When I was a kid growing up in Ipoh, I could never get over the fact that KL folks would drive over 200 km to Ipoh to have a bowl of kai see hor fun (shredded chicken noodles, in case you didn’t know) or some taugeh ayam then head straight back home. I mean, what is so great about these dishes?
The chicken is white, the taugeh is white, the noodles are white, the soup was white (ok, not really white la, but clear-ish). Heck, even the plates, bowls, chopsticks and spoons are white! If anything, kai see hor fun and taugeh ayam should be (in)famous for being the blandest dishes in the world!
I had even grown taugeh in one of my primary school science projects. It’s so simple, a gorilla could do it. (Put cotton wool in a cup, add beans and water, wait.) It certainly didn’t look like the kind of cuisine that would tempt people to spend RM100 on the 4-hour round-trip to Ipoh for a RM2 bowl of noodles.
Then, as many young people from Ipoh do, I went to KL seeking fame and fortune. And I had my first taste of KL’s version of kai see hor fun. Then, I finally understood the magical properties of Ipoh bean sprouts (beans, magic – didcha see what I did there? If you didn’t, just know that it’s not the pun that’s lame, ok.)
KL’s taugeh is skinny and limp, the hor fun is rough on the tongue, the soup was pure MSG, and the chicken was – thankfully – still chicken la.
That’s when it finally dawned on me – eh, Ipoh taugeh and kway teow really quite special la! Nowhere else in Malaysia could you get such silky smooth kway teow and voluptuous sprouts! Ipoh’s bean sprouts are like the Salma Hayeks and Monica Belluccis of the Bean Sprout Kingdom, compared to the Kate Mosses and Gwyneth Paltrows that you normally get elsewhere.
So, lesson learnt. The stuff that I took for granted growing up in Ipoh are pretty awesome after all! Here are some other things this small town boy has discovered after setting down roots in KL. Some lessons turned out to be pretty unexpected, but all of it is true (to me la, at least)
1. What’s with the Sweet Brown Slime?
My first day in KL, a few of my Ipoh friends who had moved here before me decided to take me out for a welcome dinner. So I met them at the Damansara Uptown hawker center.
As usual, being in a new place, I asked, “What’s good around here?” And my friends recommended this and that. Being the noob, I assumed everything that had the same name should taste like how they did at home la. Oh man, I never knew…
Because I was feeling a bit homesick, I decided to order Sotong Kangkung. Now, the sotong kangkung you get at the Kong Heng and Lok Wui Kui coffee shops in Ipoh are truly awesome, with a capital “A”. It’s one of my all-time favourite hawker grub. I mean, eating it once or twice a week is definitely not enough. I could eat it every day!
So, when the plate of sotong kangkung came, I dug in. The moment it entered my mouth, I was like…
Sweet brown sauce?! What. The. Fish. Lah? Who eats sotong and vegetables with this mysterious syrup that looks like it came out from an Indah Water treatment plant?! In Ipoh, we have it with the most awesome satay sauce you can imagine. That was the taste I had grown up with. Now, suddenly, 20+ years of delicious memories had been irreversibly traumatised!
Ohhh…but little did I realise the other nasty surprises that awaited me in the days to come.
Chee Cheong Fun, which I like to eat with yummy Ipoh-style mushroom sauce, was ALSO drowned in the same sticky brown stuff. Yong Tau Foo was also served with the Sweet Brown Slime instead of the usual chilli sauce! And (of all things) even Dim Sum too!!
Dang – this sweet brown sauce is everywhere! There is no escaping it!
Even after 18 years in KL, I have never been able to fully accept the Sweet Brown Sauce, even though it’s just about everywhere. So now, if I have Chee Cheong Fun, I always order it with curry. Yong Tau Foo? Chilli only please, hold the Brown Slime. Same goes for dim sum.
Whenever i get a chance to go back to Ipoh I try to go makan-makan all my favourite stuff, although it’s not quite the same anymore sadly. (I’ll explain later.)
But there is ONE place I can always count on to get decent Ipoh-style sotong kangkung in KL:
See the kangkung near the top? See the sotong in the middle row? See the satay sauce next to the chili sauce? There’s a perfect combination for you! Most of these lok-lok trucks have pretty kickass satay sauces. Sure, it’s a little bit of hassle to DIY your own sotong and kangkung then pour on the satay sauce. But for a little taste of home, it’s worth it la.
