JB Heritage Walks

Jimmy Leong [Left] briefing tourists at the
corner of Jalan Wong Ah Fook and Jalan Sawmill
“Tomorrow afternoon, 2.30pm at Laman Tun Sri Lanang,” read the text message from Jimmy Leong, confirming our appointment to meet for a guided walk through the heart of old Johor Baru.  Since I saw, “Iskandar Puteri Heritage Trail” printed on sheets put up against old shophouses in the city I was curious and went after Leong to take me on this heritage walk. 

When I got his message, I jumped at the opportunity.  Leong, President of the Malaysian Tourist Guides’ Council, is a fountain of information on the history of Johor Baru because he had researched it extensively and now besides taking tourists on guided tours, he also trains of tourist guides.  

Leong arrived promptly but my friends and I were waiting, with feet shod in comfortable walking shoes and heads shaded by hats, eager to start the tour.  Leong went into some detail, explaining the history of the Johor sultanate, the founding of Singapore and the development of modern Johor under Sultan Abu Bakar.  Based on historical records, Johor was known as Hujung Medini, Ujung Tanah (Land’s End) or Wurawari, a Javanese word that means “clear water.”  In 1855 Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim gained sovereignty over the territory of Johor and founded the new capital named Iskandar Puteri.  

When Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, the Chinese in the Riau Islands and Singapore were already cultivating gambier successfully.  After 10 to 15 years when the land was exhausted and infertile, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim encouraged the Chinese to move into Johor to open fresh land for new plantations.  He introduced the kangchu or River Lord system for the kangchu to establish pepper and gambier plantations, collect taxes and govern Chinese communities in their areas along the rivers.  These economic crops gained a place of honour in Johor history’s and this motif with intertwined sprigs of pepper and gambier plants is widely used in various structures throughout the state.

Johor Baru had various ancient names but Leong pointed out that the Chinese name for the city is, sin sua (Teochew) or sun san (Cantonese) which means, New Hill.  He suggested that when the kangchu’s, who had been farming at a hill in Singapore arrived in Johor, they sighted a hill – probably Bukit Timbalan – and named this place, New Hill.  To this day, the Chinese still refer to Johor Baru as New Hill!

Several Trails

From Laman Tun Sri Lanang, our group crossed the road to the corner of Jalan Wong Ah Fook and Jalan Sawmill and stopped in front of the sculpture, a Jawi rendition of the word, “Jauhar” which is Arabic for ‘gem’ believed to be the word from which Johor derived its name.  I was simply thrilled to hear Leong say that we will explore the heritage trail by walking through old streets in the city’s Central Business District to see vanishing trades and rediscover the early immigrants’ way of life. 

Entrance to Kwong Siew Wui Koon, the Cantonese clan
house at Jalan Siu Nam

He said this is just one of the heritage trails among others like the Palace Trail that takes visitors to see the nine palaces built during the reign of Sultan Abu Bakar.  The strong influence of European culture and his close relationship with Queen Victoria inspired him to build impressive and prestigious palaces to host guests like royalty, aristocrats, high-level European governors and important literary figures.  

To learn more about local Chinese heritage, the Museum Trail to visit the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum and Johor Baru Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery is recommended.

Colourful garlands for sale along Jalan Ungku Puan
The Temple Trail is another interesting walk to see how the multi-racial people of Johor Baru live together in harmony with their various forms of worship.  This trail starts from the top of Jalan Trus, the site of the Church of Immaculate Conception (Built 1883) and Holy Light Church (original chapel 1886) to the Johor Baru Ancient Chinese Temple (1870) and the Sikh Gurdwara Sahid (circa 1921) across the road, down to the Arulmigu Rajamariamman Devasthanam Temple (1911) at Jalan Ungku Puan and round to the recently renovated Mosque at Jalan Duke. 

While the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple (original shrine 1922), listed in Malaysian Book of Records as the first and only glass temple in the nation, is a short trek away at Jalan Tebrau, it’s still worth a visit.

Street Stories

Standing at the point where Jalan Meldrum and Jalan Sawmill meets, I learnt that these roads existed more than 150 years ago and from the number of vehicles and pedestrians passing by, I can see that these roads remain heavily in use.  Jalan Meldrum is named after a Scotsman, James Alexander Meldrum who built a sawmill on the left bank of Sungai Segget in 1860, close to the river mouth.  This sawmill was then the biggest steam sawmill in Asia and the first major structure to be built as well as the first industry that was established in Iskandar Puteri.  It produced sawn timber as one of Johor’s main exports and to ensure that there was enough timber for the construction of a light railway between Johor Baru and Gunung Pulai, Sultan Abu Bakar wisely made Meldrum the engineer of the Johor Wooden Railway or Keretapi Kayu Johor.  Meldrum also helped in the establishment of the Holy Light Church in 1886.

