Updated: Sep 6
In 2015, Ipoh Old Town was such a quiet town that travellers would call it a laid-back town with cafes, traditional coffees and food and flourishing street arts. Not much was heard of the three Concubine Lanes. In July 2016, Lonely Planet listed Ipoh as one of the best Asian destinations to visit. Photos of the Concubine Lanes started appearing in news articles. The lanes were opened.
Before going on the last trip to Ipoh, I read about the Concubine Lanes from blogs and thought how Ipoh must have undergone a drastic change in about a year to become the next Armenian Street in Georgetown, Penang. Have the old charm of Ipoh Old Town became a thing of the past? Is it as touristy as Malacca and Georgetown now? I need to see for myself.
While in Ipoh, I was relieved to see that the charming old town was still pretty much intact. Yes, there were changes but on smaller scales — these are ongoing efforts to preserve the old town and to revive its old-day charms to attract visitors. Is it "touristy"? Not really, old towns require people to stay lively. So long as the developments are reasonable and relevant, it is healthy for preserving the old town and encouraging tourism.
I explored the 3 Concubine Lanes during my 3 days in Ipoh.
Why "Concubine" Lanes?
According to a signboard along Concubine Lane, after a fire destroyed the old town in 1892, the town was rebuilt with lanes of shops. A mining tycoon, Yao Tet Shin, gave three lanes to his three wives as gifts. Each of his wives would collect rents from the shops in her own lane.
1. Wife Lane — Today's Lorong Hale (大奶巷)
2. Concubine Lane — Today's Lorong Panglima (二奶巷)
3. Second Concubine Lane — Today's Market Lane (三奶巷)
If you try to translate directly from the Chinese characters, you will be confused by the numbers. "First concubine" is of course the "wife", and the "second wife" is called the "concubine and "third wife" is the "second concubine".
Logically, I would expect the Wife Lane to be the longest or have more shops but it turned out to be unexpectedly short and desolated. Maybe this is not what it used to be 120 years ago.
The only thing of interest here is the mural of a fruit seller. Do buy some fruits from him, he needs to pay rent to the "wife".
Concubine Lane, along Lorong Panglima, is the busiest among the three lanes today with shops, restaurants and a boutique hotel. Apart from Restoran Wong Koh Kee, all the other shops are new — around one year old.
The lane is usually not crowded on weekdays. Some shops will also have their off-days on certain weekdays. On weekends, all shops will be opened but the lane will also be full of people, both locals and tourists.
The best way to avoid crowds is to skip the weekends, and visit Concubine Lane on two weekdays to skirt around the off-days of the shops. This will work if the shops do not rest for two days consecutively in a week.
Some of the old houses are restored to what it used to look like in the old days. The setup in the photo (below) looks like the second level of an ancient Chinese brothel. The only thing that is missing are girls waving their silk scarfs behind the windows.
This shop sells souvenirs and toys, with stuff animals looking down at the street from the windows.
Towards one end of the lane, there are still a couple of units that are not refurbished yet.
And a photo of the Concubine Lane at night. And it really looks like a "red-light district".
Second Concubine Lane
Unlike Concubine Lane, the Second Concubine Lane (or Market Lane) does not have many shops, except for Nam Chau Coffee Shop, which serves curry noodle, and iJuicy, a shop selling fruit juices, at one end of the lane. The red and white umbrellas hovering overhead are unique to this lane only.
If you have time, check out iJuicy. This shop has some rather unique decors, using red paint to write words on its window — a method that is often used by loan sharks to demand payments for overdue debts. "欠债回水" means to "repay debt with water". The "water" in iJuicy is probably fruit juice.
Other than the two shops, the lane has three murals. The first mural depicts scene in a coffee shop, which is aptly painted on the wall outside Nam Chau Coffee Shop. The second one has kids jumping with joy. This is the hottest jumping spot during weekends.
The third one is located towards the other end of the lane. It is a 3D mural, created by Ernest Zacharevic, with half a real-life tricycle as part of the mural.
If you are interested in more street arts in the old town or local food, read these:
The three Concubine Lanes were restored for their heritage values and they are part of the old town itself. Despite efforts to attract visitors to Ipoh, development has so far been limited to the back lanes and has not diminish the charm of the old town. And let's hope that it stays that way.