SPECIAL REPORT

Sleepy Ipoh awakens

Once a booming tin mining town that had seen better years, the capital city of Perak in Malaysia is now slowly transforming into a hip town, thanks to imaginative restorations of its history and heritage

Ipoh's old town has emerged as a tourists' delight: peeling indigo paint on century-old walls, gently crumbling buildings given a chic makeover, and delicate murals peeking out from alleyways.

With selfie sticks leading their steps, they crowd every inch of Ipoh's narrow lanes on weekends and holidays.

"We never had tourists before. People would come to visit friends and family, but hardly anyone came here as tourists," said Mr Law Siak Hong, vice-president of the Perak Heritage Society.

But Ipoh is now hip, and even has its own arts festival, marking the ascendance of this once-slumbering town into tourism stardom. Held for the first time in October last year, the "Other Festival" drew thousands to the west coast city for music and theatre and to enjoy its famed street food, as well as newly arrived avant-garde culinary offerings.

According to government figures, some seven million tourists visited Perak in 2014 and likely more last year. This includes many Singaporeans who take advantage of the direct flights or a new fast train service here for the weekend.

The rediscovery of Ipoh, 200km north of Kuala Lumpur, is not surprising after the inscription of George Town and Malacca as world heritage cities in 2008 turned nostalgia into a big business.

Once a wealthy city built on tin mining, Ipoh still has a sizeable collection of evocative colonial buildings and traditional craft businesses left untouched after it slid into slumber when tin prices collapsed in the 1980s.

It began to awaken around 2012 with the imaginative restoration of a former Chinese opera performers' hostel into a quirky guesthouse by landscape architect Ng Sek San, one of Malaysia's best-known talents.

An Ipoh boy, Mr Ng and several friends bought the hostel to prevent its demolition, and proceeded to turn it into the atmospheric Sekeping Kong Heng guesthouse.

In rapid succession, others followed suit in transforming old shophouses into new cafes, and nostalgic murals were painted in alleyways by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic who won fame for his work in George Town.

A city of 750,000 residents, Ipoh is on a roll but it's not all been smooth sailing. Many decry its rush to fame and fortune as more driven by money than a real appreciation of its history and heritage.

Mr Law said not all the new developments had been created equal. The Sekeping Kong Heng development, he said, deserved accolades for its sensitivity to conservation and local traditions. But subsequent developments, he noted, were not as appealing.

Still, its promising beginnings have lured some of the young of Ipoh to return to try their fortune here.

Ms Gladys Tee, 33, arrived last year from Singapore where she had worked as a graphic designer for eight years. She now works as a freelance designer and teacher in a special needs school. "When I was younger, I didn't feel very warm towards Ipoh," she said. "Now, I am in love with my home town again."

It now has space for her creative interests such as making postcards of Ipoh for visitors to write to anyone, anywhere in the world. She will post the cards for them, as a way to encourage people to connect with each other.

Ipoh-born Dexter Song, 30, came home from Melbourne in 2012 to refurbish a row of six derelict shophouses. "The old town of Ipoh holds strong sentimental value for our family as we would frequent the area for food, banking, and purchase of home goods," he said.

He and his wife Rachel Yeow, 31, pooled their energies to rejuvenate the old shophouses with new businesses that showcased creativity. The Burps & Giggles cafe opened in 2013, followed by a store trading in the nostalgic items of childhood such as iceballs.

Adopting ideas from the big cities, their work was quirky - their shops still sported century-old peeling paint, exposed beams, and original signboards.

Mr Song said Ipoh's transformation had given confidence to the young to try out new ideas. But he also believed that Ipoh has reaped all it could from tourism, and needed to diversify its economy through fresh ideas and education.

He left early this year to return to the field of finance in Melbourne, though he remains involved in the Ipoh businesses and in keeping the momentum going.

Ipoh's revival may offer exciting challenges for the young, but Ms Tee also agreed that opportunities were limited because many old-timers did not see the need for improvements.

Mr Alex Lee, 26, who had run an art and curio shop, also left after returning to his home town for a year. He said there wasn't yet a market for art, and felt disillusioned by what he saw as Ipoh trying to imitate Penang.

"After Penang, everyone is eager to become another Penang but in Ipoh, it's just a lot of hype," he said.

It isn't as dire as that, although it can seem that way when the crowds push for plastic souvenirs, rush for food and nudge people with their selfie sticks.

The city is still rich with heritage and traditional craft businesses, and tourism does offer a genuine cultural interest. But the pressures towards commercialism are growing. Unlike George Town, it doesn't have a Unesco listing to act as a brake on developmental pressures.

Mr Law said Ipoh needed development that did not divorce its history from its heritage buildings, as "heritage is the pretty cousin of history". He hopes that the tourism boom will encourage people to learn about Ipoh's history, "and the rest, we have to leave to fate".

On a more positive note, Ms Tee was heartened that outsiders now appreciated Ipoh's rich heritage.

"It will be great if there is more development with a purpose, from the heart, and which is not just about money," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Sleepy Ipoh awakens'. Print Edition | Subscribe