I stifled a yawn as I alighted from my car and walked towards the small crowd in front of the Ipoh railway station entrance. My History teacher would surely fall off his chair if he knew why I was here.
Call it serendipity. At a recent assignment for a travel magazine, I met one Mr Rajasegaran, a tourist guide who just happened to be conducting a newly launched heritage walk around Ipoh Old Town. Since he supplied an interesting insight (pomelo wood can be turned into spinning tops) which I eventually used for the travel story, I could hardly say no when he invited me to join him one fine Saturday.
“Good morning!” Mr Raja beamed at the motley group.
Aside from me, there were men in bermudas, sun-hatted middle-aged ladies, a schoolteacher with three sleepy-looking students and a chatty couple from Singapore who seemed more excited than us locals.
Mr Raja launched into a lively overview of the railway station. Ipoh’s most famous landmark was, naturally, the day’s first pit stop. To my surprise, instead of zeroing in on the usual Taj Mahal comparisons, he asked a curious question: “Have any of you noticed a mechanical elevator inside Majestic Hotel?”
He was referring to the lodgings attached to the railway station.
“It carries an interesting message.”
“Yes!” the teacher piped up. “It looks quirky, though I’ve never paid attention to the message. What does it say? Is it still working?”
“Yes, it is. I can’t recall the exact words, but it goes something like: ‘I am as old as a grandmother, don’t touch me suddenly or I will fall apart’,” Mr Raja replied.
The crowd chuckled at this humorous tidbit. On that cheerful note, we strolled towards the memorial park.
“One of the first cars in the country was driven in Ipoh by a chap named Eu Tong Sen (founder of the famous Eu Yan Sang Medical Hall).”
“During its heyday in the tin-mining era, it was like a gold rush,” our guide stated. “Ipoh had so much money. One of the first cars in the country was driven in Ipoh by a chap named Eu Tong Sen (founder of the famous Eu Yan Sang Medical Hall).”
A dozen pairs of eyebrows flew up in surprise.
He smiled like a sous chef about to unveil his signature dish.
“That is why Ipoh number plates start with ‘A’, you see. The next state to have cars was Selangor. And as you know, their licence plate starts with ‘B’. Pahang was next …”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a middle-aged lady staring at a plaque which bore the names of the British soldiers who died during the two World Wars.
“History should never be erased,” she spoke up. “It tells you how we move along in life and how we became what we are today.”
Mr Raja nodded feelingly.
“The other day, another lady who joined the tour told me she had driven along this road for twenty years and never knew its significance,” he said. “Incidentally, this road, formerly Station Road, is the oldest road in Ipoh.”
We crossed the street over to the Town Hall. I was seized by nostalgia. As a little girl, I followed my parents here to attend their friends’ wedding dinners and concerts. It is still a popular events venue, Mr Raja said.
“Rabindranath Tagore once conducted a course for English teachers here. Are you familiar with him?”
His question met with utter silence.
I volunteered, “The Indian poet?”
“That’s right. This hall has had its share of illustrious visitors. During the 70s, I had the chance to attend an Indian wedding and watch a performance by a famous Malaysian singer. His commanding voice brought the house down.” He paused for effect. “Do you want to guess who it was?”
We shook our heads.
I shot Mr Raja an admiring glance as we continued on. Leading a historical walk involved a lot more than reading off a script. The guide had to engage, entertain and inform his audience. He also had to read his audience well and improvise on the fly, never knowing for sure what would resonate and what wouldn’t. Like when Tagore’s name didn’t strike a chord. Fortunately, he had the P. Ramlee anecdote at his fingertips.
A ripple of shock seized me when a familiar narrow alley came into sight. I glanced at my watch. Two and a half hours already?
“You see that peephole up there?” Mr Raja’s voice grabbed my attention. “It’s for the house tenants to see who their visitors are.”
I squinted up at a tiny opening on the second floor of one of the houses. “Ah, my grandfather’s house had one of these, too. So it wasn’t a mistake by the builder,” I recalled with a laugh.
As I drank in the sight of these tumbledown buildings, the birdcages of mistresses past, and the antiquated sliding doors of Concubine Lane, as the alley was once known, I was suffused by a new sense of appreciation.
My eyes fell on the three schoolchildren in our group. They were the only ones who didn’t seem fully engaged; their faces had registered blank looks even at P. Ramlee’s name. I couldn’t blame them. Perhaps this was why I did not make the most of my History lessons in school. I was too young to grasp the subject’s nuances and appreciate its relevance to my life.
After thanking Mr Raja for a job well done, I headed back to the railway station. The walk was not quite over for me. Filled with purpose, I raced past traffic lights, honking cars and sun-soaked streets. Upon reaching the station, I headed straight for Majestic Hotel. To my dismay, only a grilled door greeted me. I peered down the elevator shaft. Nothing.
Then, another thought struck me. Silly me. A lift goes up and down between floors. I galumphed up the carpeted stairs leading to the second floor, the wooden steps creaking beneath my heavy steps.
“Do you still have the elevator with the funny message?” I blurted out to the uniformed chap at the lobby.
If he thought my question was silly, he gave no outward sign as he graciously led me to the object of my pursuit and opened its paintworn wooden door. Bingo!
“Hi Dearest Girls & Boys,
I am as antique as your grand
I move slow and re-act slow
If you push/pull my door when
you use me
Then I will shock there & stop
I laughed at it like the mischievous schoolgirl I was, or perhaps, still am, at heart.
Then it dawned on me that I was standing on an open balcony, where a bird’s eye view of Ipoh’s oldest section lay before me. A most fitting finale to a most enjoyable two hours.
History: dry, stuffy and boring? Not anymore, thanks to Time, that most patient of teachers.
Opened in 1935, at the same time as the railway station, the Majestic Station Hotel in Ipoh housed its last batch of guests on 11 March 2011 and ceased all operations. At present, its fate is unclear. To find out more about the heritage tour, contact Mr Raja at (60) 012 5733183.
The original version of this article was first published by The Star as “Appreciating Ipoh’s Past”. It is an excerpt from Made in Malaysia: Stories of Hometown Heroes and Hidden Gems (2014), published by MPH and available in bookstores.
Look out for the Other Festival in Ipoh from 22 October – 8 November 2015.
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