Ipohites have reason to toast Lee Yee Tsong for his effort to restore the FMS Bar & Restaurant, in Ipoh’s old town, to its former glory.
In a move which is uncharacteristic of most Malaysians, this businessman will not demolish Ipoh’s famous landmark and replace it with a bland modern construction of glass and polished steel. He is to be applauded for preserving an ornate structure of architectural merit. In doing so, he will help retain a chunk of our past.
When history is sidelined in our schools, our youth fail to appreciate and hold dear the places that helped shaped our young nation. Who knows how many policies, political machinations and players’ tactics were hatched in the FMS Bar?
The ‘FMS Bar’, as it is affectionately called, is a 104-year-old restaurant in Brewster Road (Jalan Sultan Idris Shah). It was named after the Federated Malay States (FMS), which comprised Perak, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan and Selangor. This federation was formed in 1896 to be financially self-sustaining, and not burden the British Empire. Originally sited in Belfield Street (Jalan Sultan Yussuf), the FMS Bar relocated to its current site, in 1923.
Popular Watering Hole
This 19th-century Chinese-style shophouse was built by a Hainanese immigrant and became a popular meeting-point for European miners and planters, as well as a favourite watering hole for cricket, rugby and football sportsmen, who played on the Ipoh Padang opposite. Until its recent closure, the FMS Bar was the oldest functioning bar and restaurant in Malaysia.
Anyone privileged enough to sample refreshments in its cool ambience would also have experienced a time warp, surrounded by colonial antiques, historical paraphernalia and a large portrait of Princess Elisabeth. Hopefully, these objects will make a welcome reappearance when the FMS Bar’s doors reopen to the public.
During a tour last February, Lee said that restoring the building was an enormous undertaking, “I need to source for the best of raw materials such as meranti, imported tiles for the flooring and other quality materials for the doors and windows”. He maintained that the building would keep its original façade.
His ambitious plans for the FMS Bar include converting the second floor into a boutique hotel, retaining the ground floor as a restaurant and part of the first floor for private functions. The FMS Bar last traded in March 2008 and has been closed and unoccupied ever since.
Let’s hope that the FMS Bar and Restaurant will serve Ipoh’s best sizzling steaks to equal, or excel, those served in Kuala Lumpur’s Coliseum Café & Hotel in Batu Road (Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman). This KL institution has retained its unpretentious colonial charm and any discerning diner might be forgiven for mistaking the old waiters, looking comical in their one-size-fits-all white uniforms, as relics passed down from the colonial age.
But we are confident that the FMS Bar will not end up like the Mitre Hotel, in Killiney Road in Singapore, which was eventually sold to property developers in 2008. In the 1960s through to the 1990s, the Mitre Hotel had a welcoming trademark of hot-and-cold-running girls amusing the Vietnam War Veterans, and oil-field workers on shore-leave from the rigs. But in its heyday, this gorgeous Chinese mansion, nestling in its luxurious grounds in the shadows of the skyscrapers, was one of the popular hotels in early 20th Century Singapore.
Nevertheless, Lee’s project to revive another one of Ipoh’s major landmarks is much appreciated. The thought that Ipohites and its visitors can drop in for a cool long draught before they continue their journey along Ipoh’s famous heritage trail, is one that intoxicates.
Meanwhile at a press conference recently, Lee attributed the slow progress of the restoration to his intention to retain the building to its original design.
He has already ordered the floor tiles with designs on them from Vietnam, while roof tiles used during that period are being sourced. “Hopefully, it should be completed by the end of 2010”, he said. “Actually, I am hoping to find a Hainanese cook who can serve their style of western food when we are ready.”