|Illustration by JEHAN MOHD.
I have been spending a lot of time in Ipoh, the capital city of Perak state, Malaysia lately. My birthplace is Batu Gajah, some 40 minutes' drive away, but I grew up in Ipoh. When I am asked to name my hometown, the enthusiastic answer is Ipoh. Batu Gajah is an afterthought.
Ipoh is two and half hours by car from Kuala Lumpur, so it qualifies as a short journey. Each time I cross Hulu Bernam, the border town of Selangor and Perak, the excitement of getting close to "home" becomes stronger and I have to will myself to be patient.
Ipoh has that effect on me. It gives me a sense of place, a sense that I belong to a tiny haven of peace and tranquillity. I don't get that feeling when I return to Kuala Lumpur from Ipoh even though I have stayed in the city for a good part of my adult life beginning from the day I entered university. I learned about life's harsh realities in Kuala Lumpur but it is, essentially, my workplace, not my home.
When I am in Ipoh, I always make a quick trip around the city and inevitably to our old family home which now seems out of place. The surrounding area has developed to include high-rise buildings and their attendant problems. I have vivid memories of that house and at the time it was my whole world. I saw the current owner in the garden recently and wondered if she and her family were enjoying their stay there.
Ipoh -- which is known for its natural attractions (think limestone caves), food and affordable property prices, among other incentives -- is promoted as a retirement hot spot, a label I deeply resent. Why do many assume that only retirees would want to live there? My conversations with young Ipoh-born Malaysians who now work in Kuala Lumpur suggest otherwise. If they had their way, they would love to come home and build their careers in comfortable and familiar surroundings.
Buildings have mushroomed to meet the aspirations of growth. I don't recognise many new structures although the old ones look as if time has stood still, for example, the city bus station which seriously needs a facelift.
If you have come looking for food, Ipoh is THE place. As my niece guides me through the numerous eateries there, I thank God for the city's "small and cheap town" reputation. You can have a feast everyday. Take that Kuala Lumpur!
When I was in Ipoh last week, I met two returnees who had lived abroad for a long time. K was in the United States for 10 years before coming home; he now runs a cane furniture business.
SH had spent a good part of his life overseas and felt the urge to return to Ipoh while drinking coffee in a cafe in Sri Lanka. As he sipped his favourite beverage and took in the ambience of the cafe and its environs, he realised that everything he ever wanted could be found in Ipoh. He packed his bags the next day and booked a flight to Malaysia. He is currently enjoying his landscape gardening enterprise.
These men had felt the sense of place that their hometown gave them. It remained real even though they were miles away from home. This is a sentiment that I totally agree with.