“Jalan Theatre. Please remember it’s in Jalan Theatre,” my friend repeats over the phone just to make sure that I get the location of her favourite salt baked chicken outlet right. A true connoisseur of this unique Ipoh specialty, she’ll settle for nothing other than the ones sold at this particular shop.
Judging from the snaking queue overflowing onto the nearby thoroughfare, Jalan Raja Musa Aziz, it’s obvious that it’s a very popular shop. I trace the line and finally find my place along the sheltered five foot way of a row of pre-war shophouses.
The queue seems to be hardly moving despite the passing minutes. Resigned to the fact that I’d have to wait in line for quite some time, I decide to take advantage of my stationary position and observe the happenings in the nearby shops, especially the sundry shop just directly in front of me.
The singlet-clad elderly gentleman behind the counter raises his head momentarily and looks nonchalantly in my direction. After a while, he returns to his task of manually working his abacus while referring to a thick wad of paper. He’s probably working on the shop’s accounts, I tell myself.
I shift my attention to several vintage advertising boards adorning the side walls of the sundry shop. Of special interest to me are the vibrantly-coloured Milo and Milkmaid signage. Apart from the usual English, Chinese and Tamil languages, they also bear the rare Jawi script. Based on that, I can confidently guess that this shop has already been in business since the early 1960s!
Suddenly my gaze falls on an emerald green sign stuck on the middle section of the wooden support beam overhanging the shop entrance. My heart skips a beat when I see the initials I. M. C. embossed on it. I’m taken aback to find this rare Ipoh Municipal Council sign in such pristine condition. Most of these signs are already in the hands of serious collectors!
Before long, my mind begins to wander back in time when these signs were produced.
Celebrating a newly-earned status
The year 1962 was a historic year for Ipoh, once the centre of the richest tin mining area in the world. Exactly 55 years ago, this Perak state capital gained the enviable distinction of being the first town in Malaya to gain municipal status since Merdeka. To mark that momentous occasion, the people of the new municipality embarked on four days of joyous celebrations
and merry making.
The festivities began in style with a grand ceremonial parade at the town padang on the morning of May 31, 1962. The-then Sultan of Perak, Raja Yussuf Izzuddin Shah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Abdul Jalil was present to officially proclaim Ipoh’s newly-earned status. From that moment on, Ipoh joined an elite group of three other Federation towns that enjoyed a similar status — Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Penang.
It was reported that nearly $1 million was spent during the celebrations. About a third of that amount was set aside for a mammoth procession which many eyewitnesses said resembled very closely a moving variety concert. The parade consisted of 120 floats and decorated vehicles which stretched for more than 3.2 kilometres and took nearly two minutes to pass any given point.
The people of Ipoh took this significant recognition very seriously as it acknowledged the massive economic development that had taken place in their town over the past 100 years. Ipoh was established sometime in the middle of the 19th century. During those turbulent early years, it was just a mud-walled, lawless, vice-ridden village strategically located along the banks of the all-important Kinta River.
The early years
During those formative days, this frontier village’s name came in many different variations. The first British Resident in the state, JWW Birch called it “Epau” while its location on a map in Major JF McNair’s 1878 book entitled Perak And The Malays was marked as “Epu”. The closest sounding name to the one we know today was given by Hugh Low, the British Resident who replaced Birch. He referred to “the chief village in the district” as “Epoh” in his 1879 Annual Report to the British government.
Nevertheless, it’s the general consensus that this name was derived from the ipoh tree which grew in abundance around the area. However, contrary to popular belief, only the milky latex from the bark is poisonous and not the entire tree.
In the distant past, the Malay warriors capitalised on the sap’s deadly attribute and put it to effective use during warfare. In 1511, Alfonso D’Albuquerque noted that all but one of his Portuguese soldiers who were wounded with darts smeared with the ipoh tree latex died. The sole survivor was fortunate to have the poison removed almost instantaneously when his wounds were cauterised with a red hot iron. Until today, the Orang Asli hunters still use the sap from this common tropical plant to immobilise their prey.
Interestingly, Ipoh remained a straggling and uninteresting village right up to the mid-1880s. After that, development began to pick up as the impact from the great Kinta Tin Rush started to creep in. The tin miners began moving to Ipoh, attracted by the rich tin deposits in its surrounding area. Coupled with a relatively lower production cost and higher chances of striking a rich vein, Ipoh’s population started to expand exponentially. By 1880, Ipoh was already one of the two largest towns in the district. The other was Gopeng.
