There Goes the Pre-war Shophouses

Text and photography by Law Siak Hong and Lau Sook Mei

There are signs in ‘tin-capital’ Ipoh that it is awakening from an economic slumber.

Here, for the past weeks, Nos. 8, 10, 12, 14 and 16, Jalan Sultan Abdul Jalil (Clarke Street) have been undergoing demolition work. The block of five pre-war shophouses is immediately behind the Ruby Cinema and running one side down Jalan Lau Ek Ching. This site is set to be re-developed into a hotel.

A sturdy unified block featuring stucco work, a cartouche. Photo taken in 2010.

Hardly surprising, Ipoh’s hotels are enjoying full occupancy. New small hotels are mushrooming – the tourists are coming! But incredibly, no old shophouses have been adapted for hotels, as is the trend in Penang, except for the re-development at the site of Ipoh’s first theatre, bounded by Leech, Panglima and Belfield. But that makes for another blog.

Re-development at the Dramatists' Hostel site.

Ipoh’s old streetscapes, neat rows of shophouses with comfortable five-foot ways, pre-war shophouse kopitiams still serving popular old favourites, hustle-bustle of the historic core and friendly locals, all contribute to a relaxed “1960s aura of charm”, the prize bull in the tourism game.

A five-foot way (left) and a shophouse kopitiam.

Taking the easy way out by pulling them down and re-building does not augur well for our heritage. It is said, the greenest building is the one that is already built. So why don’t we keep the old shophouses and preserve our “historic urban landscape”?

Historic(al) urban landscape is a living heritage. It is the greatest term of reference for Ipoh’s heritage. And heritage is the basket of golden eggs for tourism in the Kinta Valley and further afield. After all, Ipoh is the capital city in the Valley and the state of Perak.

Demolition of old shophouses for re-development should be stringently monitored, with heavy fine for wanton destruction. Correspondingly, conservation efforts should be rewarded with incentives from the government to encourage repairs and adaptive re-use by “preferred practices”. Would the Ipoh City Council (MBI) organize seminars to enlighten property owners and building contractors on preferred conservation practices? If not, why not?

A close-up of the cartouche.

Original, authentic old shophouses are getting rare. The block on Clarke Street, dated 1932, cannot be saved because the MBI has asserted that the re-development was approved four years ago. The question is: did the Council know the qualitative values of the buildings? If research indicates they are an asset to the city, is it not possible to abrogate the decision? How much compensation is too much for the City to pay? What about the cost to the city’s heritage, which is being mooted as tourism product?  Ignorance is a high price to pay.

An old photo of the block - courtesy of Ruth Iversen-Rollitt.

Just a little about its distinctive architecture. This block and the adjacent Ruby cinema are the design of the Danish architect, B M Iversen, who arrived in Malaya in 1928 and eight years later, set up a practice in Ipoh. The prolific Iversen designed and constructed many landmark buildings which set the modern look of Ipoh. He executed public and commercial buildings. For those who could afford his service, he designed and built private residences, which became status symbols. Most of all, as a cinema specialist, he had a portfolio of 38 cinemas, for both the Shaw Brothers and Cathay Organization throughout the Malay Peninsula, including Ipoh. Late in 2009, Iversen’s landmark pre-war mixed development of shops and houses in Fair Park came down in a tragedy.

An Iversen creation: Ruby Cinema in Art Deco architecture.

The price of shophouses has doubled in the past year. Despite that, old shophouses are falling off the radar, and along with them, the witness to the city’s social history and its glory.

Ipoh Mayor Datuk Roshidi Hashim recently stated that he had planned to seek recognition for Ipoh as a Heritage City from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to boost its tourism industry. But how can this vision be realized when MBI continues to approve demolition of pre-war buildings, sacrificing the fabric of its socio-historical and architectural values to questionable new buildings? If MBI is serious about preserving selected heritage buildings, it must protect its streetscape, rather than singling out certain buildings at the expense of the blocks. To conserve Ipoh’s environment and enjoy the city’s heritage, all existing buildings must be considered commercially viable through adaptive re-use. It must be strong enough to stop repeating its past mistakes, despite the pressure from development. And we need a new set of guidelines on what can and cannot be done to the facade, and to enforce them.

