By Mariam Mokhtar
When tin was king, Perak was one of the richest, if not the richest state in the Malayan peninsula. It had a large number of mansions, gambling outlets, and opium dens. It had many Mercedes Benz cars, had the largest consumption of one brand of brandy and large numbers of the concubines of taikos and expatriates.
Then came Maminco, the international tin scandal which sealed Ipoh’s fate. From prosperity, Ipoh became a virtual ghost-town. The streets were littered with garbage, unlike its heyday, when Ipoh was called The Garden City, and the roads were carpeted with flower petals, from the many trees and shrubs growing beside them.
With their fortunes changed, those in the tin trade had a choice. Stay poor, or re-invent themselves. Finally, after years as a backwater city, Ipoh was hailed, by Lonely Planet, as one of the cities one should visit, in 2016.
The efforts of various people finally came to fruition, but as one looks around the city today, one question springs to mind. At what cost?
Ipoh is known for its architectural, cultural and historical heritage but many buildings have been torn down, and replaced by skyscrapers. Many roads have been re-named, and fail to reflect their historical importance. Even our precious limestone cliffs have been destroyed for cement, or are obscured from view by ugly tower-blocks.
In some countries, the tourist boom is a main factor in the destruction of the country’s landscape (think Phuket) and lifestyle (Ibiza). Accidental or criminal acts, like defacing ancient structures (graffiti on the Egyptian pyramids), and ignoring local laws, like removing coral, (Perhentian Islands) have damaged the environment.
Tourists are responsible for most of these acts, but who would have thought that in Concubine Lane, the locals were destroying their own heritage? Concubine Lane, is also called Panglima Lane and was once known as Yee Lai Hong, where rich Chinese tycoons and British expats kept their mistresses in the town houses.
Concubine Lane’s re-branding may have stopped it from being turned into a car-park or another characterless modern development, but what is being done to preserve its cultural identity?
This quaint little lane is over-commercialised with traders trying to make a quick buck. Others complain that there is no desire to inform tourists about Concubine Lane’s significance and precious little is being done to maintain its architectural heritage.
The lane is turning into an outlet for cheap souvenir items from the People’s Republic of China. Art historians complain that hawker stalls and umbrellas are hiding the features that once gave the lane its unique character.
One person disagrees with this assessment of Concubine Lane’s failure, and said, “If the lane looked the same as it once was, I doubt if anyone would want to wander along it.
“I think it is praiseworthy that many interested individuals have boosted the area, and it does not cost any money to visit Concubine Lane, unless you buy something, eat at a restaurant or stay in one of its boutique hotels.”
Comparing the effort of the individuals who have re-kindled life in Concubine Lane and another landmark near Batu Gajah, he said, “Look at Kellie’s Castle. The government ploughed in around RM200,000 to make the ruins look good. It is supposed to be an unfinished mansion of an eccentric Scotsman, so why is the government completing what is supposed to be a ruin?
“Why make the ruins look modern? It defeats the purpose of the whole historical exercise. You don’t rebuild Stonehenge because the druids did not finish whatever they were supposed to be constructing.
“The entrance fee for Kellie’s Castle is over RM10. The state tourism board promotes one white man’s dream of living in a castle, but Concubine Lane affected the lives of so many people, the economy and the future generations of Ipoh. What did the state government do to help preserve it?”
On the flip side, there is a firm chorus of Ipohites who are voicing their concern over the rapid and unchecked pace of development, in Perak, and the lack of checks on those who abuse our cultural and historical heritage, for profit.
A former businessman wonders if Ipohites should demand that City Hall safeguards the identities of places like Concubine Lane. He wants to know if the mayor and the state tourism board have plans to preserve Ipoh Old Town.
Urging the authorities to act quickly, before the disappearance of our local heritage, he cited the mounting litter, the polluted Kinta River, which he said is a potential asset, the quarrying and the thoughtless development around limestone cliffs outside the city. He said, “The area around and including Concubine Lane, is turning into a bazaar for cheap souvenirs from China.”
A social worker said, “The shops should promote local crafts like rattan weaving, wooden clogs, and bamboo fans, rather than selling clothes, canned drinks or cheap souvenirs.”
Another Ipohite delivered perhaps the most critical assessment of Concubine Lane which he said, had been transformed from “a charming pedestrian-only historical precinct, to a crowded, crass commercial tourist haunt”.
He said, “The only resident there, Mr Loh, is overjoyed. His brother and sister-in-law have set up a shop in their house, selling nondescript items deemed desirable to tourists, and he is happily, showing-off photos taken on his smart-phone, with foreign tourists, in particular young, white women.
“The old buildings have been done up with complete disregard for the original facade and detail. The tenants are only interested in attracting business, by selling food and drinks, tourist wares, without caring about its history.”
He condemned the city planners for closing one eye to heritage preservation and said, “The new buildings erected on the two empty lots, by a city councillor, are a disgraceful abuse of city planning laws, but then who is surprised by this?”
He reserved praise for one boutique hotel and said, “The sole positive is the guesthouse managed by “Big John”, which is in keeping with the lane’s cultural and historical heritage. Of course, the established Chinese restaurant, Ko Kee, continues to draw in regular customers.”
Perhaps, we should ask why Concubine Lane has ended up as a “cheap place for the sale of tat”. In the past, the mistresses caused much angst, and today, the lane continues to court controversy, about heritage tourism.
So, should tourism take precedence over heritage? Perhaps, the president of the Perak Heritage Society (PHS) has a view on this?