The charcoal shop

11 04 2016

I was reminded of the charcoal shop, a sight I would come across every now and again in my childhood, when I stumbled upon one on the old streets of Ipoh about five years ago.

Occupying the ground unit of an old shophouse and with walls and floors darkened in varying degrees by carbon dust, the shop bore many similarities with the ones that I remember; the only clues of the time and the place were in the more modern looking implements used to sort, weigh and pack the charcoal and the sacks and bags that the charcoal was being packed into.

The charcoal shop -this one seen in Ipoh in 2010, was once a common sight in Singapore.

The charcoal shop, this one spotted in Ipoh in late 2010, was once a common sight in Singapore. The shop has since stopped operating.

Shops such these were commonplace in days when charcoal fired just about anything. From stoves and clothing irons in homes, to the ovens and furnaces of commercial establishments, the reach of charcoal then exceeded beyond that of gas and electricity. Demand fell with resettlement and redevelopment, electricity and gas were more suited for use in the public housing units the population was being moved into, and the use of charcoal was reduced to the occasional barbecue, and to the rare occasions when the charcoal stove would be dusted off for the making of festive snacks. From a high of 300 shops, the numbers were reduced to about a hundred by the time 1980 had arrived. Those that did survive, were to disappear over the two decades that followed.

The shop's interior.

The shop’s interior.

Besides the supply of charcoal for domestic use, trade in charcoal in Singapore also extended to a thriving import and export business. Based initially in the Rochor area, the trade moved to Kampong Arang at Tanjong Rhu when Nicoll Highway and the Merdeka Bridge were built. With the clean-up of the Kallang Basin reaching their final stages in the late 1980s, the trade was to be moved once again, this time to Lorong Halus (more information: The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay).

Little remains of the charcoal trade today. Like many of the trades that added life and colour to our world, it has since been replaced by the grey of the economy of the new age; remembered only by a few, whose memories will soon fade.





Strolls through less familiar streets of old

13 01 2012

Another wonderful place where I have been able to take a step back into the old world is the city of Ipoh in the northern Malaysian state of Perak. It is a place that I sometimes stop by on my drives up north, one that I may have had less of a connection with than perhaps Georgetown, Kuala Lumpur or Malacca, but one that I always enjoy a visit to. Ipoh does draw a crowd of visitors during the holiday season in Singapore, with many having relations or friends there, some having orginated from a city that has somewhat of a reputation for being a “sleepy town”. It isn’t hard to see why Ipoh acquired the reputation as even on the busiest of days, other than at the crowded eating places and streets crowded with cars, the five-foot-ways of the many pre-war shop houses that dominate the old town are eerily silent, with many of the shop units shuttered shut. However, sleepy as the city that rose from the wealth gained from tin deposits found in the limestone hills that surround it may seem, there is a lot more than the famous food and a break from the fast paced world that Ipoh has to offer.

The pouring rain brings an otherwise sleepy side lane in Ipoh to life - Ipoh has acquired a reputation for being a sleepy town.

A durian seller - another signs of life along the otherwise silent five-foot way.

Despite redevelopment in some areas of Ipoh, there is still a wealth of pre-war architecture to admire in the sleepy town.

One is the Art Deco styled former Ruby Theatre.

Arriving in the pouring rain one afternoon in late December, there wasn’t much I could do except head for Jalan Yau Tet Shin for lunch. The food that the city and its residents are very proud of does without a doubt, make an excellent starting point for any visitor to the city (although finding a parking space can prove a challenge). It is at Jalan Yau Tet Shin that two Steamed Chicken and Beansprout outlets that Ipoh’s residents swear by (read more about this in a previous post) can be found. The location of the two, Onn Kee (安記) and an old Ipoh favourite Lou Wong (老黄) also makes an excellent staging point to make a raid on the confectionery shops the city is equally famous for and to discover some of the old world I am always fond of strolling through – something that as a result of the rain I wasn’t really able to, choosing to wait out the afternoon’s deluge indulging myself in the offerings of another of Ipoh’s food institutions – Funny Mountain Beancurd, a stone’s throw from where I had lunch. The beancurd was exceptionally smooth but all too sweet for me and institution or not, I prefer the ones I am used to back home.

