Once upon a time, in a bustling tin-mining town called Ipoh in Malaya (now Malaysia), there was a street that would send the hearts of men aflutter, and the tongues of their wives clicking with disapproval.
This was Lorong Panglima, or Yi Lai Hong (Concubine Lane), where it was rumoured that wealthy Chinese merchants and British officers would keep their mistresses, away from the prying eyes of angry wives. It was also a notorious opium den.
It is easy to imagine how it was like in its heyday. There were 27 wooden pre-war houses flanking both sides of the narrow street, housing over a 100 families.
Laundry was hung out to dry on criss-crossing bamboo poles, propped up from one window ledge to another. Young children would run down the street, or squat in a corner playing simple games like hopscotch, five-stone, spinning tops and marbles.
When my family and I visited the place, a friendly resident explained that it used to be a thriving street, where men enjoyed trysts with their mistresses, who would stand at the windows and wave down from behind red draw curtains.
“Occasionally there would be an angry wife storming down here, demanding for the husband to go home and calling the mistress all sorts of names. There was a fair share of catfights,” he laughed.
Aside from the infamous mistresses, the place had a tight-knit community of Chinese immigrants working as food hawkers, tin miners and grocers.
Sixty years on, Ipoh is like a grand dame whose glory has faded, but is still beautiful. After its tin resources were depleted and Malaya gained independence in 1957 to become Malaysia, the British officers went home – leaving behind many historical buildings and colonial structures.
Vacant house with stripped floorboards on second floor, left to the elements and weeds
Concubine Lane was one of the unfortunate places to have fallen into a state of disrepair. Many of the old homes were abandoned, and are now overgrown with weeds.
There has recently been a large-scale effort by the government to attract tourists to the place as part of a Heritage Trail, where visitors can capture and experience Ipoh’s rich history and colonial-influenced architecture – which seems to be helping a little.
Spiral staircases of the backside of taller buildings along the road
But as the resident said, “Most of us who live here are old. The young ones have left, and we do not have the energy nor money to preserve what is left.”
So if you’re ever in Malaysia, take the road less traveled instead of experiencing KL’s glitzy shopping centers and metropolitan subways.
Go to Concubine Lane for a slice of its rich culture and history, before it is lost forever.