Sprawled in the valley of looming limestone hills is Ipoh. Lonely Planet describes the city as largely a ‘transit town’ for tourists. Its convenient location makes this inevitable. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, for the more discerning traveller and for Malaysians far and wide, Ipoh is more than this: it is a land of unsurpassable cuisine. Makan-Makan and all that. How I crave the fried kway teow and the popiah as I sit in a small corner of rainy England!
But Ipoh is even more than food. I know this because I spent a couple of weeks in July, helping and observing the work of the Perak Oral History Project (POHP). As a history undergraduate at the University of Durham, I was interested in observing the process of interviewing people and of compiling a local and incredibly valuable archive. Back in Britain, history is big business. University courses are oversubscribed; television channels battle with oral history and genealogy programmes. So, I have to admit that I was slightly surprised, when I came to Malaysia, a country of colourful traditions, that there was relatively little emphasis on conservation and heritage. Progress is undoubtedly important, but one can only confront the present and the future with an awareness of what has come before.
It was, therefore, fantastic to see the enthusiasm and dedication of the POHP team. They had already collected an archive of memories of the Japanese Occupation, and were working on researching the Emergency (1948-1960). I attended three interviews, which illustrated the varied experiences of people who lived through the latter – from exciting jungle encounters to descriptions of daily life in bygone Ipoh. In fact, for me, the more mundane details of schooldays and errands, of opera and ronggeng were the most fascinating. History is not just dates, or major events; it is about the ordinary lives of people.
In between glasses of teh tarik and quite divine longan juice, I also had time to explore the area with my family. One of our best mornings was spent following the Ipoh Heritage Trail, led by our passionate guide, Raja. From the grandiose arches of the Railway Station to the atmospheric alleys of the Old Town, we saw a different Ipoh to that of gargantuan shopping malls. Certainly, I happily frequented those beautifully air-conditioned atria. Nevertheless, I was very glad to see that some of the old streets and buildings still survive. Although faded, the façade of the F.M.S. building, and the elegant bird cages and shadowy shutters of Panglima Lane are still wonderfully evocative. We even made a visit to the long established Star barber shop! It seems right that these places are remembered. Ipoh has impressive architecture and a rich, multicultural history. For visitors, especially, these places (along, undeniably, with the people…and the food!) mark out Ipoh’s appeal.
It was not my first visit to Ipoh, but I feel that it was the first time that I saw Ipoh properly. I felt privileged to be part of a small, budding project that is striving to raise the prominence of Ipoh’s past.