“Never realised why the Canning Garden market is Dad’s favourite until I took a good look at its surroundings today: It’s so green, like a park.”

I didn’t put much thought into my Facebook post, which was accompanied with a photo of the market. Minutes later, I watched in astonishment as the number of Likes and comments climbed and climbed … what gives? Why on Earth do so many people relate to some boring throwaway observation about a humble neighbourhood market?

While I was contemplating this, a friend buzzed me. “Wah, every time you balik Ipoh, you pimp your hometown like some big time PR machine, huh?” she teased.

Guilty as charged. It was such an irony, though. Growing up, I couldn’t wait to get out of this hellhole.

Yes, I said hellhole. (Prepares to be pelted by stones by livid Ipohites)

Ipoh may be a city, in terms of statistics, but personality- and ambiance-wise, it feels like a small town. And small towns, as you can guess, can be close-knit to the point of being claustrophobic. Example: When I was dating my high school sweetheart, it was impossible to find a phak thor venue away from prying eyes. If we went to Kopitiam Yat Yat Seng to have his favourite Hailam chicken rice, we were bound to be seen by his mum’s friends. If we went anywhere near Silibin, on the other side of town, it was my turf. In Ipoh, everybody knows everybody. A friend observed: “One of our main tourist attractions may be Second Concubine Lane, but in practical terms, you can’t indulge in some scandalous shenanigan in Ipoh without being outed by your mum’s line-dancing kaki or some remote relative eventually!”

I was quietly rebellious as a kid. When I was eight years old or so, I got very mad about being punished for misbehaving, and decided I would run away from home (sorry, Mum and Dad! I was a kid!). After all, if the Famous Five could solve murder mysteries that perplexed even grownups, surely I could pull off something so elementary?

One afternoon, when both my parents – Dad was a teacher, and Mum, a school administrator – were out, I packed my belongings into the rattan basket that I used as a schoolbag. I had barely closed the house gate when I heard the sound of the tok tok mee* guy. Hang on. Would there be tok tok mee in wherever exciting new destination I was headed to? I only pondered two seconds before I raced back to the house to get some coins out of my dad’s drawer, in time to catch the tok tok mee guy who greeted me with a knowing, “Kon loe meen as usual (Dry mee as usual)?” Besides, I comforted myself while wolfing down a plate of piping hot noodles, I probably couldn’t go further than 10 feet down the street before some auntie in the neighbourhood rang up one of my parents.

In Ipoh, I know my neighbour, and my neighbour’s neighbour, and their neighbour. I grew up playing with my neighbours. We played hide-and-seek in my house because our garden had lots of mango trees which we could hide behind. We played kor kwan (police and thief) in Anis’ house because it has a wide porch.

I found out what a charpoy was when, during Deepavali, I got to sit on one such airy jute bed with my Punjabi neighbours at their open house.

Years later, this cultural trivia came in handy when a travel magazine commissioned me to write about the charpoy.

Most of us children may have grown up and flown the coop, but on festive seasons, our mothers still make it a point to exchange traditional kuih. Old habits are hard to kick. In Kuala Lumpur? Most of us don’t know who lives next door, unless we want to lodge a complaint about the other person. Sad truth about big city living.

Now, before you accuse me of being blind to my hometown’s flaws, let me assure you, I’m not. I’ll be the first to tell you that people who claim that eating in Ipoh is so much cheaper than Kuala Lumpur probably last went there five years ago, pre-inflation, pre-GST.

Recently in Ipoh, I ta-paued (took away) a bag of white coffee from a famous coffee shop and nearly dropped my drink in shock when the staff told me it was RM2.

I complained, “Eh, mahal lah (It’s expensive).”

She shrugged sheepishly. “Tahu. Tapi towkay mau (I know. But boss wants).”

It’s the same elsewhere. This morning, a plate of fried noodles set me back by RM5 in the Ipoh Garden suburb, the same as in a kopitiam in Happy Garden. So if you’re considering moving back to Ipoh because “things are so cheap”, I hate to break it to ya but that’s so last century, sista/brutha.

So my childhood wish has been granted. I did finally leave the nest and I’m now working out of a city hundreds of kilometres away from my old hunting grounds. Yet I find myself missing it for the same reasons I loathed it: It’s wholesome, communal, cosy. And I’m not alone, judging by the impassioned gushing in response to my Facebook post, from friends who make a living elsewhere but have nostalgic memories about our hometown:

“I love this market. We had a house with a beautiful garden just around the corner.” – Brenda James

“I miss this market! I grew up thinking all markets were like this. ‘Twas a sad and terrifying day when reality reared its head and I was exposed to ‘real’ wet markets!” – Celia Alphonsus

“Oh, this is my favourite market! We used to have breakfast at Hollywood, then walk over to buy stuff. I love how it doesn’t smell at all!!!” – Claire Bong

“I remember going there every weekend. I think they used to have coloured paving stones cos I remember trying to just walk/jump on stones of the same colour.” – Steven Mah

“It’s a cute little communal space. I used to like going there to patronise the little stores, buying nasi lemak and teh tarik.”– Justin Thoo

Brings tears to my eyes, their words. Call me a sentimental fool: You can take the kid out of Ipoh, but you can never take the Ipoh out of the kid.

Ipoh mali forever.

*A traditional mobile vendor who announces his arrival by hitting two sticks together, producing a ‘tok tok’ sound, hence the name.


Alexandra Wong (www.facebook.com/MadeinMalaysiabook) loves being a Malaysian.