Posts tagged “Ipoh

Public transport in Ipoh

I’m curating an art, food and history festival for Ipoh in October 2015. It will be called The Other Festival. Things have been changing in my hometown and since I cannot stop that, I will instead try to join the movement and shape it with a clear arts and culture direction. I’m not crazy enough to think I’m alone in this endeavour, nor so vain that I wish it were so either. I do think plenty is happening, but maybe without cohesion.

Ipoh is a living year-round Chinese Whispers festival. I’ve been encountering many pleasant surprises in the old town area since I (unofficially) announced my festival. Stakeholders and potential partners are demanding to meet — everyone interested/suggested was already in my list so far, except for one new establishment I’ve not heard of, but damn, news spreads faster than the possibility of festival logistics in Ipoh.

One thing that bugs me is public transport. It’s not great in Ipoh. However I complain in KL, I can still walk out in central locations and expect to be able to hail a cab, catch a bus to an LRT station, or use MyTeksi/Uber. During my most recent trip, I made it a point to reacquaint myself with public transport, and left my car behind. I have forgotten much. But chatty cabbies provide a host of (potentially very inaccurate) info to digest and mull over.

Calling a cab in Ipoh is different. In Ipoh, after you call a cab, chill for about 15 minutes (depending on how far away you stay from where taxi drivers generally hang out), and if a taxi still doesn’t show up, call again to check. Unlike in KL, even if they take down your phone number, you don’t get a confirmation call or any follow-up info. Sometimes they will call you back if they don’t have enough cabs around. Sometimes they will just wait and try again later.  Sometimes they don’t take your number at all, so you just chill and wait and see. If you have deadlines to meet, it is up to you to do the follow-up call. Follow-up calls are generally treated as confusing nuisances, and occasionally misunderstood as a new order for a taxi. Still, KL folk will do what KL folk will do. And Ipoh folk will…be Ipoh folk.

BK Radio Taxi is the default cab company I call in Ipoh, and they recently implemented a satellite system. It means you call the operator centre to book a cab, and you get an SMS informing you the cab is on the way about ten minutes after it has already picked you up. This is the start of good things for app-loving convenience-dependent lil ol’ me, but not for everyone else.

With the implementation of the satellite system, BK Radio recently had about 40 drivers leave their fleet, to join their rivals Ipoh Radio Cab. The main reason is high illiteracy rates amongst a segment of the local cabbie community: generally old, Chinese and unable to read, they could not understand the GPS system they were required to use, couldn’t read the addresses for where to pick up a client, were reliant on inaccurate GPS maps, and generally not able to work a smartphone. They found themselves booking less clients and earning much less, in a system that charges RM1 for every client they get through it. There was also some resentment about the fact that these RM1 charges are not capped by quantity at any maximum point, and not all passengers are willing to pay it. They also dislike having to call the passengers themselves to check for location verbally, because the cost of the call comes from their own pocket, and it requires some level of literacy to navigate the calling function within the app. It also requires them to admit to being illiterate with every phone call.

The illiterate cab drivers do, however, like being able to radio in to a person at the call centre, to get all the information they need. They like that they can get the broadcast with details, to see if they already know the pick-up spot and destination. Since they cannot read road signs, they rely on known landmarks or their extensive memory of road and area names to find locations. An app doesn’t do verbal communication (yet — although it could), and certainly doesn’t help if the GPS is inaccurate on top of it. The cabbie I spoke to stuck it out for a while, then decided he couldn’t cope with the apps.

About 40 cabs leaving your fleet in Ipoh can be quite significant — BK probably had the largest fleet of taxis before the 40 drivers left. Now it’s probably Ipoh Radio Cab. The difference in numbers shows most clearly at night in terms of availability (Ipoh Radio had more taxis on the road than BK), and in the daytime shows most clearly if you time how long it takes for a taxi to get to you. There are four main taxi companies in Ipoh. Two Chinese-owned, two Malay-owned. BK and Ipoh Radio are both Chinese-owned. It is presumed if you call a Chinese cab operator company, you will order for a cab in Cantonese. My Cantonese cracks under pressure.  The Chinese companies are also the bigger ones. One of the taxi drivers told me the larger Malay taxi company had only about 20-30 cars in its entire fleet.