Ipoh's succulent and crunchy beansprouts - a great dish to accompany its equally famous steamed chicken.

There wasn't much to do but wait the afternoon's deluge out.

That is unless one has a toy windmill.

Funny Mountain Beancurd.

Perhaps with the sugar rush the beancurd gave me, the energy had to be expanded in doing some walking and not having previously explored another old part of town down Jalan Raja Ekram close to where another of Ipoh’s food institutions, Foh San (富山) can be found at “Dim Sum Kai” or Dim Sum Street – Jalan Leong Sin Nam. Foh San serves another of the city’s culinary must-trys, Dim Sum, which I did have the opportunity to try this time around. Having also previously tasted the Dim Sum across the street at Ming Court (明阁), I wasn’t quite convinced that what I did taste this time around was better than that.

Dim Sum at Foh San - another Ipoh favourite.

Another well known Chicken restaurant - Cowan Street along Jalan Raja Ekram.

The area around is one where there are several old streets and architectural gems hidden away. On a side street running parallel to Jalan Raja Ekram, Jalan Lau Ek Ching, is one which was a delight to discover. The street has apparently, had quite a bit of history – with a somewhat sleazy past based on news articles that I’ve found in the online newspaper archives of the National Library in Singapore. The is one report that caught my attention, with the explosions in Kuala Lumpur being very much in the news this week – that of a bomb that ripped through a bus that had been parked overnight on a side lane off the street during the Emergency in 1965. What drew me to the street was a row of gorgeous double storey pre-war buildings at the north end which I spotted from Jalan Raja Ekram, which, sadly, would have seen much better times. The signs for the houses are good though, with the obvious attempts at restoration and reuse by new and seemingly trendy businesses already having moved into a few of the units. On the other side of this row is another equally gorgeous row, one that is elevated. Each has a flight of stairs lined by curved balustrades leading up through stone pillars to a small compound.

A row of pre-war houses along Jalan Lau Ek Ching which is receiving a new lease of life.

The inside of one of one of the houses under renovation - a pub and a bridal studio are among the new tenants of the row of houses.

Another look at the exterior.

A staircase leading to another row of houses along Jalan Lau Ek Ching.

A row of pillars along the same row of houses.

Running parallel to Jalan Lau Ek Ching is Jalan Raja Musa Aziz (the former Anderson Road). At the junction of this street with Jalan Sultan Abdul Jalil (Clarke Street), is another beautiful sight to behold – that of the Art Deco building that once housed the Ruby Theatre, which again, is one that would have seen much better times. The building was completed in 1938 and leased to a Kuala Lumpur based cinema magnate Mr Ong Ee Lim who housed the Ruby in it. The building was also known as the Lau Ek Ching Building on the evidence of an old postcard, having been owned by the Ipoh gentleman who gave his name to the street I had just walked through, Mr Lau Ek Ching. Based on a report in an issue of the Straits Times dated 2 January 1938, I learnt that the building was built at a cost of $100,000 and designed by an Ipoh based Architect firm Boutcher and Company. It had a seating capacity of 800 at its opening and had its ground floor used as a covered carpark. Today it houses a furniture shop, looking somewhat forlorn and out-of-place even with much of the old that still surrounds it. There was much more to see than the two hours I had permitted. The two hours did feel like too short a time of course, but it wasn’t something that I minded. It did mean that I would have another reason to return to a city that is more old world than new and one which allows me to get away to into a world in which I am always able to find a lot more comfort than the one that I have found myself growing into.

An old postcard of The Ruby in 1960.

The former Ruby today.

A building belonging to the True Jesus Church.

A back lane in Ipoh I found myself wandering through.

The yellow world that Ipoh seems to be.


