It was the turtles I remembered. I must have been about three — an age when all animals terrified me. Even turtles. “How can you be afraid of turtles?” my mother asked, with incredulity. But I was; they had strange-looking limbs and primeval shells, and their heads bobbed up and down as they moved around the green pond. We were in the Sam Poh Temple, one of several Taoist-Buddhist temples built into the limestone caves around Ipoh, the northwestern Malaysian city in which my first two novels are set. Ipoh is also my hometown; it feeds my dreams. When I left for school in England in 1979, I took away a host of memories, little knowing that I’d resurrect them one day.
When I returned with my mother 32 years later, the pond was still there. As were the turtles. And the water was still as murky as I remembered it. I felt sorry for the turtles, who barely moved in the heat. Malaysia had become even hotter, no doubt about it; trees had been cut down in the name of progress. Modern conveniences abounded, but the turtle pond is in a clearing and you can’t air-condition open space.
Inside the caves, the air was cool and the rock faces astoundingly beautiful. As a child, I hadn’t appreciated the natural magnificence of Ipoh’s limestone caves. I only remembered the eerie darkness, the turtles, and monks scurrying about in yellow robes. When I returned to carry out research for my books, I was struck by the jaw-dropping beauty of the rock formations before me. Weeping needles hung from ceilings. From below clefts rose, one after another, sculpted and painted by water and air, and perfected over time.
The men who built the cave temples must also have been in awe, for they showed the utmost respect for the rocks themselves. The shrines, both inside and outside, blend in with the hills. Though statues of Buddha and various gods are scattered about — and some of them are enormous — they stand in symbiosis with their environment. Even the staircases don’t look out of place, as if their designers didn’t wish to intrude. An atmosphere of tranquillity prevails. Taoist-Buddhist practitioners bow in reverence, shaking lit joss sticks before sticking them into one of the many ash-filled urns provided.
As we walked further in, I realised how capacious the caves were. The air remained clean and pure, as if it had been distilled by the surrounding limestone hills. ‘Breath of the gods’ is what the protagonist in my debut novel calls it. I looked up at the hills and knew then that I’d have to feature Ipoh, and its caves and hills, as more than simply a setting. Ipoh would have to become almost a character.
Like any character, Ipoh changes; it’s sometimes playful, other times moody, and all of this can be gauged by the way the limestone hills look. You see them as you approach the city by road or train, looming over the plain like mythical creatures. On a bright day the hills shimmer; on gloomier days they’re dark, their tops veiled with floating mist. These undulating hills, stretching for miles, are what make Ipoh distinctive.
Alongside the limestone, rich deposits of tin were discovered in the plain on which Ipoh is situated. In the same way that the west coast of America experienced a gold rush, the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia enjoyed a tin rush. Early in the 20th century, Ipoh turned from a small fishing settlement into a thriving city. Tin has long since declined, and Ipoh isn’t thriving anymore. In fact most visitors to Malaysia skip it, and even fellow Malaysians wonder why I spend so much time in Ipoh.
There’s a complicated answer to this, and a simple one, too. The simple answer is: I eat. One of my favourite dishes — bean sprouts — is an Ipoh speciality, which is connected to the limestone hills. Bean sprouts are best cooked by blanching quickly in boiling water, and then seasoned by dousing in soya sauce, sesame oil and pepper, and finally garnishing with chopped spring onions. I’ve sampled bean sprouts in many countries, but have never seen any as juicy and fat as those from my hometown. They have a crunchiness all their own, and locals believe this is because they’re fed water from the hills.
“Go on,” my mother said, urging me once again towards the turtles. Above us, a pinkish rock face glistened.
When the Future Comes Too Soon, by Selina Siak Chin Yoke, is published by Amazon Crossing. RRP: £8.9
Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)