Chinese Heritage Museum

Bowl of gambier with hook [Left] and cutter [Right]
Follow the trail to JB Chinese Heritage Museum

I’ve seen pepper in its various forms but have never seen gambier.  I finally laid eyes on gambier in the Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum, displayed with a gambier processing cutter and a mean-looking hook used to grab sacks of processed gambier.  As I learn that Johor was the world’s largest producer of gambier in the 1880’s, I look even closer at the humble gobs of gambier because pepper and gambier were once the State’s economic crops.

I take my time to read the information provided in English, Malay and Chinese, and pause to listen to commentaries while watching documentaries on large flat-screens.  Then I read that when Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819, Chinese in the Riau Islands and Singapore were already cultivating gambier and it struck a familiar chord because Ah Kong’s mother was from the Riau Islands.  Even though Ah Kong’s family was not farmers, I feel a buzz of excitement because this is still an interesting link in our family history.

Like many locals, I looked forward to the preservation of culture and heritage in Johor Bahru and was absolutely thrilled when the JB Chinese Heritage Museum became a reality in October 2009.  As the city is being redeveloped, historical landmarks are fast disappearing as are our elderly folks who probably had first-hand knowledge of how our forefathers worked hard to turn virgin jungles and riverine settlements into the vibrant metropolis it is today.  As I view the collection of valuable artifacts, I realize that the Museum’s relevance is felt by many Chinese families today and it will serve as a reliable source of information for future generations. 


Rare relics


Plaque with info on the ancient name of Johor Bahru
From the well- researched information, it’s interesting to learn that Ujong Tanah is an ancient name of Johor, translated from Malay to mean, Land’s End.  Another old name for Johor Bahru is Jayapur, a name inscribed in Chinese characters on an old bronze bell in the Johor Ancient Temple.  Then I saw an inscription on a marble plaque which declared that when Johor Bahru was founded in 1855 by Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim, she was named Iskandar Petrie and after his demise in 1862, the town was renamed Johor Bahru on 1 January 1866. 

Under the Temenggong Ibrahim administration, Chinese planters who arrived from Riau and Singapore obtained a permit known as, surat sungai, from the ruler to cultivate pepper and gambier.  The permit holders were kangchu’s or river masters and their plots were named after them as Tan chu kang or Lim chu kang, and Tan Kai Soon, Tan Hiok Nee, Lim Ah Siang and Wong Ah Fook are some of Johor’s prominent kangchu’s.


Opium licence and smoking paraphenalia
While kang means “river” in Teochew dialect, a kangkar is the disembarking point along the river, usually its middle or upper reaches.  I spotted a wooden road sign mounted on a wall in a corner, written in 3 languages, Jawi, Chinese and Romanised Malay that read: Jalan Kangka Kechil.  This sign was collected from the Tan chu kang pepper and gambier plantation, circa 1844 and is believed to be the oldest of its kind in Johor Bahru. 

Because Ah Kong’s house, which was demolished in 1977 to build a highway, used to stand at 154, Jalan Ngee Heng, I recognized this familiar name, Ngee Heng.  It was the name of a kongsi or society and history records that in 1844 Tan Kai Soon the Ngee Heng kongsi leader came with a large group of workers to establish the Tan chu kang in Kangkar Tebrau.  They played a significant role in settling the unrest in Muar and helped Temenggong Ibrahim become the ruler of Johor and as a result, the Ngee Heng kongsi was the only society legalized by Sultan Abu Bakar when he became Temenggong.  

As various Chinese clans arrived in Johor Bahru, they not only came with their culture and farming skills, but also brought along their own brand of justice, gangsterism and vice.  After a period of anarchy, the clans finally surrendered their secret society activities and in 1873 the Ngee Heng kongsi was legalized as an association, assigned by royal favour to take charge of Chinese immigrant community affairs.  Then the early Chinese community, made up five main dialect groups of Teochew, Hakka, Hokkien, Hainan and Cantonese, was able to live in peace and to prosper.

Timeless traditions


Replica of entrance into the Johor Ancient
Chinese Temple at Jalan Trus
As a benevolent ruler, Sultan Abu Bakar encouraged the Chinese community to live in peace and continued the goodwill relationship started by Temenggong Ibrahim.  In the late 19th century, a group of community leaders led by Tan Hiok Nee built the Johor Ancient Temple which to this day, remains along busy Jalan Trus.  The strong relationship between Temenggong Ibrahim and the Chinese is the underpinning reason why the Chinese immigrant community incorporated the word “Johor” into their temple’s name and it’s believed to be the first Chinese temple in Malaysia to be named after a State.

