A Hundred Years In Ipoh
Being married to a man from Perak, it was inevitable that as I learned to love this person, I also had to learn to love his home state. Fortunately, neither task was too difficult to accomplish!
Perak has been fantasised, romanticised and idealised by all sorts of people from all walks of life throughout Malaysian history. In the days when tin prices were sky high, the Kinta Valley in Perak, possessing the world’s richest alluvial tin deposits, held promise of great fortunes for already-wealthy businessmen, small-time speculators and the average dreamer.
In Batu Gajah, about a half hour’s drive from Ipoh, the capital city of modern Perak, a visionary Scottish planter dreamed up a palace (with facilities such as an underground cellar, a rooftop tennis court, a large kitchen, a moat, an elevator and secret tunnels) for his beloved wife at the perfect location – on a little hill by the banks of Sungai Raya – before his untimely demise rendered the project incomplete. Today, a century later, Kellie’s Castle stands as a lonesome yet still beautiful relic of a once tragic romance.
Famed British novelist, Anthony Burgess, once taught at the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar, a boarding school for the Malay elites – dubbed the Eton of the East – and it was his experience there that inspired him to write The Malayan Trilogy, including Time for a Tiger, a novel he hoped may, “through tears and laughter, educate.”
Most recently, award-winning British-based writer, Tash Aw, who is of Malaysian parentage, wrote the Harmony Silk Factory, a novel set in Perak during the tin rush…simultaneously renewing world interest in Southeast Asian literature and destination.
All these thoughts came into my mind as I set off for yet another balik kampung trip to Ipoh. These trips are common among Malaysians of the young- and middle-aged generation who, after completing their secondary school education at around the age of 18 or 19, leave their hometowns and small-time existence in rural villages in pursuit of lofty dreams in Kuala Lumpur. Usually, these trips home are made during major festive holidays when families make it a point to gather in celebration. This particular trip, for husband and me, however, was less of celebratory reason and more of mandatory (but enjoyable) work for my story on Ipoh’s historic quarters.
According to history, Ipoh came into existence in the 1820s as a small village by a river bank, but it only really flourished during the tin rush in the 1870s when the British ruled Perak. Broad, straight roads were built in town, flanked by rows of shops and majestic buildings. A proper market and even a theatre were built at some point to serve the growing population there. British business owners came to open up tin mining companies, and live the colonial life in what was then considered to be the “exotic Far East.”
Word of mouth about life in Malaya, as it was known at the time, spread to the far reaches of the Western continent, and architects, engineers, and bankers, arrived to set up shop, and experience a lifestyle so different from the one back home. Their presence in Malaya helped shape the development of cities such as Ipoh, as can be seen from the architecture and town-planning that is left for new generations of Malaysians to enjoy.
While searching for a place to have our afternoon tea, we chanced upon a derelict building, Jubilee Park, which had clearly seen better – and many fun – days. Husband clearly had great memories of this childhood haunt, regaling me with stories of how he had made the much-anticipated trip there from Batu Gajah – a long journey by bus – to spend an entire afternoon playing games and paying top money (which had been patiently and diligently saved up over months) at one of the “peep show” machines for a brief view of pictures of scantily clad women! Those were the days before shopping malls and video games, he sighed a little too sadly…
Today, the 4-acre park which used to house a theatre and concert hall stands eerily silent, and goes mostly unnoticed in the busy street traffic of Jalan Kuala Kangsar. Only those who grew up riding round and round its musical carousel, banging on the pinball machines and privately relishing the juvenile pleasures of an illicit “peep show” can still faintly hear the blissful shrieks and laughter from a long-ago childhood at Jubilee Park.
Ipoh town, especially the area near the banks of the Kinta River, in what is known as the Ipoh Old Town, is just filled with nostalgia. As you cross the bridge from Ipoh New Town (where they have built a Jusco store and many hip and happening watering holes) to the old quarters, you can’t help but feel like you have been transported back in time.
Certainly, on this side of Ipoh, many of the buildings are near decay, but thanks to timeless architectural design, they still maintain a sense of beauty and dignity, exuding charm and class that no other modern building can compete.
One of Ipoh’s iconic architecture must certainly be the Ipoh Railway Station on Club Road (Jalan Bukit Gantang Wahab). Built in 1915, it replaced the original railway station – a simple attap shack – with its imposing white building designed by government architect A.B. Hubback, the same guy who designed the railway station in Kuala Lumpur (thus the similarities in design). Many refer to this building as the Taj Mahal of Ipoh due to its Moorish Indian design – beautiful domes and high arches.
In 1917, the railway station hotel was completed, and it became the social centre of Ipoh. Imagine soirees and private afternoon tea parties held along the 180-metre long verandah overlooking a beautiful, green garden. Sadly, today, the glory of this beautiful building has been tarnished somewhat by the lack of proper maintenance and the little shops downstairs selling urut or massage services (but don’t tell Hubback that, lest he turns in his grave!).
