It’s hard to conceive of anything bigger than yourself, or your family, let alone your city when at the age of 13 you find yourself hunched over a scarred desk, tagged with ballpoint and liquid paper, staring but not reading words in a history book about the state in which you live. Short-term goals at that age were to get home and get in an hour of Counter Strike or Starcraft. Mid-term goals were to score a diving header at the local park on the weekend. Long-term goals included a ‘good education’, or at least proof of your memorisation skills, in the form of consecutive As on your final transcript.
Such was my inattentiveness that I don’t remember where the word ‘Ipoh’ comes from. Gone, too, are the timelines and characters of Perak’s history. I do remember being constantly utterly bored out of my skull. A fly patrolled the classroom’s skies. Like most history teachers I had, the voice of this teacher very likely monotone. Two out of three fans worked. It might’ve been 3:30, it might’ve been 5:30. Those facts don’t matter. What matters is that when we turned 17 it was simpler to leave Ipoh upon graduation than to stay. I left. Most of my best friends left. My parents left. Three out of four of my mother’s siblings left.
We lucky ones left because Ipoh didn’t offer us what straight As opened us to. It didn’t even offer us what a mixed bag of As, Bs, and Cs got you. If anything, Ipoh was boredom and routine: a lifetime of cybercafé sejourns, mamak night football, and your neighbours asking you when you’re getting married. To stay was to work hard for not as much pay, to accept the lower rents for less entertainment, to say goodbye to those you grew up with. As best as I can describe the city to my non-Malaysian friends, Ipoh was the suburbs of Malaysia.
Growing up, seeing international tourists was a big deal to me. A Caucasian face didn’t draw stares but it did turn heads. I always wondered what they could possibly be doing in our small town (for ‘town’ is exactly how we thought of it). Why would they sacrifice city (read: KL) pleasures for unnavigable streets? The airport was barely functional in those days. We had no beaches and no skyscrapers. The roaches were on fantastic bulking diets. Public transport was practically non-existent. Our hotels were architectural triumphs of a bygone era. In the best of times you had to circle the block three times for a parking space.
So to see that Lonely Planet has just named the city one of the top 10 cities to visit in 2016 brings mixed feelings. I am, before all else, nostalgic for a time long gone. I understand that things change. The stray dogs move on, the duplexes get built, and the cafés get air-conditioning and magazines to browse. We don’t own the past and we certainly don’t keep it bottled on our shelves. No one ever starts a business to stay local. Products spread wings and names travel places. As I speak it’s entirely possible to procure (Original, whatever that means) Ipoh White Coffee in instant form in Montreal’s Chinatown. While I’ve never met another orang Ipoh outside Malaysia, I know somebody is snapping up the coffee and they definitely aren’t Singaporean.
Domestic tourism has already been going up steadily for over a decade. Call it hometown bias but Ipoh’s food is a goldmine. Locals say it’s the water. I say we take credit where credit’s due. Who cares if the woks of Ipoh’s chefs and cooks are laced with opioids (legal note: they aren’t), they still have to cook the food. I can’t play down the role of the blogosphere as food enthusiasts flocked to Ipoh with their GoPros and left five star reviews. All of a sudden the tourism campaign ‘Ipoh Mali’ didn’t sound so dumb. If asked what’s the biggest change in the last decade people answer with tourists, traffic, and rising costs.
I haven’t even mentioned Ipoh’s ‘old world charm and booming hipster cafes‘. The former is perhaps unfortunately something locals take for granted, now Instagram fodder for many a visitor. The latter is a different story. Forget for a moment that in most of the western world (to which Lonely Planet are aiming their guides at) ‘hipsterism’ is now an epithet. Prior to leaving, the hipster didn’t register in Ipoh’s lexicon, let alone its old connotation of Cool. The coolest thing to do after school was to head to the mall for a RM2 bubble tea. Ipoh-bred locals know that ‘hipsterism’ and ‘revivalism’ is really repackaged normality. Businesses are raking it in as tourism finds a way. Lonely Planet lists places to visit I didn’t even know existed and things to do I wouldn’t have done in a million years. Call it the local-tourist experience dichotomy (how many Parisians have gone up the Eiffel Tower?).
Knowing this, I can’t begrudge this change. I’m not one to deny my ex-fellow citizens a revenue boost. It would be great if the bus and train stations serviced more passengers. Maybe it would be nice for us to have people see the way we live. After all, isn’t my hometown’s recognition due? We were never on par with Kuala Lumpur and Pulau Pinang. In fact, the way I’ve explained where I’m from is by reminding people of a small island called Singapore (nods and recognising faces) and how there’s a much bigger country north of it. Ipoh is two hours away from the capital city of this country. ‘Ah,’ say people. ‘Buzz off’, I’d like to reply. Or in Malay parlance, ‘belahlah.’
As travelers we crave a balance between the postcard experience and the down on the ground experience. That’s to say that yes, we want pictures with the Opera House but we go on Internet forums asking for local haunts. We absolutely must go to the pyramids (maybe even on camelback) yet we wander as far away as our danger radar allows us to go from the trodden path just to see how the other side live. I wonder about the tourist experience in my old stomping grounds. I cannot comprehend the life of a New Yorker florist or a Parisian bus driver or even a Marrakechian leather bag merchant who has to deal with tourists on a daily basis. Stories of how the locals are rude and impolite strike me as karma served cold: how would you like to be bombarded with questions about where the so-and-so is in a language that isn’t yours? While Ipoh isn’t at all likely to see tourism rates bounce up to London levels, I can only imagine what inflated tourism will do to my hometown. AirBnB’s? Party hostels? Tours on wheels? Art walks?
As someone who left Ipoh more than ten years ago. I, too, lost what I once believed were the only way things were. And by that I mean the long unkempt grass of my neighbourhood fields, the smoking ticket collector standing on the steps of a moving bus, the sketchy urban explorations of dilapidated and abandoned Yik Foong alleyways, the old generation of cendol and ma chee motorcycle vendors, the topless old men leaning against their gates, humming ancient Cantonese opera. It means the beer after beer under hot evening skies, driving around town for kicks, and not being able to wait for that driver’s permit. It means wet market stenches that no nose on earth was built for, Indian barbers roughhousing your head for a better angle, and ‘economy rice’ for lunch and dinner. It means sharing a table with strangers on Saturday morning breakfasts, the bowling alleys with dented balls, the illegal CDs and DVDs in the back rooms of stores, and arcade and pool rooms filled with the haze of cigarettes. My friends will attest to how it means the feeling of absolute ennui and fatigue of repetition. Above all it means the Ipoh that I thought was all that could ever be and how I thought it was mine and mine to leave. The reverse was not meant to happen.
Tourism didn’t kill all that, I know. Yet, tourism won’t bring any of it back either. If the definition of ‘revival’ is ‘a bringing back to life’ then Ipoh’s revival isn’t of the past but of a strength bubbling underneath the city which I didn’t know existed. It wasn’t of my time and it will never be. May Ipoh rest in peace and may Ipoh live long and prosper.