IPOH, Nov 15 — You might just walk right pass this kooky café, if it weren’t for the rainbow-hued Chinese parasols dangling over your head.
The aroma of freshly-pulled shots of espresso and designer burger patties (Wagyu beef, anyone?) being grilled will make you pause: Wait a minute, is this Old Town Ipoh or…?
Opened in September last year, Burps & Giggles is the brainchild of 27-year-old Dexter Song who spent six years working in finance and logistics in Melbourne before returning to his hometown.
Instead of Old Town white coffee or Ipoh hor fun, his customers are lining up for a nice flat white and freshly-baked croissants.
Waking up a sleepy town
Song is no stranger to the world of F&B. His mother Julie Song started Indulgence, the first (and perhaps only) fine dining restaurant in Ipoh 18 years ago so the food industry has always been part of his life growing up.
“Indulgence is more of a sit-down restaurant. I’ve always wanted a casual café but whilst I was away in Australia, there wasn’t a suitable location.
After a few years, I chanced upon this row of shophouses in Old Town, met up with the owner and eventually took up three lots,” says Song.
The shophouses are strategically situated in what is known to local residents as the Kong Heng square. Besides the famous Kong Heng Kopitiam, the site also houses Sekeping Kong Heng, a boutique retreat by Ipoh-born landscape architect Ng Sek San and newcomer Plan B Ipoh (yes, it is an outpost of the
Plan B we know in KL).
Prior to this new burst of activity, Old Town Ipoh was, in Song’s words, “a very sleepy town.”
He explains, “During the day there was only local food in terms of Ipoh’s F&B scene, let alone during at night. There was not much in the way of sandwiches, pastries or even a good coffee to be had.” Fans of the local brew may have differing opinions about the last.
Sensing an opportunity, Song brought back part of the familiar Aussie-style café concept, a first for Ipoh. “We started with burgers, which are pretty universal, but also pastries and freshly-made crêpes. The Melbourne inspiration can be seen here; I’ve got to be comfortable in my own environment first.”
From Western-style quiches to pies with local-tinged flavours such as chicken curry, the “laidback” fare at Burps & Giggles is a hit with diners, both Ipoh residents and visitors alike.
For coffee, typical favourites such as espresso and cappuccinos are served, made from a Bristot blend.
Song observes, “The food establishment has to surround itself with other players. You can’t be the only shark in the sea. Once we start a food area, then tourists will come in. In fact, previously everyone had shifted out from Old Town and moved to New Town and the suburbs.
“What we see is that after we opened Burps & Giggles, many are starting to shift back to Old Town slowly. This means more activities and more opportunities for other businesses. We are trying to start a tourism hub so everyone can start here before dispersing elsewhere in Ipoh and Perak.”
Designing an Instagram sensation
A huge part of Burps and Giggles’ charm is its DIY décor and bohemian chic. Small stools tumble over one another, not unlike a tongue-in-cheek post-modern art installation.
Enamel washbasins and tiny birdhouses are neighbours on the windowsill. What a whimsical wonderland!
Song explains, “The idea is to maintain the heritage and nature of the shop lots while adding a bit of modern twist and updating the décor. We decorate using a lot of DIY stuff like the lamps and furniture, as well as planting a few trees in the space to add a bit of texture to the place.”
Certainly at Burps & Giggles there’s a picture opportunity waiting at every crook and cranny. Song has been pleasantly surprised with the overwhelmingly positive response the café has received, especially via social media.
“My mom, my partner Rachel and I came up with the design. Thematically, we wanted something rustic, in a sense, such as recycling old goods, reusing and revamping them. There were no sketches or planning though; when we came in every day, we simply threw together anything that made sense.”
This eclectic sense manifests in the form of rescued doors and shutters from old houses (“We have a couple of friends with really old mansions,” says Song) doubling up as table tops and wall decorations.
He adds, “Whenever we travel or eat, if we see something we like, we’ll pick it up. We’ve collected knick-knacks from hereabouts in Old Town, Penang and even Australia. On a recent trip to London, we visited flea markets.”
Of course, not everything is purchased or found. The unusual and ornate lamps were made from scratch by Song’s partner Rachel using various materials such as buttons and cloth. “You can’t buy these from off the shelf.”
Old town, new life
Besides the food and décor, Burps & Giggles is also a gathering place for people and meaningful activities.
Song shares, “We have an empty space upstairs for various events. Recently we hosted charity events by Noah’s Ark,
Daybreak and other palliative care societies.”
He hopes that having these events, they can generate more activity and interest about Ipoh and its various communities.
“We also organise flea markets on the first of every month. We invite vendors who are scattered all over Ipoh. As such, tourists normally don’t really get access to them. These vendors make and sell accessories, vintage ornaments and handcrafted stuff.”
Helping out local artisans is part of the Burps & Giggles philosophy. Many of the murals found on their walls, including the saucy Marilyn Monroe stencils, were commissioned from a local painter.
“Some of these murals are sketches from magazines. The painter – we call him Mr Goh – he paints very quickly, though he’s over 50 years old.”
Song is also reaching out to other young entrepreneurs, especially those who were born and bred in Ipoh but left for their studies or work, to return.
“I’m trying to band together with others of my generation, to create or find other complementary businesses to make Ipoh lively again. After all, Ipoh is just a hop on a train away from KL. We just have to create the market we want here first. It’s definitely getting more dynamic and we can maximise this first through the town’s heritage, then adding value to it.”
He adds, “Ipoh used to be a sleepy town, but not anymore. When I was in Australia, I was working for others, but I always told myself and my family that if I come back, I will start my own business. Others can do the same.”
Burps & Giggles
93 & 95 Jalan Sultan Yussuf, 30000 Ipoh, Perak
Open daily from 8.30am to 8.30pm. Closed on Tuesdays
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on November 14, 2013.