Seeking out the Taj Mahal in the city built on tin

18 01 2011

Fresh from an excursion to Kuala Lumpur (KL), I found myself some two hundred kilometres north of KL in a rather quiet city that features some wonderful pieces of architecture from a time when it was thrived on the harvest it made from the ground. The city, Ipoh, the administrative capital of the northern Malaysian State of Perak, lies in a beautiful setting surrounded by limestone hills in the Kinta Valley of Perak, an area rich in tin, and it was from the tin mines around the area that provided much of the wealth that city was built on. In KL, motivated by a desire to learn more about the development of the Malayan Railway fed by nostalgia fueled by the knowledge that the shift of the KTM station to Woodlands by the time the second half of 2011 arrives (which would be that after more than a century of running through Singapore, the Malayan Railway would cease to operate across the island), I sought out two of Arthur Benison Hubback’s railway inspired masterpieces, the Railway Administration Building, and the grand old Railway Station, both built during the turn of the 20th Century and feature the Moorish inspired designs that give old KL a distinct flavour. I found myself doing the same in Ipoh, where another two of Hubback’s great architectural works, the Railway Station and the Town Hall proudly stood.

Arriving early at the Ipoh tree in the main square, two of Hubback's masterpieces that Ipoh is blessed with in the area around the Square were shrouded in morning's mist.

But, the mist soon lifted to reveal the magnificent dome dominated structure of Ipoh's grand railway station.

Although plans for a grand station in Ipoh were put forward in the first decade of the 20th Century and work was supposed to commence in the early part of the next decade and completed by 1914, it was only in 1914 that construction on a station “worthy of the town” started (in 1914). That coincided with the Great War of 1914 to 1918 and due to a shortage of funds and material due to the War, it was only fully completed in 1917 with the completion of the Station Hotel which opened on 1 May 1917. The station building which is fondly referred to as the “Taj Mahal of Ipoh” by Ipoh residents for its magnificent dome dominated structure. Plans for it were described by the Straits Times in 1915 as “the palatial station and hotel, somewhat after the plan of the one in Kuala Lumpur”, and by the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser in 1914 as “in many ways an improvement on the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station structure, which had so far remained supreme as one of the finest railway stations in the East”. Built in concrete and steel, due to what was described as a “lack of any good building stone in the Federated Malay States” on the site of a hospital, the Neo-Classical styled station was to provide a “front door worthy of Ipoh’s status as the second city in the F.M.S.” and form part of a “fine entry” into the town along with the Town Hall and Town Square facing the station.

The Neo-Classical styled A. B. Hubback designed station building features a main dome as well as minor domes and was said to be a station building that were among the most magnificent buildings East of the Suez. The building is also referred to as the

The station building stands across the main square from another of A. B. Hubback's works, the Town Hall. Both buildings together with the square were meant as buildings that would be fitting of Ipoh's status of the FMS' second city and to provide a "fine entry" into the city.

A corridor at the front of the magnificent building.

Wondering around the imposing façade of the whitewashed station in the shadows of the towering cloud shrouded tops of the limestones hills in the background that early New Year’s eve morning, I couldn’t help but be held in awe of the 183 metre arched loggia that dominates the front of the station’s ground level as I stood below it, giving me a sense of how grand the station would have been in the setting of the early 20th Century Ipoh. Although resembling its sister station in KL in many ways, the station in Ipoh is much more refreshing in many ways with a lighter and a happier feel to it, being smaller than the one in KL. It certainly is worth a visit to and is one where (for the time being at least), you will discover the quaint old Station Hotel that now occupies most of the upper floors of the building that once had also held accommodation (a total of seventeen bedrooms) for the station’s own officials, a throw back to the days of old when it would have been thought fashionable for the well heeled traveller to put up at a station’s hotel. Ipoh had in fact been one of three FMSR stations that had been afforded this luxury, with the one at KL and at Tanjong Pagar being the other two, and is the only station currently in Malaysia (and Singapore) that still has a hotel functioning at the station.

The platform side of the station building.

The station and the main platform ... a modern styled awning has been erected over what is now the electrified tracks of the KL to Ipoh line.

An alternative view of the awning over the platforms.

