Intent on keeping the building as close to its existing state as possible, Ng has deliberately left surfaces and crumbling wooden shutters unrestored; there are even yellowed rental receipts affixed to one wall as a reminder of bygone tenants. Modern touches are conducive to structure rather than style, giving the spotlight to historical layers and the surrounding nature besieging the building. It’s not luxurious, and Ng is the first to say so. Still, the appeal of an experiential overnight stay seems to be catching—the prewar building on the same block is being renovated into an ambitious extension.
Ng’s daring foray into Old Town hasn’t gone unnoticed. A few small, independent hotel operators have followed suit, converting rundown Straits-style shophouses into guesthouses. Among the newcomers is Happy Eight Retreat, a three-story heritage building that has been recast into a cheery, inexpensive inn with art-covered walls and handcrafted wooden fixtures.
There are new restaurants, too, such as the casual bistro Burps & Giggles, which patrons can access through Sekeping Kong Heng’s backyard. A nearby outlet of Plan B, a splashy coffee chain from KL, completes the new trifecta known as Kong Heng Square. Traversing the area, the feeling is distinctly akin to wandering through a narrow Beijing hutong—a reference Ng bore in mind when he envisioned the layout.
Housed in a row of three renovated shophouses, Burbs & Giggles’ knickknacks and vintage furniture come as a stark contrast to the mundane decor of Old Town’s venerable kopitiams. Twentysomethings chow on burgers accessorized with so many fillings that they have to be held together with steak knives; the bar imports its beers. That it feels like an upbeat café in Melbourne’s trendy St. Kilda area is not incidental. “I lived there for a few years when I went to university, so I was definitely influenced by what was going on locally,” says owner Dexter Song.
At 27, Song is one of a growing number of young locals opting to base themselves in Ipoh rather than move to the big city. The attraction? A blank slate. The possibilities are endless here, says Song, who only has to look in his own backyard for new opportunities. “I’m excited by the revival of Old Town,” he says. “It’s becoming a major tourist hub and will only expand over time.”
For some Old Town veterans, it’s a matter of maintaining the momentum rather than scaling new heights. Around the corner from Kong Heng Square at Sin Yoon Loong, 51-year-old Wong Poh Chew begins his workdays at 6 a.m., brewing Ipoh’s most famous white coffee just as it’s been done since his grandfather founded the kopitiam in 1937. “There are more young people now,” he says of the customers. “But for me, it’s the same—busy as always.”
Wong is blasé about his coffee shop’s cult status, and it’s easy to see why: the packed tables are swarmed by would-be diners waiting for a seat, and the staff, mostly friends and family who are inured to Sin Yoon Loong’s madding crowds, yell to each other over the deafening rush as they snatch orders of roti bakar from an ancient electric grill and dole out portions of curry noodles.
No matter how lengthy the wait for breakfast or how uncomfortable the plastic seats, the satisfaction in that first potent sip of white coffee and the custardy texture of perfectly soft-boiled eggs is unequalled. It’s this contrast of rough-hewn surroundings and exquisite food that makes Sin Yoon Loong so toothsome, speaking to a clientele that has long shunned appearances in favor of authenticity. It’s not that this frenzied kopitiam—and the rest of Old Town—meets its extraordinariness with modesty. Rather, it doesn’t even question that things could be otherwise.
Where to Stay
Anyone looking to indulge their taste for luxury while visiting Ipoh would do best to stay 15 minutes out of town at The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat (60-5/ 210-7777; doubles from US$505), where 25 thatch-roofed pool villas and a full-service spa sit on lush grounds framed by limestone outcrops. For those wanting to be in the heart of the old-town action, there’s the fascinating but spare Sekeping Kong Heng (74 Jl. Bandar Timah; 60-12/ 227-2745; doubles from US$70); as the hotel’s disclaimer notes, it’s not for everyone. Nearby, the Happy Eight Retreat (46 Market St.; 60-16/415-8383; doubles from US$120) is another budget-friendly option with character galore.
Where to Eat
Kedai Kopi Kong Heng (73 Jl. Bandar Timah; 60-12/ 874- 3743) draws crowds for its sublime hor fun and pork satay, while Sin Yoon Loong (15A Jl. Bandar Timah; 60-5/241-4601) is rightly proud of its white coffee and griddled Hainanese bread. For bistro bites, Burps and Giggles (95 Jl. Sultan Yussuf; 60-5/ 242-6188) serves burgers and wraps in a shabby-chic café and courtyard. Steps away, Plan B (75 Jl. Panglima; 60-5/249-8286) roasts beans sourced from around the world in a glassy industrial-style space.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Ipoh Perks Up”)