More of Ipoh
Posts from a previous visit

A stroll around the streets of Old Ipoh

Ipoh’s grand old railway station

The church of St. John the Divine

The flavours of Ipoh

Ipoh’s Spooner Road






A date with another old lady of Ipoh

28 01 2011

Following the wonderful walk I had discovering the grand old railway station, I had time enough to wander over to where another of Ipoh’s many delightful edifices stood – almost unnoticeable at a somewhat obscure little road off Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road), Jalan St. John. There, the quaint little red brick church, which when it was consecrated in 1912, had the honour of being the biggest church in Malaya. The church building had suffered from a infestation of termites which damaged its magnificent wooden roof structure and has painstakingly been restored, with restoration work which included a new roof being completed only at the end of 2010.

The Church of St. John the Divine in Ipoh. The church was completed in 1912.

The church building, the front of which is somehow dominated by a belfry that has been set out from the building by a portico, somehow exudes a sense of warmth from the red bricks of its exterior walls, and has the feel of a small country church. It is inside the church which delights most. As one enters the church, it is the pure simplicity of the church that makes it serenely beautiful, with the brown of the wooden pews complemented by the wooden roof and wooden chancel screen which dominates the altar. The chancel screen was apparently installed in 1928. Simple stained glass panels are also installed behind the altar, bring soft light that gives the interior a feeling of warmth.

The front end of the building is dominated by its belfry which is set out over a portico.

The wood of the pews is nicely complemented by the wooden roof and the chancel screen at the end of the nave.

The Chancel Screen after its installation in 1928.

Another view of the church's interior.

The wooden pews.

The church was consecrated on 30 April 1912 by the then Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of Singapore, Ferguson Davie. The consecration ceremony took place not long after the church’s official opening and first service on Easter Sunday and whilst the opening service held at 10 am was well attended so much so that, despite the church being the largest in Malaya, some people had to reportedly stand, a small congregation, attributed to the heavy rain all afternoon, attended the consecration. That was almost a century ago, and with the restoration work complete and the church building back in use, it is nice to know that this old lady would be entering her hundredth year, in the pink of health.

A photograph of the Sunday School attendees taken in front of the church building in 1929.

More views in and around the church.





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.





A quick taste of Ipoh

5 01 2011

No, this isn’t a blog about food. It is about the many experiences that I have in life, one of which involve some of the sinful (and mostly not sinful) pleasures of life, which includes food! Fresh from a date with a concubine on New Year’s Eve, and with the knowledge (yes, knowledge can sometimes be dangerous) that there is certainly more to Ipoh than rather nice old buildings and narrow streets – Ipoh is to many, better known for its food, I decided to indulge a little in some of the culinary treats that Ipoh offers.

Ipoh is well known as a glutton's paradise. Among its famous dishes is Sar Hor Fun found at stalls at either 73 or 75 Leech Street (Jalan Bandar Timah).

So, armed with the recommendations of a long time Ipoh resident whom I had met in Singapore, but with a little more than a day and the desire not to put additional strain on my tight fitting garments caused by the fast expanding waistline stemming from the overindulgences over the festive season, I decided to have a quick sampling what he had recommended. First stop was at one of the must-eat-at steamed chicken places, Onn Kee (安記) diagonally across on Jalan Yau Tet Shin from an old Ipoh favourite Lou Wong (老黄) (Onn Kee or Ong Kee as it is sometimes spelt also has a restaurant next door to Lou Wong).

The crowd at Lou Wong on Jalan Yau Tet Shin - popular with the locals for its chicken and bean sprouts.

Ong Kee (of Onn Kee) offers an alternative.

I arrived at about 7 in the evening, and a healthy crowd had already occupied the tables laid outside the restaurant (the crowd across at Lou Wong was even larger!). Ordering the standard fare, it promptly was served with what seemed like the standard practice in Ipoh, a generous amount of brown liquid which qualifies as sauce. Having made a pit stop at Lou Wong previously when I found the chicken to be smooth and tender, with maybe too generous a dash of sodium chloride in the sauce, I decided to take the recommendation of my friend to make a comparison. Onn Kee’s chicken as I bit into it felt a bit too tough and chewy and certainly not the tender smooth variety of steamed chicken I am used to in Singapore. The plus point, compared to Lou Wong’s was that it did taste a little less salty, and maybe had a richer taste. Where Onn Kee stands out is probably with its bean sprouts (known locally as “nga choy” in Cantonese or “tauge” – pronounced tow-gay in Malay) which was crunchier and tastier than its rival’s from across the street.