From here, cross the street, and you will find yourself standing in front of the Ipoh Town Hall, a stately colonial building with regal pillars, also the architectural product of Hubback. The construction of this building took longer than expected due to the shortage of materials and high cost of labour during World War 1. When it was finally completed in 1916, it also served as a post and telegraph office, police headquarters, and in 1945, became the venue of the Malay Nationalist Party’s inaugural congress.
Those who adore the works of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, will also be fascinated to know that the Nobel Laureate had once delivered a speech to Perak’s school teachers in the 1930s at this venue (Did he also recite his Gitanjali — “If thou speakest not I will fill my heart with thy silence and endure it…” – there in the echoey halls of the foyer?). In the days when people highly depended upon an efficient postal service, it’s not hard to imagine the bustle at this post office as business people attended to important correspondences and others eagerly mailed off lovingly hand-written letters to their beloveds back home.
Interestingly, some sources say that there is an underground tunnel linking the Town Hall to the Ipoh High Court. Though no one has used this route recently, a High Court judge once said that prisoners were transported to the court via the tunnel rather than through the front gates.
A few hundred meters behind the Town Hall along Post Office Road (Jalan Dewan), located upon a pretty knoll, is the Birch Memorial Clock Tower. The four-sided tower, a dedication to J.W.W. Birch, the first British Resident of Perak, has great detail in its structure – a bell that used to strike the chimes of Big Ben in London; four terracotta figures perched at the top of the tower, each representing the four virtues of British administration, i.e. loyalty, justice, patience and fortitude; and a panel of figure drawings on all sides of the tower bearing the images of famous persons in world history. If you carefully observe the drawings, you’ll notice that one has been “whited” out…apparently, the depiction of Prophet Muhammad was painted over in the 1990s in deference to the Muslims in the country who objected to any visual display of the prophet.
Of the Birch dedication, some say that it is ironic for it to be built for a man that was much despised by the locals in those days. What’s even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that a beautiful fountain made entirely out of marble at Belfield Street, erected to honour Birch’s son, E.W. Birch, a much more popular administrator than his father, was demolished in the 1990s!
Strolling down the nearby Station Road (Jalan Dato Maharajalela) and towards Belfield Street (Jalan Sultan Yussuf), one can admire several more beautiful buildings, i.e. the Perak Hydro Building; the Art Deco-styled Mercantile Bank; the Chartered Bank; the Italian Renaissance-inspired Straits Trading Building; and the Renaissance-inspired S.P.H. De Silva Building. They certainly don’t make buildings like these anymore these days…and what a pity, because I simply cannot imagine modern architectural designs standing the test of time as well as these heritage buildings do!
Once you hit Belfield Street, take a left and walk towards the end of the road, where you will spot a blue-coloured corner establishment called the F.M.S. Bar and Restaurant, built in 1906. The acronym stands for the Federated Malay States, which in those days, comprised the states of Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan. The Chinese-styled shop-house was a popular watering hole among European miners and planters, and the sportsmen who played at the Ipoh Padang across the street. Here, sweaty men, fresh from a cricket game at the Padang, would sit at the bar and order a cool drink, while those in business would lament about their losses and cry into their drinks! Some even have (unpleasant!) memories of their wives storming into the bar, fuming mad that their husbands were still nursing a drink when they should be back home with the family!
The F.M.S is currently undergoing an extended refurbishment process to restore it to its former glory. Once the refurbishment is completed at the end of 2010, it will not only serve as a bar and restaurant, but as a boutique hotel, too.
An easy walk towards Clayton Road (Jalan S.P. Seenivasagam) brings you to the St. Michael’s Institution – a grand-looking educational institution that sits proudly across a vast green field. Boasting arresting Gothic architectural design, the school had its humble beginnings in 1912 as just a small mansion surrounded by coconut trees. As its student population grew, so did the school – over a period of 30 years, new buildings were added. It was once a hospital camp for the British Army during the World War 2, and also served as the Japanese headquarters during the Occupation.
It’s easy to imagine and romanticise life in the old days of Ipoh with the many heritage buildings that still stand smartly amid its more modern and less-arresting counterparts. While efforts are being made to promote awareness of Ipoh’s history and heritage – mostly done by non-profit organizations – there is a need for strong local council and government support to ensure that buildings like the Ipoh Town Hall and the railway station do not suffer the same fate as Jubilee Park – an empty shell of memories…
For a more in-depth heritage tour of Ipoh, grab the Ipoh Heritage Trail Map 1 from any tourist information centre in Ipoh town, or enquire at firstname.lastname@example.org.Alternatively, contact them to join their guided heritage walks every Saturday at 8am beginning at the Ipoh Railway Station.
And to be regaled by more personal memories of the old world Ipoh from hundreds of years ago, please visit http://www.ipohworld.org/blog.