A peek at the ticket counter through a window on the platform.

Part of the 183 metre long loggia at the front of the station.

The part of the station leading up to the hotel entrance.

The entrance to what is currently the last of the three station hotels to remain in operation in Malaysia and Singapore.

Stepping into an old world elevator, the shaft of which staircase wound around, reminiscent of the old world (and somewhat dingy) hotels (and sometimes youth hostels) that I usually found myself putting up in travelling on a budget in Europe during my days as a student, was a sign of what was to come. In it, I was transported up to the lobby at the top and into a world that somehow seemed frozen from a time when perhaps railway travel would have been thought to be not just fashionable, but romantic. The ceramic tiled floor that I stepped out on certainly exuded that old world feel, as did the wooden counter of the hotel’s reception and the armchairs that sat opposite the counter. The lobby led to a wide and expansive balcony to which some of the rooms opened to that offered a splendid view of the city’s main square, the front of the station building itself and the magnificent Town Hall. In one corner of the long balcony, guests were having breakfast in a wonderful old style setting and at the other end, more old style armchairs and coffee tables were arranged as if to convince the visitor of the old world charm of the hotel.

The old world elevator that transports you into a world that time has left behind.

The ceramic floor tiles, the reception counter and the old armchairs that greeted me at the elevator landing certainly belonged to a forgotten time when perhaps the romance of train travel was very much alive.

The balcony on the top level of the station hotel ... also serves as a wonderful place to have breakfast at.

More views of the top level.

The hotel did seem a little run down, seeing much grander days when its clientele would have boasted of the who’s who of the British administration, when it could perhaps have rivaled the likes of Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the E&O Hotel in Georgetown, but nonetheless still has the charm to pull a few romantics (like me) in – and on another day, I might have been tempted to check in there and then but I had a date with the new year in KL. Stepping down into the mezzanine level, it was apparent that the world that I had visited had yet another dimension to it, and for a while, it looked as if I had stepped into a correctional facility with the cell like rooms arranged around a large corridor or lobby. But taking time to adjust to my surroundings and the soft light that streamed into the area from the skylights above, the level certainly had a charm of its own, with painted cemented floors reminding me of some of the old seaside hotels by the sea that I had stayed in previously. It certainly was a world apart, and I suspect that the rooms which were facing the two sides of the station building would be well furnished as well as open up to some nice views, particularly those that are on the reverse side of the station which face the pretty limestone hills beyond Ipoh. Looking at the layout of the rooms and the relatively low ceiling on the mezzanine, I believe that the area which I had walked down into might have formerly been the units which has served as the rooms which accommodated the servants or “boys” for whom, as described by the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, in an article dated 16 May 1914, the provision of “would be a great advantage”.

The stairway back in time.

The different world on the mezzanine level ...

A fan seen against the awning which must have been added later.

Ventilation louvres ...

Rooms that look like cells ....

An old window that opens to an air well ....

Wooden panelling ...

After a short, but satisfying visit to the station and the hotel, it was now time to discover more, and to indulge in the wonderful mouthwatering offerings that Ipoh has in store … about that I had previously posted, but before that, I had another date with a delightful old lady that had not been in the pink of health, but has obtained a new lease of life just up Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road) on which I should be writing another post on.

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New Year’s Eve with a Concubine: a stroll around the streets of Old Ipoh

3 01 2011

One of the wonderful things about wandering around old towns in Malaysia is their ability to delight you with a few surprises from time to time. One such town (or city as it is now) is Ipoh, which I have passed through many times over the years without paying much attention to, which I had decided to spend a night at recently, motivated primarily by the desire to pay a visit to the grand old Railway Station building given to the city by one of the architects that Kuala Lumpur owes its rich architectural heritage to, with the bonus of the promise of the sumptuous treats that awaits the visitor to the city.

Motivated by the desire to have a look at the magnificent piece of railway architecture designed by A. B. Hubback, I decided to spend a bit more time in Ipoh than I normally would have thought of spending.