Ipoh is well known for its steamed chicken ... (the one from Onn Kee is shown here) ...

and ... which begs to be accompanied by crunchy bean sprouts ...

The chicken crew at Onn Kee ...

Of course we know that there is more to life, or rather food, in Ipoh than chicken and bean sprouts, and the Sar Hor Fun that I have previously mentioned. Ipoh has also a reptutation of having the best Dim Sum (not the variety with the word “Dollies” appended to it that MRT commuters in Singapore had a serving of very recently), on the Malayan Peninsula. Another long time favourite (when it comes to these bite sized treats in Ipoh) is the Foh San (富山) which is now housed in the mother of all dim sum restaurants along a street that has become so much associated with dim sum that it is know locally as “Dim Sum Kai” or Dim Sum Street, Jalan Leong Sin Nam. On the recommendation of my Ipoh insider, I headed instead across the street to Ming Court (明阁), where true to the reputation my friend had staked on his recommendation, dish after dish of some of the best dim sum I have had was served, washed down with a pot of tea. Of course I can’t say if it was the best, especially not having the opportunity to taste what Foh San has to offer.

Ming Court (as with Foh San) offers tasty treats of dim sum in Ipoh.

The aftermath ...

Walking around Ipoh does in fact give a sense of it being a glutton’s paradise. Another favourite among many Malaysians are its biscuit shops and salt baked chicken (chicken baked in rock salt). There is also an interesting concept which I guess comes from the fondness the locals have for eating chicken curry with bread and with sweet bread, to be found – Chicken in a Bun! Chicken curry wrapped in aluminium foil, in this case is baked in a sweet dough, allowing the finished product to be taken away and eaten almost anywhere, without the need for additional packaging. All that was certainly too much to handle in a matter of 24 hours – so I did the next best thing … take all that away to allow me to continue with my culinary exploration of Ipoh at my next destination, Kuala Lumpur.

Food - including biscuit shops are everywhere in Ipoh!

(Curry) Chicken in a bun another of Ipoh's famed delights.

What's inside the bun.

Another is Salt Baked Chicken - chicken baked slowly with rock salt - shops are found all over Central Ipoh





Painting the town red …

4 01 2011

It is not hard to find the colour red around most of the major cities in Malaysia and Singapore, red being considered an auspicious colour by the ethnic Chinese community. Red is a colour that screams out for attention and one that I love. Red for me is the colour of Chinese New Year, when red decorations, red lanterns and red (now mock) firecrackers, cast a bright glow over the streets in the lead up to the lunar new year, when as children we would look forward to the gifts of red packets (the practice these days is to fill the packets, or Ang Pow (Hong Bao in Hanyu Pinyin, with money). Red to me is also the colour of football (or soccer as some like to refer to the game that makes extensive use of foot action rather than what is actually referred to as football in many other parts of the world), being the colour of the top three English clubs (in terms of support) and with the popularity of team shirts these days, the Rooney, Fabregas and Gerrard brigade are very much out in force particularly during the weekends, when the shopping malls are awash in the red of football supporters. Red in fact is everywhere, and painting the town red on my recent trip to Malaysia were:

reflections off a puddle of water in the rainy Kuala Lumpur December;

a neon sign of a restaurant in Subang Jaya;

strawberries on sale;

tops of foldable plastic tables stowed away on Petaling Street;

fireworks in the New Year's sky over Kuala Lumpur;

a wrought iron gate of a temple in Central Kuala Lumpur;

a new world post box at the Railway Station;

an old world post box outside Pasar Seni;

the wagon of a train at the Railway Station;

a cosmetics outlet in a popular Kuala Lumpur shopping mall;

a phone booth near Pasar Seni in Kuala Lumpur;

Chinese New Year decorations on sale at a store in Ipoh;

lanterns illuminating the outside of a shop in Ipoh;

painted lettering on the pillar of a five foot way in Ipoh;

and of Malaysia on sale!





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.