The New Old: the Retro Revival of Ipoh, Malaysia

February 10, 2016
The revival of Ipoh Old Town thanks to the rejuvenation of Kong Heng Square, with Bits & Bobs, Missing Marbles, Burps & Giggles, New Star Salon, Sekeping Kong Heng, and more!

Ipoh Old Town, revived with vintage flair 


I chanced upon the most remarkable sight last November when I was in Ipoh to review The Haven.  
In its heyday, the North Malaysian capital of Perak was an icon of the riches of the Empire. But when the mining boom ended, its star faded as the Town Built On Tin became a shell of its former self. All that remained of Ipoh were decaying colonial mansions and shophouses whose weathered bodies whispered of its glory days of British Malaya. As my father did, many of the city’s young emigrated to Kuala Lumpur for bigger prospects, leaving behind a sleepy hollow seemingly inhabited mostly by those old enough to remember pre-independence Malaysia.  
Ipoh, whose star once shone as brightly as Singapore, was now an Adele lyric: “that town where nothing really happened”. Or so I had remembered from my family’s annual Chinese New Year returns to my paternal hometown - it was usually a stopover between Kuala Lumpur and Penang, albeit one boasting some of the best Malaysian culinary fare. Although in recent years Ipoh has become a family-friendly destination for wellness and relaxation, it was not a place I associated with a burgeoning arts and culture scene, and certainly not with the trendy young. 
I was about to proven so satisfyingly wrong.


The revival of Ipoh Old Town thanks to the rejuvenation of Kong Heng Square, with Bits & Bobs, Missing Marbles, Burps & Giggles, New Star Salon, Sekeping Kong Heng, and more!
Behind the facade of the old-school optical shop on the right is quirky cafe-restaurant Missing Marbles, just one of Ipoh's many surprises!

Before returning to Kuala Lumpur, a friend and Ipoh local brought me to one of her favourite lunch spots - Burps & Giggles on Jalan Sultan Yusoff . I was already delighted by the cafe’s eclectic decor and vintage vibe, but then I was ushered through an alleyway into Kong Heng Square where I was met with the most astonishing juxtaposition of ‘old old’ and ‘new old’.


Dilapidated colonial buildings reclaimed by vines framed the square with rows of shops whose colourful, homemade aesthetic wouldn’t look out of place on Pinterest. A steel and glass treehouse - the local branch (haha) of achingly-cool Sekeping boutique hotel chains - stand side-by-side with the soaring structure of Plan B, one of entrepreneur Benjamin Yong’s fashionable "Aussie meets New York deli"-inspired restaurants. Hordes of college-age young ‘uns who look right at home in trendy K.L were busy posing among the faded older buildings, snapping #ootd photos for their Instagram. 

Ipoh had made a comeback, and it was cooler than ever. Dare I even say, it may even be hipper than…Kuala Lumpur?


From the moment I gazed upward at the urban treehouse that is Sekeping Kong Heng I knew that Henry, himself an antique afficionado, would just love the Ipoh's 'new old' vintage spirit. For his birthday surprise, I booked a room at Sekeping Kong Heng which would be our base for exploring and acquainting ourselves with the gently-regenerated Ipoh.




The revival of Ipoh Old Town thanks to the rejuvenation of Kong Heng Square, with Bits & Bobs, Missing Marbles, Burps & Giggles, New Star Salon, Sekeping Kong Heng, and more!


Antiques make for the perfect decor in the rustic interiors of restaurants Missing Marbles and Burps & Giggles.





'Love locks' for RM15 (£2) a pop, the proceeds of which are donated to charity.



Even though Plan B restaurant looks relatively polished, its presence isn't at all jarring in Kong Heng Square. No doubt thanks to its adjacence to Sekeping Kong Heng, whose industrial-chic appearance lends a cohesiveness to Plan B.

The revival of Ipoh Old Town thanks to the rejuvenation of Kong Heng Square, with Bits & Bobs, Missing Marbles, Burps & Giggles, New Star Salon, Sekeping Kong Heng, and more!

If you prefer local drinks over Australian coffees, there's always nearby Bits & Bobs for a classic gula melaka shake.


The revival of Ipoh Old Town thanks to the rejuvenation of Kong Heng Square, with Bits & Bobs, Missing Marbles, Burps & Giggles, New Star Salon, Sekeping Kong Heng, and more!

A blast from the not-so-distant past: 'Uncle Thiru', Ipoh's star barber returns from retirement. The original Star Hair Dressing Salon (since 1927!) is now 'New Star Salon'. A single-chair barbershop in an air-conditioned glass box in Kong Heng Square, New Star Salon is like an exhibit - a slice of Ipoh history that's not just beautifully-preserved but very much alive.


The revival of Ipoh Old Town thanks to the rejuvenation of Kong Heng Square, with Bits & Bobs, Missing Marbles, Burps & Giggles, New Star Salon, Sekeping Kong Heng, and more!

Henry had 'the best haircut of his life' in Uncle Thiru's skillful hands, so relaxing was his head and shoulder massage that Henry nearly nodded off...



...here he is, after...I have to say, I really, really like his new hair cut.

It's obvious that the heart of Ipoh's revival is Kong Heng Square. Here, a delicate sensitivity to the history of Ipoh is evident - whereas crumbling colonial-era buildings elsewhere would have long been bulldozed to make way for glossy shopping malls, here the ravages of time are not only lovingly restored but proudly shown off. Wear and tear is fashionable, rust is patina. Reaching vines are not razed to make way for steel, but rather embraced as a natural addition to the townscape. What was once seen as dated and a relic of the past is now celebrated as nostalgic, retro, and vintage. 


Kong Heng Square is the perfect example of how a quiet, faded town is revived into the cool new destination thanks to creativity without compromising its history. Even more so, its delightfully retro nod to heritage is the very spirit of vintage, is it not? Henry and I were only in Ipoh for a few days but we left so incredibly inspired for Regimental Vintage. Myself, I learnt a lesson or two about not judging a book by its slightly dog-eared cover.

I will be blogging about Sekeping Kong Heng and vintage-inspired Ipoh eateries next, so stay tuned!

x

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