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Breathing Life Into Ipoh Old Town

To breathe life into Old Town. That was the unanimous reply from the young generation of entrepreneurs in Kong Heng Square when asked why they have invested time and money into the area.

The ruins of Kong Heng Square was saved just a few short years ago when four local men got together to acquire the properties and restored them. Now, some five years later, the shop houses have been undergoing rehabilitation and revitalisation and the narrow lanes of Kong Heng Square and surrounding shop lots and stalls are beginning to attract a new crowd of visitors, mainly on weekends.

One of these stalls that brings about an old world charm is called Bits & Bobs. Operated by local childhood friends, Nikhil Roy Joshi and Dexter Song Tze Hsiang, both in their late 20s, Bits & Bobs relives the experience of our parents’ time, eating shaved ice balls and ais krim potong on the way home from school.

Nikhil and Dexter (R) at Bits & Bobs
Nikhil and Dexter (R) at Bits & Bobs

The idea for the business came from a chat among their friends one day about the “good old days” as related by their parents and the two young men decided to share that experience with others.

Besides these snacks from our childhood, visitors to Bits & Bobs will be surprised by the range of antiquities offered, from toys from the 1960s to old lamps and vintage suitcases, collected by the proprietors from random places.

Said Nikhil, “Ipoh has a lot to offer. All my friends from other cities and even overseas enjoy Ipoh so much, they don’t want to leave. The people here are humble and hospitable, the food is amazing and one just feels relaxed in Ipoh.”

Nikhil’s partner, Dexter, is a pioneer young entrepreneur of Kong Heng Square, who with his family, established the first Western café in September 2012. He shared, “I have an emotional attachment to Ipoh, and with my affinity for old buildings, I felt that this would be the perfect place to invest in. With the idea to draw people through food, we set up Burps & Giggles offering Western fare. Three months later, we opened Buku Tiga Lima.

“I would say that everyone here contributes to the revival of Old Town, and it is great to see that our clientele has expanded from day trippers to the locals and international visitors.”

 Nicole Gan Sea Ping of Pâtisserie BoutiQue
Nicole Gan Sea Ping of Pâtisserie BoutiQue

While Nikhil may think that there are more than enough cafés in the area already, Nicole Gan Sea Ping doesn’t agree. The 27-year-old originally from Seremban, along with three partners, opened Pâtisserie BoutiQue in October 2013. Nicole, a graduate in Mass Communication and Public Relations from Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman Perak, fell in love with Ipoh when she was undergoing her internship in the city. Now in charge of the food and cakes, Nicole gained much experience in the Food and Beverage business through her 10-month work-cum-travel across the United States of America.

Said Nicole, “Pâtisserie BoutiQue is well-received by the public, and we can find locals patronising it on a regular basis.”

Besides food and quirky tidbits, weekend bazaars and flea markets are magnets to the young crowd of visitors and shoppers. This grew the business of handmade crafts in the area to cater to those who are looking for custom-made items.

Lee Li Ching of AM Zakka Store
Lee Li Ching of AM Zakka Store

Proprietor of AM Zakka Store, Lee Li Ching, 30, holds a Diploma in Journalism, majoring in Broadcasting. On her decision to return to her hometown Ipoh, Li Ching has this to say. “It has always been my long term goal because I wish to spend more time with my family. I enjoyed my work but I feel Ipoh is a hidden gem with many stories to tell. Kong Heng Square is the heart of Ipoh and this revilatisation has given the area a unique touch of having traditional kopitiams adjacent to stylish cafés.”

A nearby stall selling customised gifts goes by the name of “Tok Tok”. Proprietors Cass Lee Pek Yoon and Wong Yoke Yee, both 33, wanted to offer something different to souvenir hunters. Taking turns to man the stall, their business stemmed from a passion for handicrafts and grew from selling online to a simple table at the craft bazaar, then a shop lot shared with other local crafters until having their personal space now.

at the Tok Tok stall
at the Tok Tok stall

Said Cass, “Looking at the positive prospects of business in Old Town, we decided to take a step further by taking up a permanent stall. Old Town is now a compulsory destination for tourists and locals alike. Whether they are here for the food, the wall murals, photoshoot, events or other activities, this “new” façade of Old Town is truly interesting.”

And indeed, with the invigorating force of young entrepreneurs at the helm, Ipoh’s Old Town is no longer the block of crumbling buildings that we once associated it with, but a chic corner of town to hangout in. There’s always something exciting to see, something different to taste.

Note: An edited version of this article [Old Town Gets New Life] was published on 17th January, 2015, in The Malay Mail.

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With love

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