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Saturday, 25 October 2008

Making Ipoh A Non-Food Tourist Attraction

Reading this article reminds me that as an Ipohite it really bugs me that other than food attractions, when asked what else is there for tourists visiting Ipoh usually draws a blank response from me.

The Star Online >

Lifeliving Saturday
October 25, 2008

Putting the roar back in Ipoh

With hidden treasures such as food, interesting sites and colourful goings-on, Ipoh promises to be a place you just want to stop at a bit longer. Ipoh seems to have it all. Yet somehow it doesn’t quite make it on everyone’s “must-visit’’ list. There has been talk of revitalising the city for some time now. But until things get up and going, Ipoh is like a race-horse that keeps running but never crosses the finish line.

In synch: Dragon dance is an integral part of the Nine Emperor Gods festival which is celebrated with gusto in Ipoh. – CHING TECK HUAT

The problem can’t be the food. I asked my doctor, who’s from Ipoh, about the town specialty? He drew me a rough map to two exceptional “makan” shops” Lou Wong and Foh San. Taugeh (bean sprouts) chicken is a favourite of Chinese cuisine connoisseurs and Restoran Lou Wong Taugeh Ayam Kuetiau in the town centre serves the real McCoy. Lou, (pronounced “Lo” which means “old”, an affectionate reference to Mr. Wong’s restaurant which has stood the test of time. The outlet which has been around for 51 years and dispatches something like 140 chickens a day is practically an institution in itself. Half a chicken, a heaping plate of succulent bean sprouts (taugeh) drizzled with aromatic black sesame oil and a steaming bowl of soup with fish and pork balls cost only RM17. Just a stone’s throw away is Foh San, a venerable dim sum restaurant set in an old building which also houses the Perak Chinese Amateur Dramatic (sic) Association. People tell us their dim sum is sold out before noon. Then there is the legendary Ipoh White Coffee, which has as many taste variations to it as there are coffee shops who serve it. But there’s no mistaking who’s the king of the coffee bean hill there. Only the grubby-looking Sin Yuan Loong pulls them in like no other. Nevertheless, we still get the impression that Ipoh is more for Ipohites and that taugeh chicken and white coffee may have brought Ipoh to the rest of Malaysia but not the rest of Malaysia to Ipoh.

A must-try: Lou Wong Taugeh chicken.

Shopping isn’t a problem. You have the landmark Ipoh Parade, Greentown Mall, Yik Foong Complex and The Store. Hotels are good, clean and cheap. We stayed at the Regalodge, which has all the trappings of a three-star hotel ” free Wifi access, stocked-up fridge, long bath and get this ” a 37” Sharp LCD TV in every cosy room. A double room set us back by only RM116, with local buffet breakfast thrown in. There are also at least four hospitals, 12 schools, three colleges including a medical college, a library, two museums and a lovely park (Seenivasagam Park). Then there are the cave temples Sam Poh Tong and Kek Lok Tong, which have been tour highlights for decades. Despite it all, there’s definitely something missing. Ipoh, the third largest city in Malaysia (after KL and Penang) falls behind even Johor Baru in terms of dynamism and visitor traffic. So what’s there in Ipoh to keep them coming? Maybe it needs a good shot in the arm. like the parade of the Nine Emperor Gods festival. We arrived just in time to witness it. There were prancing Chinese lions, serpentine mythical dragons slicing through the air, processions of flower and lantern-bedecked floats with participants throwing sweets or handing out “tortoise” buns (red buns shaped like tortoises) to spectators, traditional dances and marching brass bands. There were wildly rocking sedan chairs upon which were seated “deities”. The weight of their spiritual power was said to be so great that the sedan bearers were swinging and swaying as though the chairs themselves had come alive. There were Chingay performers struggling to balance massive flagpoles alternatively on foreheads and open jaws and Indian drummers. There was also a Hindu devotee pulling a chariot with hooks enmeshed in his back. Call it what you will. A parade. A procession. A carnival even. It was spectacular. If it carries on in this scale every year, it could become an international tourist event. The festival culminated in the fire-walk on the night of the ninth day. Only devotees who were spiritually cleansed ” strict vegetarian diet, no smoking, drinking and gambling for nine days ” could undertake the bare-footed walk over the pit of smouldering coal. If your tootsies get burnt, it means you’ve been cheating. (That’s the spiritual explanation of the day.)

The Birch Memorial Clock Tower built at the turn of the century.

