A Journey Back in Time

It’s a long quiet Chinese New Year weekend break and I’m in the mood to settle down, watch some mind numbing movies on TV or perhaps tend to some house hold chores and stuff that needs to get done at home. Well that was the general plan until an ill aunt in my hometown set the stage for an impromptu road trip to Ipoh.

Expecting the worst, my fears were allayed when the drive up to Ipoh on the 1st day of CNY was clear most of the way. I guess those who needed to be where they needed to be had already left town and safely arrived at their respective destinations. I firmly believe the trips that go unplanned are the ones that turn out the most rewarding.

Cross-winds along the NKVE were pretty harsh this morning and I almost lost it around several bends along the way. They were that strong. Where are these gusts when you need them in balmy and still KL?

I left sleepy town Ipoh for big city Toronto when I was 17 and never really returned to stay. Most visits were either for someone’s wedding or to attend the funeral of a dearly departed. It’s been over 35 years since I explored it like the kid I was back then.

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Approaching the now City of Ipoh, I can’t help but wonder when they’ll pass some legislation and stop the mining of limestone from the hills that surround the city. It’s truly awful how these hills are being cut down. My son asked me, “How do they cut the hill like that?” to which I answered, “Well, I stand up next to a mountain and I chop it down with the edge of my hand” from Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child. He’s now convinced I had a psychedelic childhood. That was my way of telling him, I’ve no idea how it’s done.

Entering the city, the landscape is somewhat unfamiliar with all the development she’s seen in the years I’ve been gone. However, there are still stretches of road that suddenly appear and I remember where I am once again. Crossing Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah which was formerly Tiger Lane, I see a familiar turn off to Canning Gardens.

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35 Cecil Rae Drive in Canning Gardens is where I grew up. The little house is still there but is now converted into an office of some sort. The lush green garden my dad, a botanist, once tended to is all but gone. I remember vividly all the orchids and plants he had lovingly planted and taken care of, none of which have survived.

For a brief moment I could almost see a snapshot of everyone in the family at home with our dog Rosy (Madam Rose Chan, a pedigree Alsatian) running around in the garden and the two gas-guzzling Holdens my dad loved so much parked in the driveway. And playing on the turntable a song my brother loved, “The Green Green Grass of Home” by Tom Jones.

The old home town looks the same as I step down from the train,
and there to meet me is my Mama and Papa.
Down the road I look and there runs Mary, hair of gold and lips like cherries.
It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home.
Yes, they’ll all come to meet me, arms reaching, smiling sweetly.
It’s good to touch the green, green, grass of home.
The old house is still standing, tho’ the paint is cracked and dry,
and there’s that old oak tree that I used to play on.

Down the lane I walk with my sweet Mary, hair of gold and lips like cherries.
It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home.
Yes, they’ll all come to meet me, arms reaching, smiling sweetly.
It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home.

I felt a little nostalgic as I drove by. The huge field in front of the house where I played hockey with my friends is still physically untouched and looks exactly as I left it back in 1980. The wet market nearby hasn’t changed much either and the Caltex station at the end of the street is still a Caltex station.

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The shops next to the wet market have all changed hands through the years except for one, The Ariff Store. I honestly can’t believe this store is still around. I used to buy my Beano and Dandy comic books here as a kid in the 70’s. It’s been here since I can’t remember when. Back then it was somewhat of a speciality toy store too and had an eclectic selection of Airfix model cars, ships and planes, you name it they had it. I had to save up for months to buy one or throw a tantrum to get one for my birthday. Today it’s just another newspaper, magazine and general bookstore agent.

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The many park benches around the field have all but disintegrated with the exception of this one. It looks like it’ll survive another 35 years or more quite easily unless some pencil pushing nitwit at City Hall decides to install new ones.

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Heading out of Canning Gardens to check out the city, I pass the old Ashby Road Gurdwara. Another memorable place where my parents took us every Sunday morning to connect with God and learn something useful about the Sikh religion so that we don’t end up as “neanderthals“. I remember it as a beautiful serene temple atop a small hill but today it was not only locked up but looked in need of some loving care and perhaps a make over.

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Hospital Besar Ipoh as it was simply known in the 60’s is where I was born. Up until the mid-70’s it was a very basic wooden structure that served the town as its main hospital. The old structures have all been torn down and it’s a multi-story modern facility today which I do not recognise at all.

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My Primary School, SK Cator Avenue has remained the same wooden structure through the years. I was here Standard 1 to 6, 1968 – 1974. I remember it was painted blue and white back then. I’m surprised it remains intact exactly as it was with nothing torn down or added to it. And that little annexe block in the far right hand corner of the photo above was a meeting hall which had a television set. In the early 70’s, whenever there was an Ali title boxing match on, the school would come to a stand still and everyone would gather here to watch the fight. It was also where I attended Jawi classes believe it or not.

