Inside Ipoh

Inside Ipoh

Text and images by Marc, 19 Feb 2017

Often known more for its food (white coffee, bean sprout chicken, beancurd), Ipoh's real roots lie in the tin-mining industry. From the 1870s, rich deposits of alluvial tin were discovered in the foothills of the Peninsular, specifically in the Kinta Valley. Initially run by a melange of Chinese miners, Malay sultans and various villagers, the chaotic situation was resolved by the British, who stepped in to create a more comprehensive infrastructure, building state roads and a railway that reached Port Weld. It could be said that tin was the first mover in developing Malaysia's economy in a more modern fashion. And Ipoh benefited from that, becoming a centre for banking and other accounting firms and estate agents from the turn of the 20th century. 

In the 1930s, the town grew east of the Kinta River. Simply called New Town, Yau Tet-Shin, a wealthy Hakka businessman, began developing property and differentiating this part of the town from the colonial-style buildings across the river. 

But from the 1970s, the tin industry began to fold, and Malaysia's tin exports fell drastically. Ipoh, like many other towns built on the tin mining boom, suffered an exodus and retreated into a sleepy, almost idyllic state.

In the last ten years or so, the town has been rejuvenated and numerous tourists have rediscovered Ipoh, particularly its colonial buildings, murals and the weekly flea market.


The Ipoh town hall greets travellers as they step out from the railway station. Both structures were built by A B Hubback. Today, the town hall is more commonly used to host wedding banquets. Ipoh has quite the burgeoning wedding industry. 

The Birch Memorial Clock Tower, built in reminder of William Birch, the first British Resident in Perak. The friezes on the clock tower features figures such as Moses, Buddha, Shakespeare and Darwin. 

Across from the clock tower rests a succession of domes belonging to the Sultan Idris Shah II Mosque. The state mosque of Perak, it was opened in 1978. 

Originally known as the Perak Hydro Building, it is now occupied by the national power supply company. But for decades, the Perak River Hydro-Electric Company was the 'power' that supplied electricity to the tin mines and its subsidiary, Kinta Electrical Distribution, was instrumental in getting most of Perak's towns on the grid. 

Originally known as the Mercantile Bank of India, the building was completed in 1931. Today it houses Elken, a healthcare company. 

Even a quick walkabout in the environs of the Old City throws up a variety of architectural styles, some given very thorough facelifts while others gently crumble into history. 

A wide-angle view of the arch over Brewster Village, a 'destination wedding' venue. Starting life in 1915 as the Brewster Road Fire Station, wedding, and not alarm bells, ring for joy these days.


 Ernest Zacharevic, who made waves in Penang a few years ago with a series of clever, quirky murals that drew on and integrated the life of the street with the life of art, created seven murals in Ipoh. We found a few of them, as well as some worthy competitors.

This first one by Zacharevic is along Jalan Dato Maharajalela. Suitably, its located on a wall beside an OldTown White Coffee franchise.

Another of Zacharevic's creations, this one along Jalan Sheikh Adam is a simply elegy to childhood and the endless joy found in paper planes. 

The mural on the right is typical Zacharevic, embedding his characters within a 'found' mise-en-scène. The one on the left, author unknown, is simpler, although, intended or not, I like how the awning protects the fruit seller from the dripping air-con unit. 

Blink and you'll miss this sweet little image, nestled in a doorway down a forgotten alley. 


The weekly Memory Lane flea market, found along Jalan Horley, leads visitors down a long street, past stalls selling dusty antiques, lovingly hefted out of the back of packed vans every Sunday morning. These items probably return to an unsifted cupboard every week, fated to spread their histories on tarpaulin, in the hope that they would attract willing bargain hunters. Well, that's the romantic ideal anyway. In reality, it is far harder to sell an assortment of your shoes, or VCDs. 

Everyone, be it gods or girls, is looking for a home. 

Some layouts are minimalist, some are curated, and others invite you to dive right in.

Any flea market will not be complete without the warm bass tones of the Malay emcee uncle welcoming everyone in his dulcet tones to enjoy the morning, be careful of your valuables and take another trip down Memory Lane.