Ipoh had always been a town that I had not paid much attention to, often serving as a mere stopover on journeys to the north and the west of the town. It is a town that I have always associated with the tin mines that brought the town much of its status and wealth in the days gone by, one characterised by the many grand old buildings in the old town and the large bungalows along the approach into town that greet the visitor. My first ever visits there had been on an ambitious road trip my father took the family on in the early 1970s, when we had stopped first to pay a visit to the parents of his Brother-in-law who lived in Canning Garden on the way from Cameron Highlands to Penang, which I remember very little of except for sweltering in the mid day heat. We did also stop on the return trip – an unscheduled stop forced upon us by the temperature that I was running, to consult with a doctor and get some rest to recover before setting off for Kuala Lumpur.

Ipoh is named after the Ipoh, Epu or Upas Tree which was apparently abundant in and around Ipoh. This Ipoh Tree stands in the Town Square just in front of the Railway Station.

There were two other visits that I had made during my youth, both en route to Pulau Pangkor. One was notable more for the return coach journey on the Mara Express on which left passengers in a state that wasn’t far from a homonym of Mara in Malay. The other was when we had actually spent a few days – once again at Canning Garden where we stayed with the parents of a colleague of my mothers. That trip I remember most for being bored, mah-jong being the source of adult entertainment, thus leaving my sister and myself, the only juveniles stuck within the confines of the four walls and looking forward to the forays made into town for meals for which I remember the crunchy bean sprouts most and perhaps the sight of the old Cold Storage Supermarket which somehow caught my attention. It wasn’t some 25 years after that, at the beginning of 2008 when I had a short stint in Penang, that I visited Ipoh again, once again for a short stopover driven by curiosity of a place I had only vague memories of. On that and a subsequent stopover I made at the end of 2009, there wasn’t really much to change my impression of the town, which is in fact the administrative and commercial capital of the state of Perak, based on its reputation as being not much more than a sleepy hollow.

Ipoh, set against the backdrop of limestone hills has a reputation of being a sleepy hollow.

This time around, equipped with a little more time than I had given myself on my other recent visits, I was able to see a part of Ipoh that had previously escaped me. I was indeed surprised by its architectural heritage around a part of Ipoh that I had not previously known – seeing only in photographs the magnificent Railway Station and the beautiful building that is home to the sister institution to my own alma mater, St. Michael’s Institution.

Ipoh has some architectural masterpieces including St. Michael's Institution which was built over a period of 30 years from 1922, which is a sister institution to my alma mater in Singapore, St. Joseph's Institution.

After a early morning exploration of the beautiful Railway Station of which I would devote another post to, I was able to take a stroll around another of Arthur Benison Hubback’s masterpieces – the Town Hall, which has sadly fallen into a state of disrepair – although signs of restoration work around the rear of the building which was once the Post Office were evident. The Town Hall was built by the Public Works Department (as were the Government Buildings of that time) as part of an effort to provide Ipoh with public buildings that were “worthy of the town” in the early part of the 20th Century, the same effort which provided the Railway Station and the Town Square that separates the two magnificent edifices which were meant to provide, as the town planners had put, “a fine entry into the town“. Construction on the Town Hall and Post Office commenced in 1914 and after a delay due to the late arrival of materials from England, the building was completed in 1916. The Post Office moved in early 1917.

Ipoh Town Hall, which also housed the Post Office at the back of the building, was another building designed by A. B. Hubback.

A view of one of the wings of the Neo Classical styled Town Hall.

Inside the Town Hall.

Some of the other notable buildings in the vicinity that I was able to see on my stroll around the area just behind the Town Hall, bounded by Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road), Jalan Dewan (Post Office Road), Jalan Sultan Yussuf (Belfield Road), and the Padang are the High Court, built in Neo-Classical style and completed in 1928; the Straits Trading Building (now occupied by OCBC) built in 1907 in the Italian Renaissance style; the Chartered Bank Building built in 1924; the Art Deco styled Mercantile Bank (1931); the Perak Hydro Building (1930s) which housed the Perak River Hydro-Electric Power Company which supplied power to the tin mines around Ipoh; the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931), built in the Neo Renaissance style and was for a long time the tallest building in Ipoh until the post-independence era; and the building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant from 1923 – reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Malaysia which was started by a Hainanese immigrant and catered exclusively to European Miners and Plantation Owners. Along Jalan Tun Sambanthan (Hale Street) by the Padang, there is also a row of terrace town houses worth a look at which once was occupied by the practices and residences of legal professionals.

