It was the first time that I was attending a street theatre performance while being pelted by night monsoon rain. Ah, what a glorious way to experience Ipoh old town.
Actors delivered melancholic accounts of lives in colonial times as they popped in and out of dark alcoves along Concubine Lane, where rich tin miners once kept small shophouses for their second and third wives. We, the 20 or so audience members, clad in soggy disposable raincoats, were literally soaking in the ambience.
A guide led us to another venue, which was another artistic first for me: witnessing a play inside an actual coffee shop – Kong Heng. The subject? A love affair between two of Ipoh’s famous dishes, chicken-prawn noodle soup (sarhor funn) and cream caramel.
We were watching (or rather, we were told, “immersing” ourselves) in Ascent: These Memories Were Made For Walking, a show by Christopher Ling of theatrethreesixty.
This was one of many arts, music, food and heritage events in The Other Festival (hashtag #Otherfest), organised in Ipoh by arts group Kakiseni from Oct 22 to Nov 8.
Patrick Teoh’s tales
I did the two-hour drive up from Kuala Lumpur on Halloween Saturday and upon landfall in Ipoh, my first task was to refuel with the renowned dry curry noodles at the Nam Chau coffeeshop. This place is at Jalan Bandar Timah (literally: Tin Town Road, a nod to the mines that made this place fabulously rich), the new epicentre for food and cultural action in Ipoh. A short walk away is the famous Ipoh sarhor funn shop Thean Chun (just next to Kong Heng).
After lunch, I gatecrashed Bar to Bar, an #Otherfest event where the waiting list had long burst its banks as probably half of Kuala Lumpur’s hipsters seemed to have congregated. The subject of adulation was a heritage walk by Patrick Teoh (who grew up in Ipoh before becoming English radio’s “voice of Malaysia” later on).
We began at the FMS Bar, the first watering hole (established 1906) of the four Federated Malay States, a classic hangout for colonial-era planters and miners.
Teoh recalled how it was run for the longest time by the elderly “Nephew”, who started out at 12 as an errand boy for his uncle. He seemed to be a hale and hearty fellow, but after the bar was evicted by the building owners in 2008 for “renovations”, the Nephew died within two years. Such are the tales of a town that you won’t find in tourist brochures (the bar remains closed till today).
We walked over to the nearby banks of the Kinta river, where in the late 19th century, loads of tin would sit waiting to be shipped away for smelting.
Here, Teoh spoke of the great Story Teller’s Tree.
“In those days, there were few sources of news or entertainment for the dirt poor coolies,” he recounted.
“Many would gather here and pay a bit of money to listen to people read from the newspapers. The story tellers would light a joss stick and keep on reading till it had burnt out. Those who didn’t like news, would choose others who told kung fu stories.”
The majestic tree is long gone, replaced with an anonymous electrical sub-station, the echoes of history drowned out by the gentle buzzing hum of “progress”.
Herbal tea empire
After Teoh’s tour, Ian Anderson, director of the heritage preservation group Ipoh World, took us into the Hakka Miners’ Club, which was beautifully restored into a museum just last year.
“The miners could gamble and smoke opium here. Before World War II, there were even geishas from Japan to serve them. Wives were not allowed in the club,” Anderson said with a smile.
Next door lies the original home of the Ho Yan Hor herbal tea empire.
“After the war, the founder (Dr Ho Kai Cheong) had only four Straits Dollars in his pocket,” explained Anderson.
“He took that money and bought medicinal herbs to boil into tea. It became so popular and soon he bought a bicycle to sell the tea all over Ipoh. Later, he bought a car, then a van, as he kept on building his business.”
From such humble beginnings, Ho Yan Hor has become Hovid, one of Malaysia’s leading manufacturers of pharmaceuticals sold in over 50 countries globally.
After such a sumptuous banquet of history, I needed even more heritage – the culinary kind. Fortunately I had the excellent Perak Good Food Guide with me, published by Star Publications back in 2008, but still eminently useful for my eating adventures in this state.
The book recommended Hoong Tho, another landmark restaurant further along Tin Town Road (nearby are the two original purveyors of Ipoh white coffee, namely Sin Yoon Loong and Nam Heong) where I had the excellent sanghar meen (stewed prawn noodles, a steal at only RM15).
To end this hugely satisfying day, I hopped over to the iconic Ipoh train station for Hall Of Horror: Bella Rahim’s Halloween Storytelling.
There, in a creepy former ballroom (the stately station heritage hotel has been abandoned) with dripping water, Bella did a great job donning different personas as she chilled us with several ghost stories.
Time and type
On Sunday morning, the huge pasar karat (rust or junk bazaar) greeted me in front of my hotel along Horley Street. There were old tea cups, wooden badminton racquets, electric fans, indeed Ipoh had a lot of moveable material heritage apart from its buildings!
After an excellent breakfast of popiah (spring rolls) and white coffee at Kong Heng, it was just a short walk to the Birch memorial clock tower (hidden behind Ipoh City Hall) where #Otherfest had its Time & Type Wait For No Man.
This is where we all met the “clockman of Ipoh”, Niccolas Cheah. The clock is sometimes called “Ipoh’s Big Ben” (it has the same chime as its famous London cousin). After it fell into disrepair in the 1990s, Cheah, then a secondary school student, volunteered as handyman – and restored it.
From there, it was a five minute walk to an old, dusty typesetting shop, Wai Oi Shiar, where printing is still done by selecting and (literally) stringing together each and every metal alphabet.
The business has long been superseded by newer technologies, and the elderly owners wanted to close shop and sell off everything. But the #Otherfest organisers persuaded them to wait, hoping that someone, somewhere, may come forward to preserve this as a cultural museum, rather than selling it all off as scrap metal (which is what happened to most of the stuff at what was once the world’s largest underground tin mine at Sungai Lembing, Pahang).
Five years ago, visitors to Ipoh old town could only come to eat the famous foods here, but they had nowhere to hang out after.
Today, thanks to the vision of people like local-raised landscape architect Ng Seksan and his partners, the area has been revitalised.
Above the Kong Heng coffeeshop, a hip boutique hotel offers modern comforts inside while maintaining its fetching, faded exterior.
Once dirty, unloved backlanes around and behind the coffeeshop have been transformed with low-cost but attractive methods such as brick pavements and flowering creepers on steel cables. Not only have new trees been planted, but old ones – like those fig trees at Angkor Wat – have been maintained, lending a sense of history and place.
The area has now become a lovely lifestyle hub called Kong Heng Square, where musical performances and crafts/flea markets are held. Around it, cappucino and cake outlets have popped up.
My final event at #Otherfest was 14 Leech Street Trail With Bernice Chauly. It refers to the former street name for Jalan Bandar Timah, where I had had such great food this weekend.
But as the writer Chauly read from her memoirs Growing Up With Ghosts, it was elevated into something more magical in the social milieu of 1980s Ipoh, when children undistracted by computers could treat a textile shop as a colourful theme park.
She took us through town in the late afternoon, then to the banks of the Kinta river, where under the shade of majestic rain trees, she recalled how residents had escaped from Japanese war-time torturers by digging mud pits there to hide.
“I’ve performed readings from my memoirs all over the world. But this festival is the first time I’ve done it in Ipoh, where the stories are set. It’s an emotional and cathartic experience for me,” said a visibly-moved Chauly.
The great rain trees at the river must have been the kind under which the story tellers of yore used to read newspapers out to the coolies. It was fitting that tales could still be told there.
The Other Fest runs in Ipoh until Nov 8. For details, check kakiseni.com. On Facebook, search under MyKakiseni and #Otherfest