Language does matter — there are pockets of Chinese-speaking citizens in Ipoh who speak a range of Chinese languages but barely any Malay. Calling a Chinese-cab company nearly always ensures you can communicate readily. Likewise Malay cab companies.

Now if you’re curating a festival, and conservatively estimating maybe about 60 taxis out on the roads at night, with a significant chunk mostly Chinese-speaking, you may start to worry too. I wasn’t out at midnight, this was 9pm, right after dinner. I have to say, this is going to weigh on my mind all the way till after the festival. I’m only hearing from cabbies so I’m sure there’s more to the story, but for now, aku stress.

Also, all the information I got from this was from taxi drivers, so who knows how accurate the stories were.

The Other Festival

As some of you may know, I am curating an arts, history and food festival in Ipoh for Kakiseni — It is called The Other Festival, and will be held next year. I am very pleased about some things, but these two are very, very dear to me: bringing arts to the people, and presenting my hometown to others. A part of me is deeply afraid and feeling very unprepared, but I don’t think I ever will be prepared, so here goes.

If you know me well, you’ll know I’m a silent worrier. I consider things like diversity (am I only talking to English-speaking Chinese people?), ownership (am I working with enough Ipoh people?), budget (what are the returns if my airy fairy dreams cost RM10,000?) and logistics (monsoon season). I also worry a lot about how the authorities respond to art.

Last week I sent a text message to Sharon Chin. All it said was “Buka Jalan 2015”. And she replied “Possible”, which is happy enough a response for me.

If you aren’t aware of its history, Buka Jalan was an international performance art festival in the national art gallery in 2011, and Sharon was one of the organisers. And let’s just say, both audience and authorities are not fully developed when it comes to performance art.

Performance art is not a forte of mine. I enjoy it a lot, as an audience member, and while I generally despise being occasionally roped in for the more direct participatory aspects, I endure it because I know I’m filling my memories with little presents to open at home, when I’m alone. Actually, I’m very, very, very shy and introverted and easily overwhelmed by attention, so I remember less if I’m required to participate directly. I got pulled onstage for the musical #mudkl, and that is also the section I remember the least of in the entire show. It’s like when tv characters describe how things were happening too fast in a hostile environment, and they have to be hypnotised to recollect the details.


Yesterday, I was at a lovely dinner party, and at some point we ended up talking about audiences, and how art may (not) work without cultural context. I believe that performance art that addresses/uses religious rituals to ask questions or send messages is always a disconcerting experience for the audience. Some Malaysians by reflex will go “Is this offensive or what?” or worse, “I see a glimmer of my religion and I am offended!” It’a also where “holier-than-thou” scorn is most relevant, for example: “I do this ritual differently, therefore you have betrayed your lack of understanding and unworthiness!” For an introvert, dealing with communal beliefs can be a tricky negotiation.

I have a tenuous grasp of religion, but from what I gather: religious rites are frequently communal. Even when performed in private, you can safely assume other devotees elsewhere are performing similar rites, based on certain shared beliefs and key values, for common end-goals.

If you don’t recognise them, religious rites can look quite strange. If you do, then in performance art, you’re seeing the familiar but probably in an alien setting. The point of performing these rites is a show of piety for god, and only that — not for others in what looks too close to entertainment. Either way, religious rites require a sense of belonging and community that does not seem to exist in performing arts events. The familiar becomes alien, the alien becomes grotesque, not everyone reacts well to it.

Art is tricky. Religious community is tricky. Performance art is tricky. Malaysian audiences are tricky. Not many artists are experienced in adequately addressing the type of discourse I have come to expect from performance art. But I still want Buka Jalan 2015 in The Other Festival, I still hope it happens. I’m just going into it with a lot of prayer (and preparation).