'We saw a man brandishing a cleaver': My family holiday in one of Asia's seediest backwaters

Harry Pearson
Ipoh: now a hipster magnet, once a dangerous dive - getty

When I tell my father the Malaysian city of Ipoh has lately become a hipster destination, praised for its street food, graffiti art and Edwardian baroque architecture, he snorts derisively.

“Well, back when we went, it was a rough old place, a tin mining town,” he says. “The gangsters there murdered people with a tool for scraping out engine cylinders, cut their throats with it.”

I don’t ask him why, knowing this, he took me and my mother there in 1979. Our family holidays always came with a pinch of adventure. The year before, my father and I had taken a taxi from Peshawar to the Pathan gun factories at Darra Adam Khel. We sat and drank glasses of tea with condensed milk, while fearsome bearded men fired submachine guns in the air. 

Besides, I knew why we had gone to Ipoh. My father did his national service in the 12th Royal Lancers during the Malayan Emergency and the regimental depot was outside the town.

We had flown into Singapore, driven up along the east coast through Mersing and Kuantan and stopped at the memorial to Sir Henry Gurney, the British high commissioner who had been killed in an ambush a month after my father’s regiment had arrived. While my parents drove, I nodded off in the back. I slept fitfully at night, kept awake by the bestseller I’d bought at the airport. The Shining is not a book to read in strange hotels.

Our hotel in Ipoh was a concrete block with slit windows. When we went up to our rooms, we stepped around a maid ironing clothes on the corridor carpet. There was a howl from the street outside. We looked out of the narrow window and saw a man running, his open shirt flapping. He was brandishing a cleaver.

We went to a restaurant across the road. We were midway through plates of sweet and sour prawns when the owner appeared. He had a pockmarked face, sepia-tinted glasses, a batik shirt and the general look of General Noriega’s harder brother. He rested his hand on the chair behind my mother’s head and surreptitiously stroked her hair. “Would you mind if we dim the lights?” he asked, smiling. “You see... the girls prefer it.”

He gestured across the room with his chin to where at some point the empty banquettes had been occupied by a dozen young women in tight-fitting floor-length dresses, split to the thigh.

We nodded. The owner departed. The lights dimmed. My father glanced at the women. He looked at my mother and me. “Finish that quick, and no pudding. This place is a knocking shop,” he said. “I was only in Ipoh a week. Our squadron was based up at Taiping.”

We went to Taiping, searching in vain for the remains of Camp Trincomalee, by then absorbed in the suburban sprawl. My father gestured to the north. “Out from the camp, half a mile or so across the lalang, there was this beautiful lagoon. The water was clear as gin. We used to go there in swimming parties. You had to have a Bren gun detachment keeping watch, because just before we’d got there in 1951, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry had gone for a dip in it and half a dozen of them got shot,” he said.

A likely swimming spot near Taiping - getty

My father delivered this information with all the drama with which I might have said: “Chris lost a batting glove.” Less, probably. An ambush, burst of automatic fire or explosion of a mortar bomb sounded like minor irritations. 

Looking back, I realise that when these incidents occurred my father was the same age I was when we stood together by the side of a dusty road looking for the place where he had slept in a tent next to the tattooed Iban trackers of the Sarawak Rangers. It did not occur to me then, of course. I was 18 and far too preoccupied with my own life.

My father had a passion for hairpin bends. On our trip to Norway, he planned the route to encompass as many as possible. The road up to Maxwell Hill Guesthouse featured 70. The staff came and picked us up in a Land Rover. My father had been based near Maxwell Hill too. Back then, the hill station was strictly officers only. My father was other ranks.

Maxwell Hill Guesthouse was evocatively old-fashioned, like a 1930s planter’s house. Before dinner, we walked along forest trails. Signs warned not to leave the path or risk getting lost. “Jim Thompson, the American who made silk ties, disappeared up here in the 1960s and was never seen again, vanished off the face of the earth,” my father said.

There were exotic butterflies fluttering everywhere in iridescent showers. When I was at primary school, a secretary at a Teesside steel firm where my father worked had kindly collected the cards that came with PG Tips and pasted them in books for me. The “Butterflies of the World” series was my favourite. Now the Rajah Brooke’s birdwing which, in the darkness of 1970s north-east England had seemed as improbable as Batman, flitted up from the bushes along the path, a dazzling flash of emerald in the bottle-green forest.

A Rajah Brooke's birdwing - getty

After dinner, we sat on the veranda. An atlas moth the width of my hand landed on the wall. Mist settled in the valley below and the mossy silence was broken by the Clanger-like hooting of white-handed gibbons.

My father lit an Embassy Regal. “We were on escort duty and the Dingo scout car broke down in a place called Kluang. We had to wait for a recovery vehicle. The rest of them went on without us. The driver went to the shop and bought orange squash. I said to him: ‘I’d stop in here, if I was you. I’ve got a funny feeling about this place.’ Years later, I discovered that 29 people had been murdered there in the previous six months.”

I might, at that moment, have imagined my teenage father drinking his orange squash in a strange town thousands of miles from home, waiting and listening, with the darkness coming fast as the streets emptied into silence. Instead, I went to my bedroom and terrified myself with the unreal events at the Overlook Hotel.