KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 24 ― Once the richest city in Malaysia and reputedly home to the most Mercedes-Benz cars in Malaysia and Hennessy XO cognac drinkers outside of Europe, Ipoh’s lustre today has faded to that of the tin mined during its heyday.
Since the end of the mining boom in 1970s, the vibrancy has slowly ebbed from the city that it is now, as some uncharitably dub it, a ghost town.
One after another, school leavers head out of the city either for further studies or in search job opportunities. Few return.
The ones left behind are those who chose Ipoh as their retirement home; that, and toddlers and schoolchildren whose parents felt it was the perfect place to raise a family.
But there are those who dream of seeing Ipoh return to its glory days, attracting people from far and wide to either set up shop here, or even just for a quick visit.
Dexter Song, co-owner of Burps and Giggles and Buku Tiga Lima, is one of the ambitious lot.
“That’s the goal, to bring more crowd back into old town, we’re trying to create mini walking arcades around the area, as crazy as it may sound, we’re trying to create a tourism hub in old town.
“People tend to come in now to look at old buildings since we’ve built this place.
“A lot of the new owners of these buildings are looking to retain the buildings as opposed to demolishing the whole building now because, now, I suppose, they know it brings some sort of attraction with the colonial-style buildings,” he said.
The quaint cafe that spans over three adjacent pre-World War II shop houses was one of the first in the heart of Ipoh old town, with many others quick to follow.
It must be thankful, however, for the famous Kong Heng coffee shop behind it, as well as Thean Chun coffee shop and Hall of Mirrors for the stream of customers it gets, especially on the weekends when the whole area is flooded with out-of-state visitors on a mission to cross one more eatery off their bucket lists.
The area is reminiscent of the colonial era, but the facade is shattered by the men yelling out the orders of hawker fare such as popiah, kai si hor fun and pork satay.
On the other side of town, Sunway City, the one of the biggest developer in Ipoh, is also playing a part in drawing more people into the city, affectionately called Paloh by the local Chinese, referring to the gigantic mining pumps used for early tin ore extraction.
General manager Wong Wan Wooi said the township attracts an average of 1.5 million visitors yearly, with its The Lost World of Tambun water theme park, hot spring pools, hotel, college, hypermarket, and the Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat.
He also said that almost 100 per cent of the completed units of residential and commercial properties have been sold and that “they are inspired to build more”.
So far, Sunway City has 1,325 residential and commercial properties and more than 200 units are currently being built, with more than 800 hilltop homes are being planned.
There are also plans to build an outlet mall next year, with more than 700 units of serviced apartments, expected to commence by 2016.
“There are about one million vehicles travelling up and down between KL and Penang [annually], and if only about 10 per cent of the traffic gets diverted into Ipoh, there is a huge potential for all sorts of business opportunities,” Wong said.
But the scattered effort to revive the old tin mining city is not without its challenges.
One of the main problems is said to be connectivity, or lack thereof.
The railway station, dubbed the “Taj Mahal of Ipoh” due to its Moorish Indian design, is one of the first stops for most tourists since the launch of the Electric Train Service (ETS) that carries about 5,000 to 6,000 passengers daily between KL and Ipoh.
But a lack of signs or guides when they arrive means most tourist are clueless about where to go next from the station, said Perak Heritage Society (PHS) vice-president Law Siak Hong in echoing Song’s sentiments.
The non-governmental organisation (NGO) said it is looking into suitable locations in the city to give out “quality heritage map” and offer trained tour guides for tourists, but the lack of resources could be hindering its efforts.
PHS president Mohd Taib Mohamed said the problem was worse than just the train station.
“There is issue of connectivity for the whole of Perak, if you take the ETS [train] from KL to Ipoh, if you want to go to Belum or Lenggong, how do you connect?
“There are no taxi or bus services, even tourists from Singapore flying into Sultan Azlan Shah airport, there is no good taxi services to all these destinations,” he said.
Chairman of the Health Committee, State Tourism and Culture, Nolee Ashilin Mohd Radzi admitted that Perak has not capitalised well on the state’s attractions or marketed these effectively to Malaysians from other states as well as to international travellers.
“I think the problem with tourism in Perak is the promotion. We still haven’t found the correct way to promote, so now we are creating all these kind of packages.
“Let’s see how far that will bring us, but for Gua Tempurung, that will be our main focus for now, together with Pulau Pangkor, we have Royal Belum, that’s one of the main product that we want to be internationally acclaimed, same with Lenggong, as our national Unesco heritage site,” she said, hoping to have a five-year plan by the end of the year.
She also said that the RM200 million animation park that is expected to start construction sometime next year, as well as redevelopment of Meru Raya, should be able to contribute to the traffic to the greater Ipoh area.
“We’ll see how well Ipoh does; actually Ipoh has got to be the hub.
“If we can create the awareness for the heritage trail here within Ipoh, then the food trails as well, maybe we can marry that together with whatever we can offer in town.
“But again, it will take some time to see, we want it fast but this is not the private sector… there are a lot of red tape at the federal level,” she lamented.
The Kampar MP also expressed hope that the state government will get the help and support from industry players and also the people from Perak to realise the full potential of tourism in the state.
“As I foresee, if we don’t make changes as to how we feel about tourism, especially from people of this state, it will be very difficult to embrace tourism as part of the culture in Perak.
“Hopefully, we can get the full corporation and also full support from the various people in this industry because there is only so much the government can do, it’s still up to the players as well,” she said.
The business owners whom The Malay Mail Online spoke to, however, said even with all these projects and mushrooming businesses, attempts to shed Ipoh’s ghost town image might be futile if they are not promoted through the right channels, or if the services and facilities are not maintained properly.
Despite the challenges and slow headway, there is optimism that Ipoh will return to its glory days; some even say this can be in the immediate future.
“I’m hoping in two years time, once the new tenants start to move in for whatever businesses that they intend to do, then there will be more activities in old town because night time, old town is dead.
“I think in two years time, there will be a revival.
“You’ll start seeing suburban businesses and suburban traffic flow, moving back into old town,” Song said.