Quaint arches like this lead to another
quarterof the city

From this sawmill and its timber, my thoughts were drawn to the carpenter-turned-builder and contractor and successful entrepreneur, Wong Ah Fook.  He is credited for building the magnificent Istana Besar or Grand Palace, Istana Zahariah, Balai Zahariah and the Johor Baru Prison.  For his services to the State, in 1892 Wong was granted a special land concession in an area bordered by present day Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Jalan Station and Jalan Tun Abdul Razak.  Known as Kampong Wong Ah Fook, the main road was named after him while the side roads are named after his three oldest sons, Siu Koon, Siu Nam and Siu Chin.

Vivid scenes from period movies flashed through my mind as Leong described that as more Chinese immigrants prospered, Kampong Wong Ah Fook became the centre for leisure and entertainment in clubs, restaurants, gambling houses, opium dens and brothels and inevitably, secret society activities.  He said that such vices follow immigrants wherever they settled and it was no different in 19th Century Johor Baru.  As merchants on both sides of the street are still doing brisk business, stretches of the pavement along Jalan Meldrum are cluttered with parked cars and coffee-shop tables.  For a moment my imagination went wild with flashbacks of Suzie Wong-type of femme fatales in fitting cheong-sams, plying their trade from open doorways and upstairs balconies on this street!

Sunset Trades

At the corner of Jalan Meldrum and Jalan Siu Nam, Ching Ching Optical caught my eye (no pun intended) as I recognized this old establishment that has developed into a chain of outlets in several city malls.  As far as I know, all prescribed lenses used in my family are from them.  At one time they were also authorized dealers in firearms and my dad, uncle and grandfather who held gun licenses, used to buy ammunition from them.  I looked in the shop and was amused to see that its layout remained virtually unchanged.

Leong was leading the group on as I dawdled so I hurried along but I had to pause to read several information plaques embedded on the pavement.  After crossing Jalan Wong Ah Fook at Johor Bahru City Square, I joined the group in front of Thye Onn Pawn Shop, another of the city’s established merchants.  Back in the days when a large family had a sole breadwinner, this service helped families to stretch their money for food and new clothes especially during festive seasons.  When the family had saved sufficient money, they would redeem their valuables from the pawn shop.

My friends, Andrew and his wife, Donna, buying
freshly baked bread at Salahuddin Bakery, Jalan Dhoby
Before gas and electric appliances were common, every home kept a stock of charcoal because it was a basic necessity in homes and with businesses like laundries, hawkers and restaurants.  Yong Heng, a quaint shop on Jalan Trus still stocks bags of charcoal for sale.  In the sparsely furnished shop, an order book was lying open on the desk and when I had a peek, I felt a pang of nostalgia to see the pages, yellow with age and printed with a six-digit telephone number.

Two bakeries in the city are probably the charcoal dealer’s best customers because they still bake bread and pastries in charcoal ovens.  Sallahuddin Bakery on Jalan Dhoby and Kedai Kek & Roti Hiap Joo on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee are family businesses that are thriving with the keen interest in their traditional art of baking.  Piping hot products, fresh from their ancient ovens are a favourite for locals and visitors.  For me, there’s no better way to end the walk than to buy Hiap Joo’s freshly-baked banana cake and savour it with a hot cup of coffee on the shady pavement of Kim Wah kopitiam opposite.

Significant features

The quickest way from Jalan Wong Ah Fook to Jalan Trus is through a shortcut that links the two streets.  This old footpath is still in use but many prefer the new link at the side of the Public Bank building.  Mid-way up this new path, Leong led us aside to a grassy knoll by the stairs and pointed to a nearby row of shops which he said once had a coffee-bean roasting business.  At that time, there was also a spice grinding mill nearby so passers-by would certainly have their nostrils tickled by these scrumptious smells!

Signs on pillars designed with carefully arranged mosaic tiles
It must have been in vogue at that time because the façade of Kwong Lee Soon Kee Goldsmith and Mun On Tailor on Jalan Trus have signs created from mosaic tiles.  Looking closer, I marveled at how coloured mosaic tiles were meticulously arranged to form business names for shop signboards and on side pillars.  This is certainly a durable method because the pillars at No. 26 Jalan Meldrum still had “Fashion Tailor” emblazoned on the pillars even though it is now occupied by another business.

Another interesting feature to look out for is arches built between Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Dohby and one each along Jalan Trus and Jalan Segget.  The town was divided into various enclaves and the archway marked the entry into another section of town.  While walking along a small lane, Leong pointed to uneven patches low on the walls that appeared to be holes that were now sealed up.  It was helpful to learn that these apertures were for night-soil collectors to remove and replace buckets when Johor Baru had a bucket toilet system!

Fast Facts

The best thing about these heritage walks is they are Free-of-Charge and you can explore them on your own time and at your own pace.  However, the trails are best appreciated with a guide who can enhance your experience with historical references and interesting anecdotes.  For enquires on guided tours, contact Jimmy Leong on Tel: 6012 – 7040183.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 27 October 2011

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11/24/2011

    Hats & Sun Shades Excluded.