Rattle the tin for comeback town

Amy Cooper explores Ipoh, a city where history and the future collide.

Ipoh's historic Dramatists' Hostel was once a boarding house for Chinese Opera actors. The performers departed long ago, but the show goes on.

Within this 1920s building, heritage and futurism collide in a rare visual drama. Upstairs, a new avant-garde boutique hotel, Sekeping Kong Heng, explores the limits of design. Downstairs, a 50-year-old coffee shop personifies Ipoh's unchanged history, its regulars largely oblivious to the creative boundaries being pushed one floor above.

Sekeping Kong Heng has the world of Malaysian architecture talking. It's a radical departure for Ipoh, the capital of Perak state in northern Malaysia, known for delicious local food and its tin mining history rather than adventures in extreme design.

The hotel occupies the top two storeys of the crumbling, neoclassical building in Ipoh's Old Town. Original flaking paint and dilapidated brickwork frame raw cement floors and scarred old floorboards. Even trees, which have crept inside over time, are allowed to remain.

"Floating" glass bedrooms are suspended from the ceiling of the old rehearsal hall among the timber beams, and the hotel's astonishing centrepiece - its take on a top-floor penthouse - is a vast room with no walls, just mesh and filmy white curtains between you and the sky.

It's the work of Ipoh-born landscape architect Ng Sek San, one of the hotel's owners. His work is usually seen in Kuala Lumpur's public spaces and commercial buildings. His hotel sits atop an Ipoh institution.

The ground-floor Kong Heng coffee house is a beloved time capsule of worn marble tables, wooden chairs and food stalls. It's what most visitors know of Ipoh - food and more food: the sought-after sar hor fun, curry mee, popiah, satay; dishes bequeathed by the local ethnic mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian.

Ipoh is the mother's kitchen of Malaysia. Its children return frequently from big cities and other countries to sip and slurp their favourite bowls of secret recipes from the same stallholders - "aunties" and "uncles" who have fed them for decades.

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One of the joys of sleeping in the hotel's wall-less room up above is the wake-up call of this exquisite aroma, wafting in with 1000 others from the hawker-rich Old Town, along with the clatter and chatter of Ipoh's frenetic breakfast scene (locals eat early here, because when the day's produce runs out, the menu ends).

The hotel is a bit of an architect's idyll, skipping some creature comforts in favour of aesthetic purity (although room service, direct from downstairs, doesn't come much better than this). But it's worth experiencing.

Whether you're an "architourist" or just a lover of beauty, Ipoh's buildings and their stories are reason enough to visit. The state capital has a population of a little more than 700,000; the central areas are walkable.

Just a couple of blocks from Kong Heng is Ipoh's showiest building, the Railway Station. All soaring arches and stately domes, the white 1917 neoclassical extravaganza recalls Ipoh's grandest hour.

In the early 20th century the city was the prosperous heart of Malaysia's tin boom. The station and its equally ostentatious neoclassical neighbour, the Town Hall and Post Office building, were erected by British colonists at a time when Ipoh seemed the centre of the universe. Around them sprang up other proud edifices: the Italian Renaissance-style Straits Trading Building, the art deco Mercantile Bank, the High Court, the Perak Hydro Building, and the spectacular pink and white, neo-Renaissance HSBC Bank.

A short stroll takes us to another fascinating relic of the tin boom: the Old Town's Concubine Lane, which dates from the turn of the past century. A narrow laneway of two-storey pleasure houses, where opium and gambling dens flourished and Chinese mining tycoons housed their mistresses, it's a passage to another time.

Gazing at the gleaming pillars and majestic proportions of Ipoh's finest buildings it isn't hard to imagine the city's heyday, when Perak's Kinta Valley was the world's richest tin field. Chinese immigrants flooded in from the 1820s and founded Malaysia's tin industry here (70 per cent of Ipoh's population is Chinese today). They were joined by British colonists later in the century.

