How the tourists started flocking in

IPOH • The town's new-found tourism fame is largely centred on a small area in its old town on the left bank of the Kinta river.

It was in 2012 when the buzz began after renowned landscape architect Ng Sek San took over a derelict former Chinese opera performers' hostel, and turned it into a guesthouse quite unlike anything else in Malaysia.

The peeling paint of the building was left as is, along with the creeping trees that had grown on the walls of the abandoned structure.

The guesthouse, named Sekeping Kong Heng after the Kong Heng coffee shop on the ground floor, was built around these existing features, and earned accolades for its sensitive merger of old and new.

An adjoining block of six dilapidated shophouses was then refurbished by Ipoh-born Dexter Song and his wife Rachel Yeow, to become cafes and shops which won fans for their inventive fare and quirky decor. Collectively, they are now known as Sekeping Kong Heng square.

Others soon joined the show.

A stone's throw away is a lane, officially named Lorong Panglima, but evocatively nicknamed Concubine Lane, for once being reputedly the quarters for the second wives of rich tin tycoons.

It was once an atmospheric place, with trees growing inside abandoned houses, and beams creaking ominously.

Several houses were refurbished in 2013, and turned into souvenir shops and restaurants.

Concubine Lane is very popular with tourists but some feel that its brazen commercialism betrays the soul of the area.

So far, it is just this small part of town that attracts the heaving crowds; a few steps beyond, Ipoh remains the way the locals like it.

Carolyn Hong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'How the tourists started flocking in'. Print Edition | Subscribe