What is left of the block today.

For the sake of the future generations, let us regenerate by using preferred conservation practices and apply green technology for sustainability. Because the city’s social history is what gives identity and significance to pre-war shophouses, we must save them for posterity; we will be all the more richer for it.

Footnote: Clarke Street was named after Sir Andrew Clarke (1824-1902), the Governor of the Straits Settlement who engineered the 1874 Pangkor Treaty that established indirect British rule over the Malay States. Sultan Abdul Jalil is the 29th ruler of the Perak Sultanate, which began in 1528.


6 Responses to “There Goes the Pre-war Shophouses”

  1. 1 Yusuf Martin June 24, 2011 at 11:20 am

    myopia twinned with crass stupidity is destroying the only Ipoh tourists would want to come to see – bland new hotels can be seen just about anywhere!

  2. 2 darryl collins July 2, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Hi Siak Hong

    That inevitable cartouche again! My memory was jogged when I re-examined this posting. Believe it to be the F&N logo on that featured building. It’s ironic that the contemporary kopitiam photo is still flying the F&N advertising banners – ah! … the past links!


  3. 3 Papan Jones July 5, 2011 at 3:25 am

    Your memory may be confusing you, my dear Darryl, but I am glad that you remember this colonial building feature, however vaguely.
    There are two cartouches in Ipoh which are similar.
    One is the F&N which you have seen, the other is this ‘blank’ on this Iversen pre-war row of shophouses in Clarke Street, New Town.
    There are more elaborate ones on the Merchantile Bank building in Old Town, which are dated even earlier.

  4. 4 Papan Jones July 5, 2011 at 3:45 am

    Do not despair, Yusuf.
    We heard that the new hotel will incorporate the facade of the old as it builds behind it, upwards. If this is true, then all is not lost.
    The old roof line would make an interesting balustrade for a roof terrace.
    Will the re-developer disclose his plans for this extension?

    Surprisingly, demolition stopped after the original roofs had been removed.
    Should we not thank the re-developer for his sensibility in retaining the character of this street?
    We note, though, debris remains in the shophouses, and the wooden floors are gone.
    Let’s hope a modern wooden flooring will be installed,at least.

    Go see the blooming Flame of the Forest on Clarke Street.
    MBI has shortlisted 14 trees as Ipoh heritage.
    I wonder if any of the flowering trees have been included.
    Guess wht, insurance companies have rejected coverage for them.
    Perhaps they recoganise that the trees are at high risk, for poorly planned street maintenance and ridiculous future re-development.

    Let’s hope that the Ipoh Echo can provide more into on this matter.

  5. 5 Yvonne Blake September 14, 2011 at 12:34 am

    Having new development does in no way mean that Ipoh is awakening from its economic slumber……Ipoh will always remain in slumber-land,thats the beauty of the town.
    Who approves the building plans ? This department should be solely held responsible for the destruction of heritage buildings.Heritage Buildings ?
    Heritage to some and to the rest,an eyesore and a reminder of a past they would rather forget.Besides,no new development means no one gets to line their pockets,surely the powers that be cannot live with that thought.If not,how to cari makan on the side to finance much desired luxurious livestyle,betul tak ?

  6. 6 Papan Jones October 4, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Yvonne’s ideas of reality is thought provoking.

    Ipoh is ‘slumber-land’ and yes, that’s its attraction, not busy-hyper but relaxed with plenty of good food everywhere, especially Chinese fare.

    All building plans must be approved by the City’s Building Department and other departments such as the Bomba, Drainage and Town Planning. What seems to be missing is a consultancy for cultural preservation, and protection for our ‘built heritage’.

    I understand that Majlis Bandaraya Ipoh is pushing for the formation of such a heritage conservation consultancy which will include the Perak Heritage Society. This may be the start of something good for our heritage environment, the type that visitors come for and locals take pride in.

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