortunately, the tin didn’t last and prices collapsed in the 1970s and 80s. Ipoh’s prosperity declined with the closure of the tin mines and the loss of its industry, and much of the population left to find jobs in other urban centres.

It remained a quiet, neglected town for some decades. There were few drawcards for visitors, and besides serving as a gateway to the Cameron Highlands the town rarely featured on tourists’ radars (perhaps only as a convenient stop to break up the journey from KL to Penang).

The British, who came for the tin, left some wonderful colonial architecture behind: a railway station, a town hall, schools and government buildings. Not to mention many shop-houses so typical of the period. Recognising the potential for tourism, efforts have been made to conserve this heritage in recent years, which has been rewarded by an accompanying rise in Ipoh’s popularity as a destination. The revived interest has generated a renaissance in the Old Town, where historic but dilapidated buildings have been converted into boutique hotels and cafes, done up in a manner which could be described as Malaysia’s version of hipster chic. Formerly a place most outsiders had never heard of, a few years ago Lonely Planet named it one of its Top 10 Asian Destinations – the only Malaysian town to feature. More than one press write-up has appeared with headlines like “Sleepy Ipoh awakens”.

My own interest in the place was piqued earlier in the year after reading a novel by Yangsze Choo, The Night Tiger, which was set in 1930s colonial Malaya, specifically in the Perak towns of Ipoh and nearby Batu Gajah. I had actually been to Ipoh once before as a child, but I retained little memory of this visit.

Food has always been one of the reasons to visit Ipoh, and most Malaysians would be familiar with regional specialties like nga choi gai (bean sprout chicken), gai si hor fun (shredded chicken noodles), heong peng (or heong peah in Hokkien, literally fragrant biscuit, a kind of flaky sweet pastry) and Ipoh White Coffee (kopi putih in Malay). We made our first stop in the New Town to get some bean sprout chicken (tauge ayam in Malay, or nga choi gai in Cantonese) for lunch.

There were two popular bean sprout chicken restaurants sitting on opposing corners of an intersection, Lou Wong and Ong Kee. We chose one, sat down and ordered the signature dish. The bean sprouts were the fattest I’ve ever seen. Apparently something to do with the quality of the soil. After lunch we walked a block away to another popular spot, Funny Mountain Tau Fu Fa (soy bean pudding). I’m far from a tofu connoisseur, but it was as good as any tau fu fa I’ve had.

Not far from where we were in New Town was a small alley dubbed Mural Arts Lane, where murals adorn the alleyway, as the name suggests. These depict scenes from Ipoh’s past, its regional customs and traditions, and ordinary local life. I left the folks to do their heong peng shopping and headed over to check out the street art.

I’m not sure if it’s usually busier but it was pretty much deserted when I got there and I had the whole street to myself. After walking the length of it, I met up with the others again and we crossed the Kinta river to the Old Town for some sightseeing, heading for Concubine Lane. Or more correctly, the Concubine Lanes (there are three of them). Back in 1892, parts of Ipoh’s Old Town were damaged by fire. As the story goes, Yao Tet Shin, the local mining tycoon who owned the lanes, rebuilt and presented them as gifts to his 3 wives:

  1. Wife Lane — Hale Lane (大奶巷)
  2. Concubine Lane — Lorong Panglima (二奶巷)
  3. Second Concubine Lane — Market Lane (三奶巷)

Lorong Panglima, better known locally by its Cantonese name Yi Lai Hong, is the most well-known, probably because it is the most developed, with shops, restaurants, cafes and a boutique hotel. Of course, because of this, it is the busiest one and also the most touristy. I would have to say that the street does sacrifice some of its authenticity, trading it for cuteness and a bit of kitsch, but it was charming nonetheless.

As innocent as the lane appears now, it was once apparently a notorious opium den, and as local folklore would have you believe, a popular meeting spot for adulterous trysts between rich tin traders or British officers and their secret mistresses back in the day – quite appropriate for its name, I guess. Many of the buildings on this street still retain a character which make it easy to imagine these sort of illicit activities happening at one time, behind red-curtained upstairs windows.

We all wandered around for a bit, checking out the stores which mostly sold souvenirs, and then my parents and grandmother found a cafe in which to cool down with some ais kacang (literally bean ice, a shaved ice dessert).

Meanwhile, I ventured further to see the other two lanes, Lorong Hale (Wife Lane) and Market Lane (Second Concubine Lane). Wife Lane was pretty quiet, and appeared to be more residential than Lorong Panglima.

Market Lane was also quieter, but at least more colourful, festooned with hanging umbrellas (this does seem to be a popular way of decorating streets now, not just here but around the world). There was also a mural of people eating curry noodles… opposite a place that sold curry noodles. Advertising?

Further beyond the lanes, I came across some nostalgic murals painted by Lithuanian-born artist Ernest Zacharevic who rose to fame for similar works in George Town, Penang. His murals, inspired by Ipoh’s heritage, evoked memories of the city’s past: bags of coffee dangling over a wall, a wise old uncle sipping coffee, a cluttered trishaw, a girl reaching for a birdcage. I’m pretty certain you can still buy hot beverages in a bag – this was something I remember whenever I visited my grandparents as a kid.

An hour or two later I went back to look for my family. My grandmother was standing at the top of Concubine Lane, shielding herself from the sun with an umbrella, as Asians do. I stopped to get the famous kopi putih (white coffee) at a kopitiam (couldn’t leave Ipoh without trying it!) and then it was time to go.

Ipoh has a lot of things going for it – the food, which I suppose has always been there, but now too all the laid-back charm brought back by its nostalgia-filled redevelopment. It’s amazingly photogenic. No longer just a stop on the way to Penang, it’s definitely a city coming into its own. I’m glad we got the chance to see it.

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