Cantonese Heritage Gallery

A framed photograph of Wong Ah Fook has a place
of prominence in the Heritage Gallery
Any visitor to Johor Baru will find Jalan Wong Ah Fook on the map because it’s the main road through the city named after Wong Ah Fook. Wong, a key personality in Johor history, developed close links with the Johor sultanate and established himself in building construction before gaining success as an influential entrepreneur in agriculture, gambling, banking and land development. 

As a carpenter-turned-builder and successful entrepreneur, Wong is credited for building the magnificent Istana Besar or Grand Palace, Istana Zahariah, Balai Zahariah and the Johor Baru Prison.

For 40 years, Wong held the position as president of the Johor Baru Kwong Siew Wai Kuan, the Cantonese clan association in JB which has its clan house at Jalan Siu Nam.  Built in 1906, this double-storey shop-house donated by Wong was the traditional transit point for early immigrants who arrived in JB to get help with work opportunities and its upstairs was used as JB’s first Chinese school, a hospital and retirement home for immigrants who did not have families here.  At their demise, these elderly immigrants were given traditional wakes in the funeral parlour on the ground floor of the next building. 

Entrance to the Heritage Gallery
As the immigrants settled down in JB, the clan house changed its function to a meeting place and association office of the Cantonese clan here.  Over the years, a vast collection of artifacts was accumulated in the clan house and in 2008, Dr Cheng Chean Chiang, the current president of the association, initiated the setting up of the Johor Baru Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery there.  With the help of Datin Patricia Lim Pui Huen, the great-grand-daughter of Wong Ah Fook, they opened the gallery to give visitors a better insight into the social life of Chinese immigrants and their role in the development of JB in the 1800s from virtually a jungle into a thriving township. 

Datin Pat, a professional historian, is the author of several historical books including, Wong Ah Fook - Immigrant, Builder and Entrepreneur (Times Editions 2002) and Johor – Local History, Local Landscapes 1855 to 1957 (Straits Times Press 2009).  From her research and private collections, valuable information on maps, photos, posters and priceless artifacts were prepared and put up for display.  In 2010 the gallery was officially declared open by former Johor Menteri Besar Dato’ Abdul Ghani Othman and with plans to showcase more exhibits, the adjacent corner unit of shop-house is currently being renovated to expand the gallery.

The entry tickets are interesting souvenirs
There is a certain charm about visiting a heritage gallery that is housed inside its former clan house and if the walls could speak, you can imagine what tales it would tell.  The front hall feels like a traditional ancestral hall as an entire wall is occupied by a Chinese altar and the air is filled with the fragrance of burning joss sticks.  A portrait of Wong Ah Fook occupies a place of prominence on the wall and a section of the floor is preserved with the original floor tiles that were laid down in 1907.

A flight of wooden stairs leads to the upstairs gallery where you can see twin ancestor portraits of Wong and his wife, Chew Yew, dressed in ceremonial robes or koon phow and on another wall, an old map outlines a special land concession granted to Wong for his services to the State.   Datin Pat said she had the help of Hj Ismail Nyeh Osman to read the Jawi writing and learnt that the plot encompasses an area between present-day Jalan Sawmill to the start of Jalan Tun Abdul Razak near the former Komplex Tun Abdul Razak and bordered by the Segget River but the British later reclaimed the land up to Jalan Station.  Traditionally known as Kampung Wong Ah Fook, this plot has side roads named after Wong’s three oldest sons, Siu Koon, Siu Nam and Siu Chin and English writer, Florence Caddy (1837 – 1923), even dubbed it the “Asian Monte Carlo.”

A section of the original floor is preserved in the Gallery
As Chinese immigrants prospered, Kampung Wong Ah Fook became the centre for leisure and entertainment, with clubs, restaurants, gambling houses, opium dens and brothels – vices that invariably follow immigrants wherever they settled – and secret society activities also flourished.  At that time, gambling houses and opium dens were regarded as forms of investment and sources of much needed revenue in a developing town like JB.  Opium smokers depended on the drug to work as rickshaw pullers or plantation workers to earn their fortune in JB, a new land traditionally known as, sun san (Cantonese) or sin sua (Teochew) which means, “new hill” and to send money back to support their families in the homeland.

Ceremonial items traditionally carried by
the legendary Eight Immortals are
kept inside the showcase 
Among the interesting artifacts are a range of ancient musical instruments to play traditional Cantonese music, large ceramic bowls or phoot that were used to serve food to patients in their hospital, a collection of opium smoking paraphernalia and you can’t miss a huge urn used as an incense burner, that was donated by Wong Ah Fook’s opium company in 1891. 
In glass showcases you will see ceremonial items traditionally carried by the legendary Eight Immortals that were once paraded annually in the JB Chingay procession and also an ornately decorated traditional costume or kwa that Cantonese ladies used to wear on their wedding or grand birthday and kept aside to be worn for their burial. 
The early Cantonese community in JB, who were mostly involved in trades like goldsmiths and carpenters, certainly knew how to enjoy their leisure as seen from the priceless collection of old ticket stubs to Cathay and Broadway movie theatres and the infamous Tai Thean Kiew Circus. 

Nostalgia in a collection of traditional
calendars, paper bags and trays
The gallery also records details on Yok Choy School, the first Chinese school in JB exclusively for the Cantonese community, founded by Wong Hee Coo and Luo Yu Sheng in 1907 that led to the founding of Foon Yew School in 1913 which was then opened to students from other dialect groups.  Wong Ah Fook was appointed as Head of the School Board with Lim Ah Siang as his deputy while Wong Hee Coo held various important roles in the Board over 40 years. 
The school’s name, Foon Yew, is maintained in the Seiyap dialect in honour of Wong who was a Cantonese of Taishan origin and this school developed from such humble beginnings into a renowned educational institution that celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. 

The Johor Baru Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery, located at No. 24 Jalan Siu Nam, Johor Baru, is open daily from 9am to 5pm and closed on Monday.  Entrance fee is RM5 for adults and RM2 for children and students.  For enquiries and group tours, contact Tel/Fax: 607 – 223 3682 or email:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 11 February 2014

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