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A historic building reflected in the window of one of Dexter Song's cafes (Photo by Kate Mayberry)
IPOH, Malaysia -- It is Sunday morning in Ipoh and the city's Old Town is abuzz. Families chat over breakfast in the traditional coffee shops -- or kopitiam -- for which the city is renowned, traffic crowds the roads as drivers search for elusive parking spaces and visitors snap photos against a backdrop of crumbling colonial-era buildings.
At the center of it all is Kong Heng Square, a scruffy collection of largely 19th century buildings refashioned by a group of architects and entrepreneurs into a contemporary guesthouse, a string of cafes and a museum.
Dexter Song returned from Australia to open a cafe in the development three years ago. "We didn't realize it would grow like a wildfire," he said, sitting at a table in a corner of one of the three cafes he now runs, as a nearby group of young Malaysians enjoy a lively discussion over lattes and fruit juices. "What I like about Ipoh is that it's very communal. Everyone collaborates."
For decades a fading stopover on the way between Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Ipoh is coming back to life. A fast train to Malaysia's capital, more flights and a growing appreciation of the value of heritage have fueled investment in the city that built -- and lost -- an earlier fortune on tin. Later this year, Ipoh will host its first arts festival, designed to take advantage of the city's unique history and the limestone outcrops that surround it.
"There are a lot of things happening in Ipoh," said Law Siak Hong, a retired designer who is now vice president of the Perak Heritage Society. "Kong Heng gave others the confidence to think they could do something, too. Anything that brings life to the city must be good."
A new kind of energy
The posters for The Other Festival, organised by Kuala Lumpur-based group Kakiseni, have already been plastered on walls around the Old Town. "Ipoh used to be that secret we didn't want to share," said Low Ngai Yuen, who heads Kakiseni and has family in the town. "It has one of the most exposed generations of young people -- going outside to the rest of the world. But then they discover they miss home so they come back to Ipoh. They are bringing a new kind of energy. You cannot not feel it."
Old cafes, kitchens, tumbledown homes and even the limestone karst formations that circle the city will be used as venues and through the shows and exhibition visitors will be encouraged to explore the charms of Malaysia's fourth biggest city.
Kakiseni is working on the project with local collective, Projek Rabak, which brings together about 80 local writers, poets, artists and musicians. Rabak (slang for 'sloppy' or 'messy' in Malay) has its own creative space in Ipoh, the walls covered in murals and a drum kit ready for its regular gigs. "Ipoh used to be known for its indie rock scene," said Mohd Jayzuan, a musician who heads the collective and organized a minifestival back in January. "But with Rabak we're seeing film, poetry, painters and visual artists coming together. It serves as a platform for these underground artists to explore."
In colonial days, the city was as wealthy as Singapore. Even today, it retains the grand civic buildings of the era -- the railway station, law courts and city hall -- all designed to symbolize the wealth and authority of the British in what was then Malaya. Many of the mansions and shophouses built by those who made their fortune in the tin rush also remain, albeit in varying stages of dilapidation.
For decades, Han Chin Pet Soo was the home of the Hakka Miners' Club -- a place for the mining tycoons to smoke opium, gamble, entertain and get away from their wives. But by the 21st century, membership had dwindled and termites were eating their way through the woodwork. Concerned the building would be gutted or end up as another hipster cafe, a local philanthropist took on the lease and spent 300,000 ringgit ($83,000) to restore the building. More than 1,000 people have visited the new Hakka Club since it opened as a museum in February and there are now plans to restore the neighboring building as well.
Retired British naval commander Ian Anderson, who has lived in Ipoh for 16 years, masterminded the project. He worries about the lack of protection for heritage buildings -- the Royal Ipoh Club which dates from 1895 was only this month gazetted under Malaysia's national heritage act -- and is skeptical about the city's commitment to preserving its historic architecture. "I live in hope that a real renaissance can take place," he said.
There are guidelines relating to the maintenance of pre-war facades, but unlike George Town and Melaka, which together secured a Unesco World Heritage listing in 2008, the preservation of Ipoh depends largely on property owners and the commitment of the local authorities. Local estate agent Gladwin Agilan, who specializes in Old Town properties, describes it as a "constant challenge."
Critics point to Panglima Lane, a pedestrian thoroughfare infamous as the neighborhood for the mistresses of the wealthy tycoons and the heart of the Old Town. Some of the shophouses have been renovated, but others appear abandoned -- overgrown with trees and bushes. Souvenir shops are edging out more traditional businesses. The prices of Ipoh's historic shophouses have more than doubled in the past five years according to Agilan, but remain well below similar-era buildings in Penang.
In Kong Heng, the old buildings retain their facades, including the peeling paint and signboards, while serving staff continue to dish out bowls of noodles and plates of freshly-grilled satay to customers, as they have done for decades. Huge trees and vines that have grown into the brickwork over generations tumble across the walkways; a perfect Instagram backdrop for the younger generation.
Here the old Ipoh sits alongside the new in a combination that appeals not only to visitors, but to many residents; a development that looks to the future, but has its roots in the city's colourful past.
"We want to explore new things," says Rabak's Mohd Jayzuan. "But we still want to hang out at the old kopitiam, the old indie HQ. So long as we don't change the essence of Ipoh."