Ipoh's appeal lies in its famous food, amazing limestone formations and colonial architecture, but many are unaware of its rich history of rapid modernisation driven by the tin mining industry.
The first sight that meets a traveller as he or she heads towards Perak's capital city is the grand limestone caves and hills.
This former mining town is surrounded by natural formations that are known to be among the largest and deepest karst structures in Malaysia. These hills offer foreign and local travellers one of the many attractions to discover in the state as they make their way to Ipoh, a town that used to be the second administrative centre during Britain's rule in Malaysia.
Ipoh's history and mining boom
Ipoh's name was derived from a local tree called the Pohon Epu because of its abundance in the 19th century. The tree, commonly known as Pokok Ipoh, is poisonous and is used by the Orang Asli community to coat their blowpipe darts when they are out hunting. Today only a few of these trees remain, one of which is planted and conserved outside Ipoh’s historic railway station.
The town originated from a small village in the Kinta Valley, where one of its main activities was mining in the early 1880s, led by Malay Chief Datuk Panglima Kinta. Marked on English maps as “Epu”, this village was located in the prosperous tin-rich valley and attracted a steady stream of miners from China.
Ipoh, then, was only known as the second major mining town in Perak after Gopeng, but the late 1880s tin rush – which saw the migration of over 40,000 Chinese miners to its smelting plants, all eager to pursue this newfound wealth – quickly turned things around, as the town rose to prominence.
Even a major setback in 1892, when a great fire damaged half of the town, proved to be a minor hiccup.
Soon after, the British administration and town planners resorted to a grid planning system to rebuild the town and manage the arrival of thousands of Chinese miners, as well as to cope with the sudden population growth.
Following that, more British tin mining companies were set up in Ipoh and by the early 20th century, it was attracting prominent and influential institutions such as the Straits Trading Company , the Chartered Bank of India, Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (now known as HSBC), as well as stockbrokers like Botly and Co. and A.H. Whittaker and Co.
HSBC, for example, continues to function in the modern city of Ipoh, occupying a 1931 building of Victorian neo-Renaissance architecture, a popular style for British banks in the early 20th century. These colonial buildings remain in Ipoh today, standing tall as one of the town's key attractions.
Ipoh developed rapidly as a bustling mining town with the help of Hakka miner and millionaire Yau Tet Shin. Yau, who was a property owner and friend of E. W. Birch, Resident of Perak at that time, had developed the town across the Kinta river, creating the “New Town” of Ipoh in 1908, which included a theatre and several food markets. Yau also led the development of new buildings, schools and housing areas, using the river as the demarcation line of Ipoh Old Town and Ipoh New Town, terms that locals still use today.
Ipoh still on the map
This mining town was not spared from the Japanese occupation during World War II, but the buildings were kept intact because the Japanese maintained them as administration centres in the early 1940s. It was at this time Ipoh was made the capital of Perak and remains so till today.
In the 1950s, Ipoh was rejuvenated and then thrived with the proliferation of cinemas, cabarets, amusement parks providing locals and visitors with an active night life. The world famous Shaw Brothers company and movie distribution firm Cathay Organisation took advantage of the entertainment buzz in Ipoh and built several cinema chains in the town.
Ipoh's good fortune continued into the 1970s as it became a major business destination for the national carrier, the then Malayan Airways (now Malaysian Airlines). Ipoh was one of the first four towns to be serviced by the airline in the 70s. Today, the carrier's budget airline, Firefly has regular flights to Ipoh from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Travellers could also travel to Ipoh on an electric train service which began its operations in 2010.
The collapse of tin prices and closure of tin mines in the late 1970s led Ipoh to lose its lustre as a booming and bustling town of Perak. But over the years, steady efforts to develop the town as well as preserve its historic architecture have contributed to Ipoh's popularity today; it earned its city status in 1988.
Some of the town's well-known buildings include the railway station, St. Michael's Institution, and Ipoh Town Hall which was built in the Edwardian Baroque style. The well maintained historical sites were key attractions in making the small town a site for popular movies such as 1999's Anna and the King, the award-winning Lust, Caution, as well as the late Yasmin Ahmad's productions, Sepet and Gubra.
Like most cities in Malaysia, Ipoh earned its reputation for not only being a well-planned and preserved city, but with its offerings of many tasty dishes like Sar Hor Fun (flat white noodles served with chicken pieces) and Nga Choi Kai (Bean sprouts with steamed chicken).
Ipoh's natural attractions in the form of limestone caves are home to wildlife such as bats, cave spiders and certain fish species. A must-visit for caving enthusiasts is Gua Tempurung, the largest cave in Peninsular Malaysia, located 20km south of Ipoh.
Communities have long used these caves as sites to build temples and places of worship. A good example would be the Sam Poh Tong Buddhist temple which is a popular tourist destination.
With a combination of history and natural attractions, Malaysia's fourth largest city will continue to thrive as a popular city, charming regular and new visitors.