From Hugh Low to Sultan Iskandar

Text by Lau Sook Mei and Law Siak Hong
Photos by Lau Sook Mei

Hugh Low Street in 1887... (1)

Roads and a simple numbering system provide us with addresses which identify where we work and where we live, recreate, socialize and interact with others. Roads are named after those who contributed to the making of the town. It goes without saying: etymology, the study of names of streets and places, tells us the development of the town, its history and its heritage. Let’s take a look now at one main street in Ipoh, the capital city of Perak . Among the first streets in Ipoh in the late 19th century, this street was named after Sir Hugh Low, 3rd British Resident of Perak (1877-1889).

...in 1894. (2)

...in 1920's. (3)

In the beginning, Hugh Low Street stretched from the police post (now the Central Police Station) on the table-land and ended at the west bank of the Kinta River . In 1890, the wooden Hugh Low Bridge was built for “wheeled traffic”, that is, gharries, bullock carts and rickshaws. Ipoh grew quickly. Saturated and over-crowded, the town expanded across the river. Thus, Old Town and New Town came into being.

Hugh Low Bridge, built in 1890. (4)

Bridge strengthened in 1930. (5)

In 1900, as the network of roads improved in the Kinta Valley, the wooden bridge was replaced by an iron one, which was further strengthened and widened in 1930. Last year, despite its antiquity, the old bridge was demolished. An ostentatious replacement is now nearing completion.

Panoramic view of Hugh Low Bridge, 1948. (Photograph by Ngai Chan Photo Studio)

Today, from the Sultan Yussuf Fountain (Jubilee Fountain) and roundabout to Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab, Hugh Low Street is more than twice longer. In New Town, Hugh Low Street was not aligned the way it is. It used to turn to the road beside the Panglima Kinta Mosque (sensibly named Jalan Masjid) and joined Gopeng Road at the spot where Universal Motors stood, now a shop named Eastern Decorator.

So, how and when did Hugh Low Street become Jalan Sultan Iskandar?

In June 1975, a controversy brewed over the right to name streets and roads within Ipoh town. It was triggered by the Town Council’s proposal to rename Hugh Low Street and Belfield Street after Ipoh’s illustrious duo: the late D.R. Seenivasagam and his brother, Dato Sri S.P. Seenivasagam. But the State Government had other plans.

According to the News Straits Times (NST), 2 July, to avoid any involvement in the controversy, the president of the Ipoh Municipal Council and leader of the People’s Progressive Party, Dato Sri S.P. Seenivasagam withdrew his consent to have Belfield Street renamed after him. Sadly, 2 days later, with the issue unresolved he passed away.

New bridge: towards Old Town on the left.

Rather suddenly, the NST, 8 July reported that the conflict was settled. According to the amended Municipal Ordinance published in the Perak Government Gazette on 18 June, the State Government claimed the “sole right to name roads to ensure that in future all names of roads, streets and settlements including housing estates reflect a Malaysian identity”. Thus, Hugh Low Street became Jalan Sultan Iskandar and Belfield Street, Jalan Sultan Yussuf.

A tower on each corner of the bridge?

To save the situation and the “loss of face”, two weeks later, Perak Mentri Besar Tan Sri Ghazali Jawi declared that Clayton Road (in front of St. Michael’s Institution) would be renamed Jalan Dato Sri S.P. Seenivasagam. As for D.R. Seenivasagam, the Coronation Park was renamed after him.

The State Executive Council had insisted that it would consider names recommended by the local authority. But, the fact remains that, for decades, the Council had named its streets and roads without referring to the state government.

New Town: note tall buildings sticking out.

Getting back to Jalan Sultan Iskandar, take a walk in the shade of the 5-foot-ways and you will be rewarded with the lingering old world charm of Ipoh. In Old Town , the Ipoh Draft Local Plan 2020 has identified two buildings on this street as heritage: Oversea Building (Nos.12 & 14) and the Ambika Estates Office (No. 4). Strict enforcement is needed to ensure their preservation. In New Town, most of the shophouses developed (1905-1908) by Yau Tet Shin have survived one hundred years! Some of them have gotten a new Art Deco façade or a 1970s decorative aluminium sun-screen over the original shop front. Others have been demolished and completely re-built in late 70s and early 80s; being much taller, they stick out like sore thumbs. At the eastern end of the street, there were old residences (one is left standing behind a tin shed selling furniture), a block of flats, a school and several commercial buildings.

Common names and references used by locals add to the place and its communities. Renaming of roads plays havoc with historical interpretation, let alone the inconvenience caused. The fact is, even today, among old Ipoh residents, familiar old names and references continue to stay in use.

Hugh Low Street, circa 1963. (6)

The same street today. Photo taken from the same angle.

Footnote 1: Ipoh , the town that tin built gained its city status in 1988.

Footnote 2: Photo credit: Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern
Development: (1) and (2)
Ipoh: The City That Tin Built: (3), (4), (5) and (6)


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