Meanwhile, between now and the next Kow Wong Yeh or Nine Emperor Gods festival, perhaps the town council could place historical attractions under its protection. We visited Birch Memorial Clock Tower at Jalan Datoh Sagor. I read somewhere that Datoh Sagor was among a trio who assassinated Birch in 1875. Birch may have been a nasty fellow and asked for it but I think the memorial tower in his name deserves better. None of the four faces of the clock was working and someone had dumped a broken deckchair on the platform. Unveiled in 1909, the Victorian clock tower, with its captivating murals is history worth preserving. Other colonial buildings fared a little better. The front half of the City Hall building has just been repainted. The Railway Station cum Heritage Hotel could do with a little more work. The grounds on which the war memorial is situated, however, is picturesque and perfectly kept. The city road signs too are uni-directional at T-junctions and crossroads. Guessing or taking a blind shot at what the other road is can be a wearisome game for outsiders. Ipoh has a historical past. It is a shame to let it fade away. The old names of city roads if shown alongside the new ones, would certainly stir interest in Ipoh’s beginnings. Appreciation starts with knowing the city’s roots. I believe Ipoh has the right ingredients for a revival, it just has to work on its formula.
> The article is written in the spirit of Visit Malaysia every year. The writer believes unbiased, constructive comments will only spur Ipoh and its town council to greater heights.
Well to me other than restoring Ipoh's own historic charms that to me used to rival Malacca and Penang's Georgetown, there are other aspects that can be highlighted. First Ipoh should be positioned as THE CERAMIC CITY, as unlike the pretender Air Itam in Johor that actually stocks their ceramic elsewhere and even from Ipoh, Ipoh produces their own ceramics and therefore offers designs that are unique to Ipoh only. Why else do you think I am willing to lug flower pots from Ipoh back to Kuala Lumpur that later become conversation pieces as they are unlike what is generally available. The problem is that unless you know and ask for such pieces that are actually exports over-runs, visitors usually satisfy themselves with cheapo ceramic pieces that can be found anywhere as that is actually what Ipoh ceramics is now currently known for, CHEAP. Thus our ceramic centres in Ipoh should be encouraged to position themselves as Premium Ceramic sellers like what Kuching in Sarawak has done with Sarawak Pottery, where even I buy such pottery as keepsakes even though I come from a rival ceramic and pottery centre.

Secondly we should exploit further Ipoh's reputation as THE POMELO MARKET, and not just be satisfied with having specialist pomelo shopping centres. Look at overseas where a region or village that is known for a specific produce will have their own annual produce festival in addition to year-long produce promotions whereby restaurants and hotels help with the promotion for their own self-interest. For example to date I have yet to find special menus featuring pomelos as their centrepiece, therefore if we can marry pomelo with that other special Ipoh ingreadient Taugey or bean sprouts that has their own special taste, I am sure we can come up with Michelin starred menus. Luckily I find that other regions' pomelos still has not caught up with Ipoh's pomelos in terms of taste and quality, as otherwise this would be another crown jewel to be lost.

And what has happened to Buntong Kachang Putih that is as well known internationally as Bombay Mix. Why do I now find it difficult to purchase my favourite kacang putih fresh from street vendors and have to satisfy myself with pre-packed versions that just do not have the same kick, especially since you cannot mix your own favourites that is an Ipoh trademark. Will it come to a stage where I can find a kacang putih vendor in KLCC Suria food court selling his wares at inflated prices but none can be seen on the streets of Ipoh. We have already lost to the sands of time such streetside pasembor and chendol sellers that bested Penang's own that continue to thrive and attract tourists including overseas food documentaries, so let not our legendary Kacang Putih become just a footnote in history.

As you can see despite the title it is quite difficult to run away from food-related attractions when you talk about Ipoh so we might as well embrace this topic if we want to revive Ipoh as a tourist attraction. Why not as there are many cosmopolitan cities in the world that are known for their food as well as their other attractions but in this case why only promote Chinese specialties. Ipoh Malay food has their own uniqueness like popiah and Malaynised Yong Tow Foo that can beat Ampang Yong Tow Foo anytime. Ramli Mee Rebus is another White Coffee chain waiting to happen if nudged properly down the road. Meanwhile Ipoh Indian food like apam, puris and banana leave meals are able to hold on their own, and as far as I remember Moghul food movement started in Ipoh far earlier when Pakeeza Restaurant opened shop in the eighties and popularised the food. So identify these eating places and promote them so that people will come to Ipoh not only for chinese food on day trips, as they now have other choices for other meal times when they visit the local attractions.

Now it is the task of Ipoh City Hall and Perak Tourism to identify what will additional tourist locations these will be. Ipoh used to have a thriving arts scene and my alma matter ACS with its own theatre used to hold theatre productions that rivals Kuala Lumpurs that has produced many local stars like Mano Maniam and Afdlin Shauki amongst others. Revive this and the horse racing punting towkays will have something socially to do when they come to town when the race is run. Nearby waterfall attractions like Hulu Kinta and Kuang should be rejuvenated as tourist attractions like what happened to Tambun Hot Springs that todate remains a lonely tourist resort. We have world-class Clear Water Sacnctuary Resort but is this clearly identified as an Ipoh attraction. Have a comprehensive and inclusive and integrated strategy to promote these attractions as Ipoh's own and I am sure I will no longer be tongue-tied when asked about Ipoh's attractions. Meanwhile I will stop here so that the really responsible persons to promote Ipoh as a tourist destination will do their job properly, but you can this as a starting point to start the ball rolling.

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