Well, after dissing the one major food group of KL, to be fair I also have to say…
2. What happened to all the awesome Ipoh food la?
Ipoh food sucks nowadays. There, I’ve said it. I’m not proud to say it, but it’s true. Really.
OK la, actually not all of Ipoh’s food sucks. But a lot of it has become really generic – no different from the stuff you can normally find in KL. Some of the local hawker food have become downright nasty. That’s a big disappointment for folks like me who go back hoping for a dose of nostalgia.
The legendary Ipoh hawkers like Kong Heng’s pork satay and kai see hor fun, and the famous hakka noodles on Hugh Low Street are just not the same since the second and third generations took over. Even the sotong kangkung I mentioned earlier can’t compare with those days. The tastiness has really gone down since my teen days, when my kaki and I wouldn’t mind waiting over half an hour for a table to grab our favourite nosh. Now, it’s more like “I can’t believe I had to wait half an hour for this crap!” But Ipoh flers still go la, for old times’ sake.
Even an old establishment like Foh San Dim Sum has seen better days. No doubt, they’re still a huge success, having moved to a palatial building of their own and enjoying overflowing crowds. But the food has deteriorated to the point where it tastes just like any other generic dim sum place. Locals go there for the nostalgia, but most of them know that Foh San’s competitors taste better now. (Dare I say it… I’ve even tasted better in KL – when it’s not dipped in the sweet brown slime!)
To add insult to injury, Ipoh food isn’t cheap anymore – prices are close to what KL folks charge. I guess we can’t really blame the operators as prices are rising everywhere and the prices of ingredients are almost the same nationwide. But at least maintain the standard of your elders la…
But it’s not all bad news. Thankfully, some places still maintain their forebears’ standards. The Dai Shu Geok hawker center is one such place. The yong tau foo stall there still serves legendary stuffed goodies, and it’s not unusual for the baskets of yong tau foo to be emptied within minutes. (BTW, it also helps if you know some MMA grapples if you want to try their stuff. Some of the local aunties can be very licik, squirming under your armpit to steal the famous fried turnip cakes you were reaching for.)
The Funny Mountain stall still preserves the smooth and aromatic quality of its world-famous tau foo fah, even though the business has now passed on to the third generation. That’s because they still make it the same way it’s been made for the past 60-odd years.
There are other famous and not-so-famous places that still serve decent Ipoh fare. But the shock of tasting the decline in Ipoh hawker staples is just too much for this Ipoh boy to handle. (Excuse me while I go weep over my generic-tasting “Ipoh” kai see hor fun.)
3. Why Ipoh drivers so one kind wan?!
I had a road racer when I was in my teens. I used to overtake cars with it.
My dad would remind me about the potential danger of me, a big sized fellow, speeding through the city roads on a slim 2-wheeler. Crashing, being crushed to a pulp by huge-ass cars, stuff like that. But I always felt pretty safe on Ipoh roads. I knew that if I crashed, the drivers behind me would have plenty of time to check their left mirror, right mirror, rear mirror, adjust their spectacles, roll down their windows, breathe in some fresh air and enjoy the scenery, and maybe give a friendly wave to some passers-by before stepping on their brakes and rolling to a gentle stop, a few feet away from me.
Yeah, that’s how slow Ipoh drivers can be. It’s gets really frustrating.
Every time I go back to Ipoh, I need to have a Zen moment before I exit the highway toll. Just to remind myself that I’m entering another zone now – where time seems to move at a different speed. Otherwise when I exit the Ipoh toll, I look like a freakin’ greyhound, high on speed, bolting out of the race gates (see what I did there again? What can I say, I’m a punny guy!)
You know how accident victims look on TV shows when they finally notice the headlights bearing down on them? I get that a lot if I didn’t zone out properly first before paying the Ipoh toll. After I’ve properly “entered the slow zone” in my mind, I can ease into the 30kph traffic that’s so typical of Ipoh.
But slowness ain’t the main problem with Ipoh drivers.
