By James Gough
Ipoh, the Town that Tin Built, is beginning to come alive and heritage preservation is playing a big role. Since the collapse of the tin industry in the late eighties Ipoh has slowly but surely been on a downward spiral. Many of its youth, attracted to the more progressive cities of Kuala Lumpur and Penang, have left Ipoh in a mass exodus, earning it the label of being a retirement town. Concomitantly, old buildings, some of them well worth preserving, have been left to rot and decay, some even collapsing, as in the case of Concubine Lane.
Movement at Last
Finally things are beginning to move in Ipoh. Ipohites with nostalgia, as well as property developers, are beginning to take an active interest in preserving Ipoh’s rich heritage and some of its buildings. If we drive along several roads in New and Old Town, we will notice that progress has been made in certain old shop lots which have been upgraded with their exterior façades maintained while their interior have been modernised.
Currently, we are seeing a proliferation of this ‘preservation of Ipoh’ with the ‘restoration’ of multiple units of properties which their owners say will be turned into boarding houses or boutique hotels or “restored just to keep the spirit of Ipoh alive”. A welcome spirit indeed and one which Ipoh Echo has set out to explore and document.
‘Sekeping Kong Heng’: A Guest House
Over at Old Town amongst the Heritage Trail lies the Dramatist Hostel, more popularly known as Kong Heng coffee shop famous for its kai see hor fun and other local food fare. The property which is bordered by Leech Street (Jalan Bandar Timah), Jalan Panglima, the adjacent lane till Belfield Street (Jalan Sultan Yussuf) was purchased by its current owners in 2008. This is a 3-storey building where actors stayed and rehearsed and performed at the Chinese Opera Theatre next door which has since been demolished but the hostel remains.
One of its owners is renowned landscape architect Ng Sek San, an Ipoh boy, who said that “Ipoh was a good place to grow up” and felt that “it should be preserved for the next generation”. However, for Ng “restoration is not just about restoring, that would become a museum. I want something that is living. Every building has a spirit. We should visualise and build around that spirit.”
Late last year Kong Heng coffee shop was closed for five days for a clean-up and that was all the attention paid to it. Not so for the hostel that Ng has transformed into a guest house – ‘Sekeping Kong Heng’ (a slice of Kong Heng).
The wood walls of the partitioned rooms on the first floor have been replaced with concrete sheets and each room has been fitted with its own bathroom. There are eight rooms on this floor.
On the second floor, the open floor now has two bathrooms plus two suspended air-conditioned glass houses above the rehearsal floor which can also be used as a function room. As Ng explained “we provide the space and allow the users creativity to take over, which should appeal to young people”.
While the main Kong Heng building has been restored the kitchen at the back has been maintained and made an excellent example of adaptive reuse by building another two storeys over it which adjoins it to the original building by the staircase in between.
The first floor annexe is ‘literally’ a covered open-air family room. It can accommodate one double and four single beds. The bedroom walls are of wire mesh and the tall uncut trees keep the room cool and comes with a mosquito net.
The second floor annexe is an open-air communal room with tables and chairs. The “kitchen is planned to become a café later on” while the there are no plans yet for the ‘store’ which has been cleared of its intruding roots. The space between the two buildings has been paved with cobblestone and the entire ground floor is kept cool under a canopy from the original matured trees.
From the main road, the building appears that nothing has changed other than the paved lane and newly-planted trees. But then Kong Heng coffee shop is just 25% of the total property. As for the cost, Ng says he pays more for labour than material as he uses mainly local material. Ng only uses T5 fluorescent tubes (it’s environmentally friendly) and has installed grease traps (I don’t want to pollute the Kinta River). His plan for the rest of the property is “not thought of yet”.
5-Star Boutique Hotel In New Town
Unlike Kong Heng, 63-year old Fong Soo Har, the owner of Tin City Hotel which is still under construction, has his hotel’s plans all laid out.
The hotel located on three units of shop houses along busy Brewster Road (Jalan Sultan Idris Shah) is scheduled for completion in May next year. It will be a 5-star boutique hotel, eight storeys tall and will have just 26 rooms with two being duplex penthouses on the top floor which also houses the swimming pool. The hotel will also be the first in Ipoh to have an elevated car park for 12 cars.
Eight years ago Fong began investing in property in New Town and subsequently purchased three units along Jalan Sultan Idris Shah for the hotel and another seven units across the road. His reason for investing in Ipoh is because “I love Ipoh. KL is like New York – too busy. I grew up in Ipoh. I love it here and want to keep it looking like before.”
Fong was born and raised in Tronoh. His father owned a tin mine there but when he grew up he made furniture cabinets at Gunung Rapat and later expanded his business to a factory at Lahat.
He left for New York in the late 80s “when business was very bad” also making furniture cabinets there. After two years working with a friend he started his own business in New York.
The original building was a three-storey building with half-moon French windows for its frontal façade. Fong maintained the front façade because “that is what it looked like driving down Brewster Road”.
In order to ensure his ideas stayed focused, Fong brought in his New York architect Renny Booth whom he worked with for over 14 years.
He chose the name Tin City Hotel “because the whole hotel will be a tin mine story”.
Fong hasn’t worked out the details for the interior yet but he plans to put a replica of a palong on the top floor complete with water flowing down to the pool area which can be seen as one drives along Jalan Sultan Idris Shah.
More Restoration in the Pipeline
Lim Ko Pi is a Kopitiam-style coffee house, located at 10‑16 Hugh Low Street (Jalan Sultan Iskandar) before the intersection with Belfield Street. It is one of two red buildings (to the right) with the yellow Oversea Building in between.
Interestingly, its owner Lim Chai Hock is a Kedah citizen who married Ipoh girl Lee Yoke Chee and with their three daughters are all interested in preserving Ipoh’s heritage.
Lim who has worked around Malaysia, currently works overseas. He compared Ipoh to China Town Kuala Terengganu “which is less than a kilometre long but has been well preserved and is a huge tourist attraction there”. Lim hopes to duplicate that model for Ipoh explaining “Ipoh is a hundred years old and spread out and preservation opportunities are everywhere.”
One of the reasons he purchased 10-16 Hugh Low Street is because the Oversea Building “is a landmark in Ipoh and should be preserved”.
To cement his conviction that Heritage Tourism in Ipoh has potential, Lim has since made some very significant property purchases. Another landmark he has purchased is the 3-storey SPH De Silva building at the intersection of Belfield Street (Jalan Sultan Yussuf) and Station Road (Jalan Dato Maharajalela). This ‘Neo-Renaissance design building is one of Ipoh’s oldest commercial buildings and restoring it “contributes towards the city’s fine streetscape”.
At the intersection of Hugh Low Street and Chamberlain Road (Jalan CM Yussuf), Lim has also purchased seven shop lots which, wife Lee says, will be painted the seven colours of the rainbow. The reason for the purchase: “the buildings are still in their original condition but more importantly they all have a balcony which makes them unique”. Already two of the buildings have been painted red and yellow.
Lim’s vision for his properties is to restore and preserve them. All the properties are currently being upgraded and restored. However, his plans for 10-16 Hugh Low Street is to turn it into a boutique hotel with nine rooms, function room and two diners.
The efforts of these three entrepreneurs are testimony that the spirit of Ipoh Heritage is catching on. The heritage activity that may have started at the Old Town Heritage Trails has now spread to New Town so maybe it is timely that the Kinta Heritage Group should come out with heritage maps 3 and 4 which will cover New Town.
Hopefully with the featuring of the efforts of these three entrepreneurs more individuals, and possibly corporations, will come forward to preserve Ipoh town for the next generation to be able to appreciate its past.