Ipoh, at the furthest navigable point on the Kinta River, was a frontier town of speculators, tycoons, entrepreneurs, rogues and dreamers. The world came to its doorstep. And then, in the 1980s, tin crashed and the world went away again, leaving behind grand buildings, great roads and railways, and the ghosts of an enormous party.

Today, parts of the city resemble an abandoned movie set, the once-bustling Chinese shophouses and tin tycoons' mansions fading and crumbling. The new heritage tourism movement hopes to save the rest, and this task falls mainly to Ipoh's wealthier sons and daughters, people such as Ng Sek San, who treasure these buildings as childhood friends.

They're opening hotels, cafes, galleries and restaurants in them, hoping to attract a younger crowd and maybe emulate the "hip heritage" success of Perak's northern neighbour Penang, where it's hard to find an old building that isn't inhabited by something cool or cute.

We visit the recently opened Burps and Giggles cafe and bar, housed in an old dressmakers' building on the road behind Kong Heng. It's the latest venture from Ipoh-born Julie Song, former model, celebrity chef and menu planner for Malaysia Airlines' platinum passengers.

Next door, Julie's son operates Buku Tiga Lima, specialising in bagels and crepes.

Song also owns Indulgence Restaurant and Living, an award-winning restaurant and boutique hotel in a former tycoon's mansion in Ipoh's old millionaires' quarter. She plans more developments.

Ipoh's largest heritage development yet is set to open later this year. Tin City Hotel, planned as Ipoh's first five-star property, has eight storeys and 26 rooms, two of which are duplex penthouses, one with its own pool. Owner Fong Soo Har is another proud local made good, keen to add his design spin to Ipoh's heritage. The finished hotel, he hopes, will be a stunning rebirth of what began as three ruined old shophouses on historic Brewster Road, so rundown that only their combined facade could be preserved.

Some locals say the hotel could be too much for an understated city without the tourist masses of KL or Penang. It's audacious, maybe even a little crazy, to inject all this chic and luxury and outre design. But Ipoh people have always preferred a hunch to a certainty. Like their tin-mining forefathers, the heritage revisionists are speculators so keep building. They know this city is built on luck, a giddying spin of the wheel of fortune, and sense it is time for it to turn again.

FOUR MORE LOCAL SECRETS

RESTAURANT SIN FONZIE

Noodle perfectionist Alan Wong's claypot noodles with prawns stand out in a city spoilt for foodie excellence. 53 Jalan Sultan Abdul Jalil.

POH WOH THONG

Chinese medicine practitioner Francis will brew you up a potion for whatever ails you at his hole-in-the-wall juice bar. 71 Jalan Theatre.

PURPLE CANE TEA HOUSE

In a beautifully adapted old building, a friendly team serves up tea-dominated delicacies. Don't miss the deep-fried sweet potato balls with green tea dip. 2 Jalan Dato Tahwil Azar.

THEAN CHUN CAFE

This famed old cafe is where you should order Ipoh's finest egg custard. Get there early — they sell out fast! 73 Jalan Panglima.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Ipoh is 2½ hours north of Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia Airlines flies twice a day between Sydney and KL. Travel direct to Ipoh from KL on the ETS (Electric Train System); the fastest service takes just less than two hours. One-way tickets start at 25 ringgit ($8.50).

STAYING THERE

Sekeping Kong Heng: Rates start at 200 ringgit for a standard room. See sekeping.com/kongheng.

Indulgence Restaurant and Living: The seven themed suites start at 420 ringgit. See indulgence.com.my.

Regalodge: A comfortable, central option. Rates start at 139 ringgit. See regalodge.com.my.

TOURING THERE

Free walking tours operated by the local heritage society depart from the main entrance of Ipoh Railway Station at 8am each Saturday.

NEED TO KNOW

Street names were changed from British to new Malay names in the 1980s but many locals still use the old ones (for example, Tin City Hotel is on Brewster Road but the modern street name is Jalan Sultan Idris Shah). City maps showing both are available in bookstores.

MORE INFORMATION

tourism.go.my

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