IPOH, April 27 — When did the Town Built on Tin, which became a sleepy hollow after the mining boom ended, become so happening again?
The buzz starts (and some may argue ends) at the rejuvenated Kong Heng Square, long seen as the heart of Ipoh Old Town. There is the Kong Heng Kopitiam, of course, for all your local coffeeshop delights; the boutique hotel Sekeping Kong Heng by renowned landscape architect and Ipoh boy Ng Sek San and partners; and there is the strikingly polished (for this neighbourhood) Plan B Ipoh.
What really draws the crowds though, whether from the capital or abroad, is a trio of whimsically-named and intensely Instagram-worthy cafés: Burps & Giggles, Buku Tiga Lima and Missing Marbles. Melbourne-educated Ipoh boy Dexter Song, 27, is the man with the master plan.
Song’s first shop Burps & Giggles offers gourmet burgers, decadent pastries, brewed-to-order coffee and freshly-squeezed juices. Besides firm favourites such as the Bam-Bam (a Wagyu patty with egg, cheese, tomato, beetroot, carrot, horseradish and onions) and the Greeko (lamb, red peppers, onions, olives, mint yoghurt), there is also a changing, seasonal menu.
Its neighbour Buku Tiga Lima is a crêperie that serves both savoury and sweet crêpes. There are also churros; these irresistible Spanish fried dough pastry arrive with a sinful dusting of icing sugar and an equally sinful dip of melted Belgian chocolate.
Song shares, “The previous occupant of Buku Tiga Lima was the old Star Air-Conditioned Hair Dressing Salon before it closed down and the barbers retired. We’ve kept most of the original flooring and signage. After much persuasion, we managed to get Uncle Thiru, the last old-school barber of his generation, to return and cut hair.”
The barbershop is now relocated to the back of Burps & Giggles in a glass-walled incarnation and renamed New Star Salon.
Song’s latest eatery is quirkily (naturally) called Missing Marbles and indeed, if you look hard enough, you’d find the tiny guli or marbles scattered all over the shop. (We wonder if there is a prize for hunting down all of them.)
He says, “Instead of Western dishes, this time we wanted to dish up Asian delicacies. However, we steered clear of Ipoh favourites like kai see hor fun as our local hawker stalls do these best. We came up with the idea of ramen as we love it. To keep it pork-free, we make our lamb stock from scratch and have been getting a good response from customers despite initial concerns that the broth might be too gamey.”
Missing Marbles also serves Calrose rice (a sticky, medium-grain variety often used in sushi) with minced chicken, tofu, soft-boiled hanjuku egg, shredded seaweed and toasted sesame seeds. For comfort food, try the hawker must-have mee siam as well as chap a lang, their version of rojak with fish crackers.
Besides his mother (award-winning Ipoh-born chef Julie Song of Indulgence fame) and his partner Rachel Yeow with whom he collaborated on the aforementioned shops, Song is always open to teaming up with other likeminded folks. One such co-creation is Bits & Bobs, a side project with his childhood friend Nikhil Roy.
“Bits & Bobs is how Nikhil and I celebrate our nostalgia and fascination with our childhood years. That’s why we came up with the tagline “sejak selalu” (literally “since always” in Malay),” says Song.
This explains the strange mix of vintage and antique items such as collectible toy cars and 1930s cigarette posters from Shanghai featuring languid Chinese women in cheongsams. It’s like a scene out of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love as seen through the elaborately precious lens of Wes Anderson.
Fans of Malaysian illustrator (and yes, another Ipoh boy) Lat will recognise the ice balls sold at Bits & Bobs from the cartoonist’s early strips. These delicious spheres are shaped from shaved ice before being drizzled with homemade syrups and served on waxed brown paper. Bestselling flavours include NishiBomb (Sarsi and assam) and NingNong (gula Melaka and lychee).
“The names of the ice balls come from the nicknames of my childhood friends’ girlfriends. The BusyBee, which is flavoured with lemon tea and assam, is my partner Rachel’s pet name. It certainly suits her as she’s always running around doing something!” laughs Song.
Bits & Bobs is located behind the row of Burps & Giggles café, and it will soon be joined by a sister shop opposite it offering vintage cameras. Song has apparently amassed hundreds of them over the years, which makes him the trendiest karang guni (door-to-door scrap collector) guy in town.
Song’s next restoration project, located just next door to Burps & Giggles, is well on the way to completion. The Old Block Apartments (formerly the United Asian Bank Ipoh building) will accommodate retail outlets, offices and service apartments. It all begins on the rooftop where the Burps & Giggles crew will be – believe it or not – composting!
“We plan to use the compost for our rooftop farming. It will be completely pesticide-free. Imagine getting organic fertiliser from composted fruit skins. Once the space has matured, we plan to open the rooftop farm to the public once a week and serve salad lunches. It’ll be similar to a vegan experience,” says Song.
The third and fourth floors will house the actual service apartments, four units to each level. The décor will feature minimal Peranakan-style colonial furnishings for a bare and almost unfinished look. Below the apartments on the second floor will be the offices of GDP Architects and the future Yasmin Ahmad Museum.
The ground and mezzanine floors will the site of independent pop-up stores and retail outlets ranging from fashion, fresh produce and even a vintage showroom. Song adds, “We also have plans to have a pop-up store to sell produce from our rooftop farming in the future. There’s also a basement. Currently we are looking for unique tenants like a music studio or a one of kind basement bar.”
While the Old Block Apartments has yet to officially open (its scheduled launch is end of April), there’s already a tenant in the form of Kristy Collection, a small shop selling homemade accessories and women’s fashion sourced from local designers and overseas.
The owner Kristy Wong, whose first shop is located at De Garden in Medan Ipoh, says, “My customers are seeking something unusual and less commercial such as handcrafted necklaces and earrings. The vibe of this whole area tends to attract a lot of youngsters who are more adventurous in their fashion sense.”
Wong’s shop recalls the tiny shops of Taipei and Tokyo’s back alleys with warm lighting and cleverly repurposed items as furniture. Her mother’s old Raleigh sewing machine is transformed into a display table while the spinning wheel is now a dainty-looking chandelier.
No space is left unused. Song has planted trees in the square behind the Old Block Apartments to give it a lush and lived-in quality. He says, “We will introduce a flea market here later. In time, this will become a space for buskers to perform, hopefully. Also, we are looking at hosting the inaugural Ipoh Festival, similar to the George Town Festival in Penang.”
It’s almost unbelievable how much is going on in this small corner of the “once old, now old” Kong Heng Square. If Song and his talented and hardworking team have anything to say about it, this is only the beginning.
Burps & Giggles, Buku Tiga Lima, Missing Marbles, and Bits & Bobs
93, 95, 97 & 99 Jalan Sultan Yussuf, Ipoh, Perak (Bits & Bobs is behind this row of cafés)
Open Wed-Mon 8:30am-10:30pm; closed Tuesdays
Ground Floor, Old Block Apartments, 91 Jalan Sultan Yussuf, Ipoh, Perak
Open Wed-Mon 10am-6pm; closed Tuesdays
Tel: 016 -763 0935