Reinventing Jalan Ngee Heng

Road sign for Jalan Ngee Heng in the heart of JB
On Monday, I had a sneak peek into some of the hotel facilities that are fast taking shape in DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru at Jalan Ngee Heng, escorted by none other than General Manager, Simon McGrath.  I could sense the excitement as McGarth took me up and down the stairs, through the back-of-the-house and around the building to see the lobby, restaurants and swimming pool while workers continued with their tasks.  As furniture and fixtures are being installed I could visualize the elegance in the finished work and am thrilled that DoubleTree by Hilton is bringing an international brand to Johor Baru.

Check out the retro inspired black and white tile
flooring in the Makan Makan Kitchen, an all-day
dining outlet in DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru
Recalling the many memories I shared about growing up in our Ah Kong or grandfather’s house at No.154 Jalan Ngee Heng, it’s interesting that back then nobody anticipated how this familiar street would be given a new lease of life. 
At that time, the area adjacent to the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Jalan Gereja was what locals considered “church land” and the properties built along Jalan Ngee Heng on that side of the road belonged to the church.  In fact, the families who used to live in the residential properties here were mainly from the church.
While I was searching for pictures of trishaws to use with my story, “When trishaws were taxis” (NST, 4 Mar 2011) I discovered precious photos from my Uncle Victor’s collection.  He was an avid photographer with the Photography Society of St Joseph School and had some photos of the Chingay parade in 1965 that featured trishaws in them.  I’m also thrilled to discover that one photo captured the view of shoplot No. 163 Jalan Ngee Heng with a row of residential properties opposite that marks the spot where DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru now stands!
This is a precious glimpse of a bygone era when Policemen still wore shorts and Jalan Ngee Heng was a main route for the Chingay parade’s annual tour around Johor Baru.  Even with the development of new roads and highways, it’s interesting that this traditional route through Jalan Ngee Heng is still maintained for the parade particularly on the 20th day and 22nd day of the first lunar month when the deities of the Johor Gu Miao or Ancient Chinese Temple at Jalan Trus, exit and return to the temple.  This is probably because it is a direct route from the temple at Jalan Trus to the Xing Kong, a shrine at Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek, through Jalan Ngee Heng.
A 1965 photo of Jalan Ngee Heng showing shop lot No. 163 [Right] opposite the spot now occupied
by DoubleTree by Hilton JB

As DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru is putting the finishing touches to welcome their first guests in July, ONE63 located opposite the hotel at No. 163 Jalan Ngee Heng, has opened as a European Bistro & Bar.  While this corner shop was being refurbished some 10 months ago, I used to pass by and was glad to see how the building structure was maintained while it was transformed into a chic little café.  I was certainly curious, not just about the cuisine that ONE63 serves but also to see what they have done to turn an old shop into a modern café.
Façade of ONE63 European Bistro & Bar
at No. 163 Jalan Ngee Heng
Grandfather’s house was a double-storey bungalow with an adjacent badminton court situated at the opposite end of the row of shops to No. 163 and I’m familiar with the double-storey shops that once housed family-run Chinese provision shops, Indian laundries or dhoby, a coffee shop, a tinsmith and even a coffin shop, while the upstairs were living quarters. 
When grandfather’s house was demolished in 1977 to make way for Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, this row of shops was preserved.  Now all the original traders and residents of these shops have moved out and the units are leased out or sold to new businesses like restaurants, specialist clinics and medical laboratories.  
DoubleTree by Hilton JB has taken up residence at No. 12
Jalan Ngee Heng while ONE63 European Bistro & Bar is
housed in the corner shophouse across the street
On Thursday while I was mulling over how modern development is changing the landscape in Jalan Ngee Heng, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation to lunch at ONE63.  I jumped at the opportunity to have an experience at ONE63 and must say that I was quite impressed with the meal, the service as well as what they have done to create a charming dining ambience. 
It was good to meet with one of their business partners, Adelyn Low, who gave me the scoop on how Jalan Ngee Heng is set to evolve with the opening of a few more trendy Food & Beverage outlets in the near future. 
Who would have thought that an old road like Jalan Ngee Heng could be reinvented and turned into a street with contemporary style and sophistication?  The opening of DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru and the new businesses in the opposite row of shops will draw a clientele with urbane tastes and I hope more traders will open businesses to meet the demand and work hard at creating and sustaining a vibrant and stylish neighbourhood here.  For a start, we can look forward to enjoying local cuisine in an interactive kitchen, pastries and sandwiches from the delicatessen, wine and dine in casual cafes, a European bistro, an Italian trattoria, lounge and bars and even shop at a gourmet grocer at Jalan Ngee Heng.  

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 22 April 2014

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