Stick a speed limit reminder on any road, and BAM!! – Ipoh drivers will awaken their inner speed demon. They’ll suddenly speed up until they just break the speed limit. Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain this weird behaviour.
Back in my cycling days, I could easily overtake cars. Until I reached roads that had speed limits like 70kph or 80kph. Then I would get cars honking me and overtaking me. They would literally be trying to muscle me off the road in their hurry to beat the speed limit.
And it’s not just young flers who are the speed demons. Any old dude could be driving at 30kph until he turns into a road where the speed limit is 70kph. VRROOM!! That uncle will immediately speed up until he’s at least doing 75kph. He’ll happily cruise at that speed until he turns into a road with a 90kph speed limit, then he’ll do at least 95kph. Turn into a road with no speed limit, and he goes back down to 30kph, even when there are no other cars on the road.
Why like that, one? I also dunno!
Give me KL driving anytime, where it’s all about survival of the fittest. The law of the jungle is not pretty, but it has a logic that I can understand and operate in. Ipoh drivers seem to operate on some alien driving rules from a completely different universe.
4. I don’t remember Ipoh having so much traffic jam!
Like everyone else, I go back during festivals and occasionally on weekends. But, hot dang, what happened to the relaxed town I used to cycle around in?! All the streets, shops and makan places are frikkin’ jammed up, just like in KL.
Oh yeah, every other Ipoh boy and girl also goes back during festivals and on weekends. That’s a real bummer for anyone hoping to get a little taste of the tranquility they enjoyed in their childhood.
5. Ipoh pasar malam stuff so expensive one?!
I’ve gone to Ipoh’s “Gerbang Malam” weekend night bazaar in town once or twice. Really busy place. Because it’s located in Ipoh’s “Makan Central” near the famous taugeh ayam, there’s no shortage of after-dinner shoppers, whether locals or tourists. Got a lot of interesting stuff on sale too. Besides the usual pasar malam stuff, there are henna artists, buskers, portrait sketchers, antiques and other knick knacks you don’t usually see in a typical pasar malam.
Once when I went there, I wanted to buy a handphone casing. I thought: OK la, Ipoh + pasar malam = cheap!!! At least, it should be cheaper than KL la. The asking price turned out to be 3 times of what is normally charged in KL. Some more the fler refused to entertain any haggling. Walaueh… I’m guessing he’s not worried about his mountains of phone casings not being moved that night.
But…maybe I’ve developed the “rich KL tourist” look already la, after spending so much time here.
Hey, everything looks super cheap here. How come the phone casing fler was asking for so much?
I must really have developed that “rich KL tourist” look already la.
6. The No.1 export from Ipoh is … people.
No, I’m not saying that Ipoh is into human trafficking. But Ipoh does export a lot of its people. For some reason, very few youngsters want to stay in Ipoh. For that matter, not many middle-aged folks do either. Everybody seems to be headed out of Ipoh as fast as they can.
Now, I don’t have the exact statistics to prove that. But a random survey of my Facebook friends shows that 90% of my classmates (I didn’t do an exact calculation, but it looked like 90%) are currently working in places like KL (biasalah), Singapore, UK, US, or Australia. Most of them are doing ridiculously well. Even the bloody naughty boys! No wait, ESPECIALLY the naughty boys!
I recently discovered that one lout whom we used to call “Ham Choong” (or “Lecherous Worm” because of all his foul-mouthed joking), now has TWO engineering patents under his belt! I found out that another bad influence who tried to get me hooked on cigarettes (luckily, I was smart enough not to follow in his footsteps) is now a millionaire, and has been one for some time already (OK…maybe I should have followed him somewhat.)
Maybe Ipoh is too small to give talent like that the opportunities they need to shine. But when youngsters and even uncles and aunties are hopping overseas to do blue collar work, something is not right la!
Young people often go and work as waiters, coolies, and other blue collar jobs. Despite the hardships they experience overseas, many don’t come back. Even married couples with children do it. They leave their kids with their parents, spend 5 to 10 years overseas and come back with suitcases of cash to buy nice houses and cars and just take it easy with the kids for a while. When their moolah runs out a few years later, they simply hop on a plane again. Simple as that.
