Caught in a time warp


as published in the star weekender and the star online travel & lifestyle, 20 january 2007. copy of article also found online at clove two, 20 january 2007,, 23 january 2007, and, 25 january 2007

Ipoh is a town caught in transition between the old and the new.


“There is a point where in the mystery of existence contradictions meet; where movement is not all movement and stillness is not all stillness; where the idea and the form, the within and the without, are united; where infinite becomes finite, yet not.” – Rabindranath Tagore

Bordering Selangor, Pahang, Kelantan, Penang, Kedah and the Straits of Malacca, Perak is incredibly accessible. Amidst much that is new, especially in terms of infrastructure, this Malaysian state continues to hold on to its colonial past.

The negotiation between the past and future is most evident in its administrative centre, Ipoh town itself.

I begin my exploration at the Ipoh Railway Station. The locals call it the town’s Taj Mahal. Designed by British architect A. B. Hubback, the station was completed in 1917 and was a monument to the state’s prosperity and wealth. With a total of three platforms, the station also incorporated into its design offices for railway staff, a restaurant, a bar, and a hotel, The Majestic.

The architecture is Moorish but with the addition of Victorian columns. Viewed from a certain angle, the building still projects a certain grandeur that must have once prevailed in this town they once called “The City of Millionaires”. From every other angle, however, it gives the impression of a tired station.

A massage parlour sits like a sore thumb on a cordoned-off corner. The station looks out onto its large, bougainvillea-lined garden and the river of two-way traffic just yonder.

It would seem Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore once addressed a meeting concerning Perak’s English and vernacular schools here in the 1930s. Upon learning this, I decided to embark on retracing the venue of this momentous event.

This brought me to the Ipoh Town Hall, located just opposite the Ipoh Railway Station. Also designed by Hubback, the building’s exterior is Neo-Classical with just a touch of Greek and Roman influences.

The Ipoh Town Hall was the venue for a number of other historic events. The inaugural congress for the Malay Nationalist Party was held here in 1945 before an audience of 300 from all over the peninsula. In 1948, it served as the district police headquarters.

Just behind the Ipoh Town Hall is a jostling food court and a makeshift market. Right in the middle of this commotion stands the Birch Memorial Clock Tower.

Built in memory of the state’s first British Resident, J.W.W. Birch, who was killed in an uprising, the tower is somewhat of an irony, when one considers the animosity between Birch and the Malays at the time. A colourful mural of great 18th century figures line the four sides of the tower, and well-carved statues guard its four corners.

Turn off at the corner of the market, walk towards Padang Ipoh, and you will come to Hale Street, better known today as Jalan Tun Sambanthan. Two blocks of old shophouses directly face the field along this road, a testament to the fusion of old and new: bright, modern, colourful, the shops here offer grilled steaks alongside old-fashioned Ipoh white coffee.

On the other side of the field stands the hauntingly beautiful St Michael’s Institution, established by a group of La Salle brothers in 1912.

During the Japanese occupation, the school was converted into the state’s administrative centre. Returned to its original function post-independence, the school has retained much of its La Sallian traditions, like its penchant for theatre and marching bands.

On the third corner of the field stands the quite unmistakable FMS Restaurant and Bar. With its striking blue walls, the FMS, which stands for “Federated Malay States,” was THE miners and planters bar back in the day.

Reputed to be one of the oldest restaurants and bars in the country, the FMS was founded in 1906, and this makes it 101 years old in 2007. The only way to describe the interior of the restaurant and bar is “old school”. Old movie posters, old music records, old brass and ceramics, and an enormous portrait of Queen Elizabeth II nostalgically adorn its interior.

As evening descends, the streets are fill with anxious traffic, everyone eager to go home or out for some recreational time-out – at Kek Look Tong, perhaps. Padang Ipoh is filled with both football and cricket players, the athletes busy at their own respectable ends.

Shutters – some metal, some wooden, and some a little bit of both – are drawn over the old shophouses. The street lamps flood the lonely streets of Ipoh with amber light. Another day is done.

There are a number of other colonial buildings in Ipoh worth a ponder, a gaze and many deep contemplation: the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) cross junction, the infamous Eu Tong Sen lot, Jan Sahib’s Office, the Chung Thye Pin corner lot, the Han Chin Pet tin miners’ clubhouse, the De Silva building, the Straits Trading Building . . .

Given the right sort of attention, Ipoh could very well become a heritage town to rival, if not surpass, Georgetown and Malacca. But Ipoh is only as unpretentious as it is not ambitious, the town being quite content with its lot.

Leaving Ipoh is not easy. It grows on you.

The old buildings ooze nostalgia and charm. In the space of just one afternoon, I have been transported back to the early days of modern Malaysia, reminded of the bloodshed of days past, got a glimpse into the lives of tin miners, and stood in the shadow of great men.

When the sun rises next morning, Ipoh wakes up to another day, just like any other.


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