The café is packed to the rafters with trendy young things sipping espresso and digging into towering hamburgers. Punters at tables made from recycled doors are bathed in mid-afternoon sunshine thanks to skylights in the ceiling, which accentuate the tones of the colourful murals which decorate the walls of the time-weathered shophouse. A tree grows from the floor, its branches outstretched to the light. We could be in Singapore, Hong Kong, or even trendy Bangkok, but we’re not. This is the new face of the sleepy, unassuming but utterly endearing Malaysian mountain town of Ipoh.
Ipoh’s Old Town has been going through a metamorphosis of late. The traditional two-storey shophouses of this quiet but historic quarter have been loving reincarnated by a generation of Ipohans who have returned home after study abroad, bringing back with them the cool charm and culinary innovations of the big city. This might not be surprising to outsiders – many cities go through such regenerations, and many traditional enclaves across Asia have been gentrified, from Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan to Singapore’s Chinatown – but it’s that it’s happening in typically stoic Ipoh, a city that’s built a culture out of resisting change, that’s most surprising.
Ipoh is a living time capsule; with a rich Chinese tradition, a food culture renowned across Asia, and a proud sense of place, the tiny plateau city, ringed by towering limestone peaks, has always shunned the trends so eagerly adopted in Malacca or Penang, preferring instead to be a bastion of tradition in a world obsessed with change. Until now.
“Ipoh has always been a city that’s quite happy staying the way it has always been, and that’s great when it comes to preserving our heritage, especially our food culture,” says Ipoh-born foodie Maggie Chooi. “But this resistance to change isn’t sustainable; the next generation of Ipohans need to create their own take on those traditions, as we see in the cool cafes and boutiques of Old Town.”
Much of the new face of Ipoh Old Town is centred around Burps and Giggles, a café-cumrestaurant housed in a former dressmaker’s shophouse. Created by former finance and logistics professional Dexter Song and his mother Julie Song, who cut her teeth on equally racy restaurants Indulgence (you’ll see some of their favourite pastries and desserts on the menu) and Allegra, Burps & Giggles isn’t just a new kid on the block enjoying the limelight; it’s a unique blend of eye-catching industrial-chic décor and innovative, often eclectic comfort food that would win favour anywhere in Asia. Think the likes of mu shu lamb man tao-style pancakes; lamb sausages with pesto egg custard and spicy beans; towering signature Wagyu burgers; and soul-soothingly-good caneles from the café counter. A sign above says “Good Food, Like Good Things, Takes Time.”
Just steps from Burps & Giggles are two other eye-catching, utterly-eclectic foodie offerings: Missing Marbles (disguised as a traditional optical clinic) and Buku Tiga Lima, managed by Burp & Giggles. Missing Marbles has a fascinating menu that adds modern twists to Asian classics, from soy-braised lamb ribs with sakura leaves; and calrose rice with minced chicken, seaweed and hanjuku eggs; to delicate lychee jelly with custard and vanilla ice cream. The décor is the entertainment here, from bare industrial walls covered in handwritten blackboards, through to paper origami murals, brightly-coloured festival lanterns, and of course, marbles in virtually every corner.
Buku Tiga Lima is more of the same eclectic décor, but with a menu that’s decidedly more decadent. Highlights include toasted bagels with foie gras or smoked duck; all spiced chicken crepes with coriander and mango; and the crowd-pleasing hibiscus curd pancakes.
But these hipster havens are just the beginning of Old Town’s new persona. Step through the old shophouses or amble down the narrow alleyways, with their fun murals and leafy canopy, and enter an ancient courtyard that’s half alfresco dining and half vintage garage sale. Here you’ll find the remains of a beautiful neo-classical building that now houses Sekeping Kong Heng, a cool, ten-room boutique hotel. Much of the original brick building, with its distinctive colonial touch, has been preserved, with guests offered direct access into the shaded courtyard behind.
To one side of the courtyard, opposite a bench where old men escape the afternoon heat, the Ipoh Craft Nerds have set up shop, selling homemade arts and crafts on stands and old kitchen tables. A gleaming brass gramophone stands atop a tower of old cook books. Above is a collection of chipped but beautifully decorated Chinese tea sets from the 1930s.
“It’s amazing to see such a transformation, and to play a role in it,” says Alex, owner of Legenda, a cool local fashion boutique housed in a crumbling former kitchen. A banyan tree grows from within the middle of the boutique and 1960s Cantonese pop plays on an old record player. The whole space is flooded with light from cracked skylights high above.
Outside in the shade of the courtyard, there is a more modern touch to the time-worn space. In a pint-sized, glass-encased barber shop, seventy five-year-old Thirunavu Karusu al Krishnan, known by generations of customers to his Star Air-Conditioned Hair Dressing Salon, now part of the Burp & Giggles café, as Uncle Thiru, continues to cut hair with patience and dexterity. As he gives me a trim, much to the interest of café goers beyod the glass façade, he points to a black and white photo on the wall. “I was just 13 when I started at the barber shop, sweeping up hair and helping out.” The shop closed in 2011 when the shophouses were redeveloped, but instead of retiring, he incorporated his barber’s chair into the new vibe, setting up the New Star Salon at the centre of the courtyard. “It’s good to see some vitality in the Old Town. It’s good to see people enjoying, young people. Everyone makes their own future.”
Freshly trimmed, I head beyond the cool cafes to Lorong Panglima, otherwise known as Concubine Lane, a long, narrow lane of shophouses, some beautifully preserved, some worn and abandoned. An empty lot beyond a rusty Chinese moon door is filled with tall green grass. Yet change is afoot here too; Tiny Art Space is a fascinating little boutique owned by Yu Zhen that specialises in arts and crafts made in Ipoh and its surrounding state of Perak. “It’s important to foster the local arts movements, not just try to make money,” says Zhen, standing in the tiny space that’s part art gallery and part craft shop. “We need to ensure that local artists have a chance to show their talents, especially here in Ipoh.”
It’s food for thought as I continue further down Concubine Lane, the sun hanging low in the sky. And then I hear it, the gentle, waning tones of The Rolling Stones. I trace the music to the end of the lane and stumble across the newly opened Big John’s Music Shack, a live music venue and traditional British pub opened by Manchester-born John Edward Lomax, who fell for a local girl and moved to Malaysia when he retired. I finish my explorations with a pint of Aspall Suffolk cider at the bartop. The two-level venue has a band pit, imported beers on tap and rock and roll prints on the walls. It feels as though it should be in Merseyside or Ealing.
“It’s exciting to see so much happening in Old Town,” says John. “The city has its traditional areas and that’s fine, but it also needs to beat the path of its future and we’re happy to be on the cusp of it.” I say cheers to that.