Stories of “tiu fei kei” (literally “plane hopping”) aka illegally overstaying to work in the UK, US or Australia are so common it doesn’t raise any eyebrows among locals. How common is it? Well, let’s just say it’s not unusual for the Ipoh-mali to land in a foreign city and discover that a Malaysian friend they met there knows someone from Ipoh too. There’s no freaky clash of coincidences about that. It’s just the law of probabilities – put enough Ipoh people into one foreign city, they’re bound to bump into each other!
Ipoh had produced so many hardworking and brilliant people, only to lose most of them. Imagine what the town would be like if all of them decided to come back and apply all their awesome brains and work ethic to their hometown.
7. Why is Ipoh not listed as a Heritage town (yet)?
One of the sad things about going back to Ipoh is seeing the city grow older. And it’s not just the people.
See, Ipoh is memang an old city already. The city center is divided into “Old Town” and “New Town”. The “New Town” is already over 100 years old! The Old Town is almost 200 years old. Within these 2 areas, there are many lovely, lovely century-old buildings. Many of them were built by famous British architects of the day.
Ipoh used to be the second most important city in Malaya, after KL. So, naturally, all the Mat Salleh who’s who wanted to visit and set up businesses here la. And they built all those beautiful buildings. Did I mention already just how lovely they are? Well, they are lovely.
Some of the most iconic buildings in Ipoh are its theaters. The Cathay and Lido theaters were the largest and most popular. In its colonial heydays, they hosted movie screenings as glamorous as any Hollywood gala. Then there are the Odeon, Ruby and Rex cinemas whose architecture reflects the beautiful trend of the swingin’ 40s. Then there was the Jubilee Park theatre with an adjoining cabaret on one side and an amusement complex on the other. This was once the entertainment hub of Ipoh.
The problem is, all these iconic buildings have seen much better days. Some have been gutted and converted into restaurants or furniture warehouses. The Jubilee Park, once the most happening place in Perak that used to attract youngsters from all the smaller towns around Ipoh, now lies abandoned.
Take a walk around the Old and New Town areas and you will see street after street of beautiful pre-WW2 shoplots. But most of them are in disrepair. Many are abandoned.
Thank God, some buildings are still in fantastic condition.
Tragically, some owners, in their eagerness to make these colonial buildings more modern and attractive to tenants, have completely destroyed their facade and character.
For all its heritage buildings and foodie culture, how come Ipoh is not being promoted as a heritage tourism like Penang and Melaka hah? Someone should really look into this!
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are several groups who are working hard to preserve Ipoh’s heritage. Some of them archive Ipoh’s history and culture. Some are actively promoting Ipoh as a heritage tourist destination, even though it has not received official recognition as such.
Remember the legendary Kong Heng coffee shop I mentioned earlier? A group of people had bought up the colonial buildings around the shop and maverick architect Ng Sek San has converted them into a lovely boutique hotel under the Sekeping group. Best thing about it is – he preserved everything that was lovely about it.
You can check out more pics of this unique hotel here.
8. Actually, Ipoh town and its people are super awesome la!
Sure Ipoh folks have their eccentricities (we are damn kedekut but still love shopping, we have schizoid driving habits, we are damn stubborn when it comes to new ideas, etc) but after all that you’ve read above, how can anyone doubt that Ipoh is an awesome place?
After all, if you have enjoyed reading this piece – it’s written by an Ipoh boy!
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I love my hometown Ipoh. I left it at the age 18 for studies in Melbourne and never lived there again.
I was disappointed the majestic St. Michael’s Institution building in Old Town, Ipoh was not mentioned at all – my alma mater. We celebrated our Centennial annual dinner on 2012. Famous Old Michaelians: Michelle Yeoh, Patrick Teoh (pioneer Radio DJ), Chong Lim (Australian keyboardist) ex-IGP Omar, and Robert Chaen haha. And famous Ipohites: Willie Chan (manager of Jackie Chan)
Q. Will I retire here?
No, and there’s not because it’s not a favorite place to retire – it is. I have changed after leaving Ipoh, and I have become a city boy from a small town boy. I like the convenience, energy, corporate powerhouses, bookstores, variety of world cuisine, cinemas, fine dining and young people of a big city after operating from Hong Kong for 20 years. I’ll never retire as I’m always on mission, but I probably spend my last days in USA.