The High Court building is another notable building in Ipoh, just across from the Town Hall.

Another view of the High Court.

The Straits Trading Building (1907).

The Chartered Bank Building (1924).

The Mercantile Bank Building (1931).

The Perak Hydro Building (1930s).

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931) which for a long time was the highest building in Ipoh.

The building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant, reputedly the oldest restaurant in Malaysia.

Across Jalan Tun Sambanthan from the Padang, are a row of pre-war town houses which housed the offices and residences of legal professionals.

So what does all this have to do with the concubine in the title of this post you may ask? Well, the stroll did certainly help in working up an appetite and in deciding to head to nearby Leech Street or what is now Jalan Bandar Timah where I was given to understand had some of the best “Sar Hor Fun” – flat rice noodles (commonly referred to as Kway Teow in our part of the world) of which Ipoh has reputedly the best (in terms of it being silky smooth), served with shredded steamed chicken and prawns in a clear chicken broth, in town, I stumbled upon another of the delightful surprises Ipoh held in store for me: Panglima Lane. Panglima Lane or Lorong Panglima is a narrow alleyway lined with two rows of two-storey pre-war houses that date back to the turn of the 20th Century. The lane had apparently been a hotbed of vice activity, home to gambling, prostitution and opium dens, which later became a residential area from which it got its name “Second Concubine Lane” being one of three streets where the Chinese wealthy had housed their concubines. Today, what greets the visitor are the crumbling and closely spaced units, some still occupied, and others, structurally unsound, lying abandoned. Signs of life are still very much in evidence around the occupied units – a well known restaurant occupies one of the units close to the main road beyond which the sight of laundry poles overhead, potted plants, opened doors and bicycles and tricycles greet the eye, along with evidence of the units that are slowly but surely falling apart. There are apparently plans to conserve and redevelop the houses along the lane, which I guess is something to look forward to, and something that has to be done before it all crumbles away.

A delightful find off Jalan Bandar Timah (Leech Street) is Lorong Panglima, a narrow street which is also known as "Concubine Lane".

Two rows of houses dating from the turn of the 20th Century line both sides of Concubine Lane, some showing signs of age and neglect. The lane was once a hotbed of vice activity and later became a residential area where rich Chinese men kept mistresses or concubines.

Another view of Concubine Lane. Some units still serve as residences, while some have been abandoned and left to crumble.

A tricycle outside a house in Concubine Lane.

More signs of life.

Windows on Concubine Lane.

A peek into one of the abandoned units on Concubine Lane.

As an added treat, I had my bowl of “Sar Hor Fun” in a coffee shop on the ground floor of a building on Leech Street that was built in the 1920s, as a hostel for performers at a Chinese Opera theatre that was just next door to it (since demolished). It was really a toss-up between the “Sar Hor Fun” stall next door at No. 73 which seemed more popular, and the one at No. 75 (Kong Heng Coffee Shop) where the so-called Dramatists’ Hostel was housed. I went for the one at No. 75 perhaps for the history of the building and wasn’t disappointed. The bowl of silky smooth noodles in the tasty chicken broth (which didn’t at all feel like it had been flavoured with MSG) was one of the best I have tasted. What struck me sitting in the coffee shop was that besides the bowl of noodles, people were also eating satay – which came from a well-known stall at neighbouring No. 73 – satay where I come from is usually only eaten only in the evenings. With the bowl of noodles finished, there was only one thing left to do … that was to sip on the steaming hot cup of Ipoh White Coffee, before heading back to the hotel for a rest.

The former "Dramatists' Hostel" along Leech Street once was home to performers of the Chinese Opera Theatre that stood next door (since demolished).

The ground floor of the former "Dramatists' Hostel" now houses the Kedai Kopi Kong Heng, at which I had a piping hot bowl of the well known Ipoh Sar Hor Fun.

A view from the window of the coffee shop.

The very satisfying bowl of "Sar Hor Fun" that I had.

The Sar Hor Fun stall at Kong Heng.








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