A decade later, Ipoh was a densely packed town with predominantly wooden and attap houses built in a very haphazard manner. A rapidly spreading pre-dawn fire on June 1, 1892 destroyed a large part of the town and caused losses to the tune of around $100,000. The town planners saw a blessing in disguise in that tragedy. It presented them with a blank canvas to rebuild the town in a properly planned manner.
Looking at the busy road beside me as I slowly follow the snail-paced progress of the queue, I’m quite convinced that this wide thoroughfare must have been built after the 1892 inferno. The pre-war buildings on the other side of the road look well maintained and are certainly a far cry from the ones that existed in Ipoh during the turn of the 20th century.
Back in the early 1900s, most of the buildings in Ipoh were of inferior quality. Its railway station was described as “scarcely worthy of a wayside station” and its only public building was a makeshift wooden structure which housed both the church and bank under its roof.
Ipoh’s citizens were up in arms in 1915 when the British High Commissioner turned a deaf ear to their repeated requests to shift the seat of the Kinta Government from Batu Gajah to Ipoh. By that time, it was already common knowledge that Ipoh had already surpassed Batu Gajah, the state capital, both in terms of
size and importance. As such, the people of Ipoh began making allegations about the government’s unfair “policy of neglect”. Unrelenting in their complaints and aided by an outspoken press, Ipoh’s citizens finally managed to make the government sit up and take notice.
Within the span of just four years, grand public buildings started appearing in the town. It started with the police station in Club Road (now Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab) and that was followed by the construction of the post office, town hall and railway station in quick succession.
Finally, after a 12-year-wait, the inevitable happened in 1927 when a formal announcement was made to make Ipoh the capital of Perak. A Town Planning Committee was quickly convened and this resulted in the approval of a comprehensive Ipoh Town Plan just a year later. With that, Ipoh gained the distinction of being the only town in the Federated Malay States to have its plan approved before the
Second World War. The Japanese Occupation hit Ipoh hard and as if that wasn’t harrowing enough for the people, the post-war rehabilitation period was pockmarked with major labour unrest and violent Communist-inspired incidents which eventually led to the countrywide Emergency being declared in 1948.
It wasn’t until the early 1950s that Ipoh, which was the scene of more than 30 hand grenade incidences just two short years ago, really got going and started to embark on a varied development programme. Both the public and private sectors were jointly responsible for the expansion of the town. Its land area jumped three fold to 80 square kilometres while its population surpassed the all-important 200,000 mark.
Evolution of Ipoh
The next milestone for Ipoh occurred about a year before Malaya gained Independence. On January 1, 1956, the newly-elected Alliance government, headed by Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, granted Ipoh a status that made it a financially autonomous local authority. This was the final cog in the well-oiled machinery that set the town sailing smoothly towards its municipality status.
“Excuse me, Sir. May I have your order please?” The cashier’s voice jolts me from my reverie. I’ve been so engrossed in the story of Ipoh’s past developments that I hadn’t realised that it was my turn. Sheepishly I turn to the people behind me to apologise for holding them up.
While waiting for 20 packets of salt baked chicken to be packed, I learn from the counter staff that the service today is slower than usual due to the unexpected high demand from out-of-towners who are taking advantage of the week long Deepavali holidays to visit Ipoh. “Our vans bringing in additional stocks were caught in massive traffic snarls earlier. We apologise for the delay,” the friendly lady explains while returning me my change.
Before leaving, I decide to take a quick drive around Ipoh just to see the latest changes in this rapidly developing part of Malaysia. Ipoh was awarded city status in 1988 by the-then Sultan of Perak, Sultan Azlan Shah.
Judging by the numerous skyscrapers, modern hotels and ornately-decorated public buildings, I’m impressed by the rapid progress that’s been made by this city since the days when the Chinese immigrants started arriving by the thousands up the river with their junks.
Their bloody secret society clashes, opium-smoking and gambling are now a thing of the past. Also etched in Ipoh’s rich history are the Indian merchants and wealthy chettiars who came in to finance the miners as they set out in search of the silvery metal that made Perak and Malaya famous the world over.