Mining Ipoh's old-world charm

First Penang and Malacca went through a heritage boom. Now it is the turn of Ipoh - a tin mining town in Perak that flourished in the early 20th century.

Ipoh's pre-war enclave - known to locals as Old Town - has been a dying town for decades, as the mining business waned and businesses spread outwards to newer parts of town. But some of the bustle is returning to this Malaysian city.

Unlike Penang and Malacca, Ipoh does not have the benefit of Unesco World Heritage status, a sure-fire tourist draw. But some of its old-time charm is being rejuvenated, thanks to local entrepreneurs and investors.

On Jalan Bandar Timah, or Tin Town Road, for example, a three-storey building still houses the famed Kong Heng coffee shop, which has served some of Ipoh's best street food for decades.

In its heyday, most of Kong Heng's patrons were tin mining towkays and traders, who gathered to discuss business deals or to eat after visiting their concubines across the street in Panglima Lane, aptly nicknamed "Concubine Lane".

Today, hawker assistants downstairs still jostle through packed crowds with bowls of steaming hot chicken "hor fun", or flat rice noodles, shouting "hot water coming" in Cantonese to warn patrons to move aside.

But the area upstairs has become an eclectic guesthouse, complete with see-through curtains and thick, wooden ceiling beams - a picture of modern serenity.

The guesthouse is the brainchild of Mr Ng Sek San, 53, a renowned landscape architect and Ipoh boy. He and his three partners acquired the building in 2008 - Mr Ng would not say for how much - to prevent it from being bulldozed and turned into a high- rise commercial building.

"This city has been forgotten for too long," he told The Straits Times. "Being Ipohans, we want to bring back what's special about this place."

From the 1890s up to the 1970s, Ipoh Old Town was the city's business district, with foreign banks serving the large rubber and tin trade. Ipoh was the first town in the country to have cars and hence roads.

But over the years, the shift of economic development to other cities in Malaysia, such as Penang and Kuala Lumpur, and the 1985 tin market crash caused Ipoh to lose its lustre. Families and businesses moved out of Old Town, leaving only traditional trades run mainly by senior citizens.

The Perak state government in turn focused on opening new townships surrounding Ipoh. That neglect of Old Town may have been a blessing in disguise.

"It is not a bad thing," said architect Peter Wong, who has done heritage consultancy work in Ipoh. "It means that most of these pre-war shophouses have been left as they are."

However, some famous buildings have been razed. The Yau Tet Shin Bazaar, a circular trading centre built in the 1960s, which once sold everything from pomelos to keys, as well as the 1940s Majestic Theatre were demolished to make way for condominiums.

But most of Ipoh's iconic buildings, including mansions and shophouses, are still around. Mr Low Siak Hong, one of the founders of the Perak Heritage Society, a non-governmental organisation, said the town council has listed more than 100 buildings as protected by law from demolition. But some owners have managed to delist their properties. "Protection for these buildings is still limited, and it is difficult to control market forces," he said.

Not all private owners, however, are keen on demolition. Since 2009, Ms Peggy Lim and her family have bought 14 pre-war properties for a total of about RM5 million (S$2 million). Their most high-profile acquisition is a 100-year-old, three-storey neo- renaissance structure called the De Silva building, named after a fine jeweller of the same name. Its Singapore outlets still exist.

"We simply love heritage buildings and wanted to keep them as part of Ipoh's landscape," the 24-year-old said.

All this interest in old shophouses is pushing up prices. Five years ago, a 2,400 sq ft shophouse could be had for about RM300,000.

Now it would cost double that price. The mini property boom is also making Old Town unaffordable for many old traders. Madam Lau Tak Yuen, 75, who has lived in a shophouse on Jalan Bandar Timah all her life, running a grocery store passed down from her grandfather, is closing her shop after Chinese New Year next January as the shopowner has sold it to a private investor. "I am disheartened but what can I do?" she said. "We cannot afford to buy this shophouse and so we have to go."

Mr Ng said he is trying not to let Old Town become another commercialised heritage enclave.

He is linking old-school barbers, bicycle shop owners and other businesses with investors to try to figure out how they can stay on, with subsidised rent.

Meanwhile, his friends are opening a museum on Yasmin Ahmad, a Malay director renowned for films and commercials on cross-cultural love, next year.

"We are not holding on to nostalgia for its own sake," he said. "We want Ipoh's urban rejuvenation to be organic."

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