Johor souvenirs

Taib Aur at his creative station, Lengaran Segget
The dearth of Johor souvenirs

Wherever I travel, I like to buy souvenirs home as mementoes of the places I visited.  I prefer useful souvenirs rather than keepsakes for display because it is only a matter of time before space in the showcase runs out.  Items that are small and lightweight are best and even if they are fragile, they can be rolled into a T-shirt and carried safely home.

From my own trips and through gifts, I have garnered a large collection of key-chains, fridge magnets, ethnic carrier bags and a wardrobe of T-shirts from almost every country I visited.  I make it a point to avoid the souvenir shop in the airport, which is mostly for last-minute shoppers, and prefer to shop in markets and shops in the city.  Last week when I went in search of Johor souvenirs to prepare as gifts to relatives who were visiting from abroad, I could hardly find any good souvenir shops in Johor Baru!

Self-portrait: Taib Aur and his creative station
It was sheer disappointment after disappointment when what I came across were only tacky souvenirs and poor quality items that I would not even buy for myself.  I just wondered where all the Johor souvenirs have gone and cracked my head to find something suitable with the Johor identity.  Then I remembered seeing some watercolour paintings of Johor iconic buildings on postcards at a school fund-raising event recently and went to track down the artist, Taib Aur, who has a business at Lengran Segget.

Taib Abdul Razak who calls himself Taib AUR, the abbreviation for Art Untuk Rakyat or Art for Everyone, runs Aur Creative Station with his partner, Zamri Zakaria.  Taib, who hails from Taiping, came to Johor Baru in 1997 for further studies and after his graduation he worked for 6 years as a Research & Development Designer.  Even with a full-time job, he dabbled in art and from humble beginnings with a small business in Plaza Seni he went on to establish himself as an artist-entrepreneur in Johor Baru. 

Refrigerator magnets designed with Johor icons
As I browsed around his stall, I chatted with Taib and found it interesting that while he is not a Johorean by origin, he is now creating and selling Johor identity souvenirs.  I asked why and he said that he is aware of the opportunities here and is working towards capturing the market with his creative and exclusive merchandise.  He has identified some of the city’s iconic sites like the Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque, Sultan Ibrahim Building and Dataran Johor, and rendered them in interesting watercolour paintings that are also reproduced in picture postcards.

Watercolour paintings of Johor iconic buildings
reproduced on picture postcards
I flipped through his collection of watercolours and recognized several paintings of streets in the heart of old Johor Baru that look both nostalgic and charming.  I thought his paintings of Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Pahang will look perfect in shops and businesses that are after a retro feel.  And as Johor is rapidly developing into a modern metropolis, I believe both Johoreans and foreign guests can appreciate glimpses of vintage Johor Bahru from such pretty paintings as part of the décor in modern hotels and offices.

Taib, who had several solo art exhibitions in Kuala Lumpur and prestigious galleries in the country, have sold his work to local and foreign collectors.  I recalled watching him complete a portrait sketch of a young lady on A3-size paper in just 15 minutes at the school event where we met, and learnt that he accepts commissioned work and also sketches portraits in charcoal from photos.  I was glad to finally find several useful souvenirs designed with the Johor identity by Taib for my visiting relatives.

Key-chains designed with Johor identity
On that fine day, business was brisk at but if it rained, he literally has to close shop and take a break because it is virtually impossible to display his merchandise openly in a tropical storm.  This is certainly not good for business and I wondered if there was any plan for the city to have a one-stop centre for visitors to Johor Baru to buy Johor souvenirs and local products.  An equivalent to Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market is what Johor Baru needs now because artists like Taib and merchants dealing in handicrafts and local products can provide a real service to visitors to our city.

Watercolour painting of Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Baru
The city can also create a Heritage Gallery like the one in Dataran Pahlawan in Malacca city where an entire section of the mall is dedicated to the sale of local products and souvenirs.  Best of all, it has parking facilities, is sheltered and visitors can shop in air-conditioned comfort.  There was an attempt to start with Pekan Rabu along Jalan Skudai but its location in the suburbs does not welcome daily walk-in customers and businesses cannot depend solely on tourist visits. 

As Johor Baru is poised to attract more visitors to new tourism products like Lego Land Malaysia, Puteri Harbour Family Entertainment Centre, Austin Heights Water Theme Park and tourist-based heritage, arts and cultural events, something must be done soon for visitors to conveniently buy home some truly Johor souvenirs as special mementoes of the culture and heritage in our beautiful state.

Watercolour painting of Jalan Pahang, Johor Baru
Taib Aur sketching a portrait at a recent school fund-raising event
A collection of charcoal portrait sketches by Taib Aur

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 24 May 2012

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