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1975-1979 were my Form 1 to 5 years which I attended at Anderson School just next door to Cator Avenue. “TO STRIVE, TO SEEK, TO FIND AND NOT TO YIELD”, the school motto is still emblazoned on my mind. The school was named after the then High Commissioner of the Malay States, Sir John Anderson and was formally opened on the 6th of February 1909. Anderson School is right up there together with St. Michael’s Institution, Victoria Institution and Malay College Kuala Kangsar as some of the oldest and most distinguished public schools in Malaysia.

I remember sports as an important part of the curriculum at school especially hockey. Among the strongest school teams in the state, the finals were almost always between St. Michael’s Institution and Anderson. It was like India and Pakistan going to war. Never a dull moment with plenty of drama on and off the field. Those were the days hockey had traditional rules of play and not the crap of a game it has become today.

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The huge towering trees we used to play under are still standing around the old school yard. My dad would always tell me that these were tropical rain trees and that they were already at the time more than 100 years old. They remain standing today in all their glory aged some 135 years, possibly a lot more.

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As I was nearing the city centre I found my kindergarten, St. John’s Church, where I spent time when I was knee high learning my ABCs. Possibly around 1965 me thinks. Back then we had Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist dan lain lain in the same class. Parents of that era had no hangups about sending their children to a church to be taught by nuns or fear they’d return home converted to another religion.

I just love this place, it’s such a beautiful pristine old church that was built in 1910. As I parked, a middle aged gent approached me with that, “Can I help you look on his face”. I just anticipated his approach and told him I went to kindergarten here. The look on his face was priceless as he asked, “Back in the 60’s?” almost disbelievingly. I’m a Sikh and have no qualms about visiting any house of God as long as they’ll allow me in. Does not diminish my faith in my religion in any way, only makes it stronger when you appreciate and understand the teachings of other faiths too. Embrace the best and discard the rest. People today get all bent out of shape in the name of religion.

Ipoh sits in the once tin-ore deposit rich Kinta Valley and was for the most part a mining town. It was an important British outpost during colonial times. The Brits mined tin ore and literally robbed us blind of our natural resources. I use the word “rob” liberally here because the basis for colonialisation by the British of every country they ever set foot on was to loot and pilfer for their own gains. While they took liberally, they did leave us some grand old heritage buildings that have withstood the test of time.

Clockwise above are the St. Michael’s Institution (1912), City Hall Building (1914) and the Railway Station (1917) which is also known as The Taj Mahal of Ipoh.

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The iconic fountain at the roundabout that leads to Ipoh Parade and Main Convent School is still operational. Built in the 60’s it’s exact history remains a mystery. It was a little challenging shooting this while driving but I guess it’ll have to do.

The old parts of town are very much intact and the pre-World War II shops and facades remain preserved which is awesome to see.

The cave temples in Ipoh are unique and tourist attractions in their own right. I remember this one at Gunung Cheroh in particular for a tragic event. It is best known for a rockfall in 1973 which killed 42 squatters living at the foot of the hill. There are 2 Chinese temples, the Nam Tou Ngam, and the 8 Immortals Cave. There is also an Indian temple adjacent to it.

Taman Dr. Seenivasagam was a popular haunt with young courting couples when I was in school and appears to still be the place to “lepak” even today. It’s also the “in place” for outdoor photography as I spied with my little eye several people getting their portrait photos taken by the lake. I don’t know why but everywhere I go, I’m destined to find a lily pond with a dragonfly perched on one of it’s buds. Must be a sign.

No trip to Ipoh would be complete without sampling the food. Penangites can say what they want but the food in Ipoh is still the best. I was craving Ipoh Curry Mee the best of which is available at the Glutton Square in Ipoh Gardens but its closed for CNY holidays. We instead headed to Lahat Road where we were treated to freshly made samosas, crispy curry puffs, kayshri and teh-tarik at one of the many indian eatries in the area.

Pottering around Ipoh brought back images from a time long gone. Gigabytes of memory banks got refreshed in my brain today. I may have left a long time ago for the bright lights of the big city but I’m still the lad who “Ipoh mari“. That’ll never change and perhaps never should, ever.

The Roving Photographer
Feb 8, 2016

PS. If you’re wondering about that ill aunt, yes, I managed to squeeze in a couple of minutes to visit her too. 🙂

Dedicated in memory of my childhood buddy,
Kamal Singh Sidhu who is no longer with us and to my late father whose birthday it is today.

 

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