Published by Asahi, Japan, 2019
The Malaysian city of Ipoh has yet to shake off its reputation as a faded, former boomtown. To most travellers it serves as a transfer point between Kuala Lumpur and Penang or as a gateway to the Cameron Highlands. Yet along with some excellent street-food – said to the best in the country – the city is also gaining recognition for its architectural heritage, while the Old Town is undergoing something of a makeover. Could this be the rebirth of Malaysia’s third biggest city? With a couple days to spare, I decide to find out. Named after the ipoh tree (a species of fig with toxic sap), the city is situated in the Kinta Valley, in Perak State, and is surrounded by jungle-clad, karst-limestone mountains. The Kinta Valley once held the world’s richest tin deposits and the town came of age during the “tin rush” of the 1870s. In its heyday it was among the richest cities in Southeast Asia. But in the decades after independence, the price of tin collapsed and Ipoh went into decline. The locals seem a little downcast about their city, I discover—I’m told how Ipoh is ‘quiet’, ‘slow’ and how ‘Penang is better’. Hoping for a snappy, upbeat quote, I ask the doorman at my hotel what there is to do here. He shrugs. “Nothing much. Just walk around.” This is all a bit disappointing. But seeing as I’m already here, I decide to follow through on this advice and after stopping for some butter-and-coconut-jam toast and a cup of “white coffee” (Ipoh is famous for its sweet-tasting brew), I unfold my heritage trail map and take to the streets.
It’s the city’s colonial-era, wedding cake-style architecture that first attracts your eye. Most visitors will arrive here via the city’s famous, baroque railway station. Dubbed the ‘Taj Mahal of Ipoh’, the station, which was completed in 1917, was built in the Victorian-Moorish style typical of the region. The size and ornateness of the station attest to Ipoh’s former status as Malaysia’s second administrative capital. Nearby, there are several other impressive buildings, such as the Town Hall and High Court – both gleaming with a new coat of paint – as well as the neo-Gothic St Michael’s Institution which served as headquarters for the Japanese during World War II. Also worth a visit is Birch Tower, another imperial edifice with Big Ben aspirations. It was named after Ipoh’s first British resident, James Birch, who was assassinated during a Malay uprising. The adjacent streets have been named after his killers—surely to Birch’s displeasure. I continue my tour and cross the river into the so-called New Town (founded in 1910), where I encounter the usual Chinatown sights and smells: the little incense shrines, the roast-duck stalls, the cool colonnades and louvered windows of the shop-houses. There is more of an ad-hoc attitude towards conservation here: for every spruced-up townhouse, there is another crumbling away, overrun with vegetation—but it’s all a part of the city’s changing tapestry of decay and rejuvenation. While walking through the city, be sure to keep an eye out for the street art. Many of the murals were created by a Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, who also painted the murals you see in Penang and Singapore and which have proved so popular on social media. A giant humming bird floats above a car park; elsewhere, two boys sit inside a paper aeroplane on the bare wall of an office block. The artworks superimpose a peek-a-boo sense of fun upon the cityscape.
Much of the centre of Old Town was destroyed by fire in the late 19th Century and was reconstructed with a more orderly, grid-like design. Among its most famous laneways – then as now – is the piquantly-named Concubine Lane. The street earned its name during the boom years, for it was here the city’s wealthy mine-operators and foreign traders kept their mistresses. Today it is the focal point of Ipoh’s revitalization effort. The seediness has gone and the concubines have been replaced with candyfloss or egg-tart vendors. I weave about selfie stick-toting tourists, trying not to get in the way as they pose for photos beside another mural. “Concubine Lane started off the tourism boom,” my taxi driver later tells me. “Now, more and more tourists are visiting Ipoh, especially from Malaysia but also from Indonesia and China. During Chinese Golden Week we get a lot!” There are also new developments cropping up close by, such as Kong Heng Square – the centre of Ipoh’s emergent hipster scene – with its trendy clothes shops and eateries. In an indicator of being ahead of the times, there is a sign displayed on an artfully decayed shop front that reads: ‘Wedding Photos Not Allowed’. And with a growing number of boutique hotels, its clear Ipoh aspires to be more than a stopover but a destination in its own right. After a day spent pounding the pavements, I head over to the night market to experience the city’s other big attraction: food. Chicken-and-beansprouts is the city’s signature dish but I go with the wat tan hor fun (a typically Hokkien dish of rice noodles, egg-gravy, prawns and meat), along with boiled octopus in a lemony sauce. I can’t say if it’s better than the food elsewhere in Malaysia, but it hits the spot. Dinner has convinced me: I’m glad to have come here. The city is certainly “quiet” and “slow” and Penang is probably better, or at least has more to offer. But I’ll give Ipoh credit in trying to craft a new identity from a rich past.