On Level 2 of the Museum, I recognized a replica of the entrance to this unique temple of unity.  This temple represents Chinese solidarity in Johor Bahru because it houses five deities worshipped by five Chinese dialect groups, all under one roof: “Zhao Da Yuan Shuai” (Hainanese), “Hua Guang Da Di” (Cantonese), “Gan Tian Da Di” (Hakka), “Hong Xian Da Di” (Hokkien) and “Yuan Tian Shang Di” (Teochew).  The unity of the local Chinese community is further reflected in how they also share one school, Foon Yew, and even one cemetery.

The unity of the various dialects is further expressed in the temple’s annual tradition of a 3-day religious ceremony that starts on the 20th day of the first Lunar month.  This year it begins on 4 March when a group of devotees will walk the streets, sounding gongs in a symbolic ‘Street Washing’ ceremony in preparation for the gods’ annual city tour.  On 5 March devotees will carry the gods out of the temple on sedan chairs to Xing Gong, a shrine at Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek where throngs of pilgrims and devotees will converge for worship and blessings.  

Lunar New Year festivities in Johor Bahru will culminate with a colourful Chingay street parade, an annual tradition that has been kept since the 1800’s without any interruption except once during the Japanese invasion in 1942.  This pulsating parade will hit the streets on 6 March with the clash of cymbals and deafening drums, lion dancers, dragon dancers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, pugilistic troops, cultural dancers and brass bands along with Tiong-Hua Association members and devotees escorting the deities as they bless the city with peace, harmony and prosperity.  

Fast Facts


Collection of items used by traditional Chinese physician
A visit to the JB Chinese Heritage Museum is recommended with a tour of the Johor Ancient Temple and the Sultan Abu Bakar Royal Palace Museum in the nearby Istana Gardens.  The warm relationship between the Chinese and Malay communities in the pioneering era is best appreciated when you see the two sets of Chinese couplets in the Palace Museum, presented by Chinese community leaders at the inauguration of the Johor Sultanate.  Built in 1866, this Palace’s building contractor was Wong Ah Fook, a renowned Cantonese of Taishan origin, who was also a prominent kangchu and entrepreneur.


The JB Chinese Heritage Museum, a destination on the Iskandar Petrie Heritage Trail, is housed in a restored 4-level building that was occupied by the Johor Bahru Tiong-Hua Association since 1948.  Level 4 has a temporary exhibition of Chinese wedding traditions of the various dialects while Tan Hiok Nee Cultural Street comes alive with music and cultural attractions on Saturday evenings.  A walk on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee from the Museum will take you pass charming coffee shops, old provision stores, and Hua Joo, a traditional Chinese bakery that uses a charcoal oven, and to the landmark OCBC Bank, the bank of choice for Johor’s pioneer overseas Chinese.

Located at 42, Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Bahru, the Museum is accessible from two entrances at Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, and open daily from 9am to 5pm, extended to 10pm on Saturday and closed on Monday.  Entrance fees are RM3 for adult and RM1 for students, children and senior citizens.  For groups and enquiries, Tel: 607 – 2249 633, Fax: 607 – 2249 635 or email: heritage_museumjb@jb-tionghua.org.my

A version of this article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 14 January 2010

3 comments:

  1. Hi, I did some research on Ghee Heng. I planned to visit Jalan Kangka Kechil, Tan chu kang. But I wonder if this place still exist please?

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    1. Yes, Jalan Kangka Kechil still exists today! You can contact David at the JB Chinese Heritage Museum, Tel: 07 - 224 9633, and he will be happy to answer your queries - and even help you with your visit. You will also be delighted to know that the Museum will open a year-long exhibit on the Ngee Heng society in early August 2012! I will share more info about it in another story.

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  2. Peggy,I have organised a visit to Tan Chu Kang on 28 Jul. It is a little unfortunate that the Ngee Heng special exhibition has to be delayed from early July to August. I could understand the difficulty to resurface Ngee Heng history after being buried for 100 years. It needs a lot of special effort for that. Nevertheless, I shall organise another visit for the special exhibition at a later date. Thank you for the information.

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