Go all out to save heritage buildings

Members of the Chinese media speaking to Datin Pat Lim
at the event
I was among a small group of concerned citizens who met to chat about the preservation of heritage buildings, share information and exchange ideas about the conservation of architecture and historical artifacts in Johor Baru.  Initiated by Tan Chai Puan, a local cultural activist who was instrumental in the transformation of the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk into a cultural hub in the heart of old Johor Baru, the event brought together an eclectic group of people who share the common passion for preserving our city’s heritage.  It was interesting that we met casually on the eve of a public holiday, in the top floor of a chic little café designed inside an old shop along Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk – a perfect example of how old buildings can be revived by new ideas!

Tan Chai Puan speaking passionately about
preserving the precious heritage of JB
In 2004, when the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association moved to its new premises in Taman Sri Tebrau, they reached a decision to convert their old building on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee into the JB Chinese Heritage Museum.  When the museum was officially opened in 2009 by previous Johor Menteri Besar Dato’ Abdul Ghani Othman, he declared the road a Heritage Walk and local businesses like coffee-shops and a traditional charcoal bakery experienced a business revival as local and foreign tourists made this street a regular destination.  The building at No. 56 dubbed the Red House, hosted art and cultural events and served as an impressive backdrop for many successful cultural events including the live nationwide Astro TV telecasts of Lunar New Year eve countdowns.

Kim Wah kopitiam experienced a business
revival after the then Johor Menteri Besar,
MP for Johor, Datin Pat Lim and other
VIPs enjoyed coffee there as part of the
event for the official opening of the JB
Chinese Heritage Museum in 2009
Tan, the Head of the Arts & Cultural Development Department of Southern University College and an Advisor to the Malaysia-China Arts & Cultural Association, is passionate about JB’s heritage and in activities that encourage every community to get to know each other better.  As JB has been rapidly developing over the past two years, he is keen about preserving the city’s character and unique identity and was glad that just by word of mouth, the group of locals who turned up comprised a good mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian.  I trust they were also keen to meet Datin Patricia Lim Pui Huen, great-grand daughter of Wong Ah Fook, and hear her views as a professional historian and author of several well researched books on Johor history.

It was nostalgic to recall that the JB we once knew used to have a coast road and magnificent houses including the bungalows popularly known as the Spanish houses and elegant bungalows built on the hillock along Jalan Skudai used to overlook the Johor Straits.  The landscape in this area is changing in the name of development and towering condos and apartments will soon shield the straits from Jalan Skudai.  From her research, Lim said that JB still has about 20 heritage buildings and cited some interesting examples locally and abroad where such buildings and old shops can have economic value and have been successfully put to adaptive use. 

The signboard to the oldest building in JB is hidden
behind overgrown plants at Jalan Dato Menteri 1/1
She said the oldest building in JB is the old public library (Perbadanan Perpustakaan Awam Johor) at Jalan Dato Menteri 1/1 and more effort should be made to preserve heritage buildings such as this and others like the Johor Military Force building, the Dato Jaafar building and the JB jail. 
She explained that while the old mansion at Jalan Bukit Meldrum that locals fondly refer to as the Wong Ah Fook mansion, may not be listed in Wong Ah Fook’s will or his wife’s will, it may have been their holiday home here as they lived in Singapore.  Lim recalled that when she was a child, she and her father used to visit the mansion located near Jalan Quek Keng Kang that belonged to Wong Ah Yim, Wong Ah Fook’s nephew and business manager.

The old public library is almost overtaken by jungle!
It was agreed that more in-depth research must be done to establish the history of the old mansion but its turn of the century architecture deems it a heritage building and it should be preserved.  Initial investigations revealed that the land on which the old mansion stood was bought and sold several times and when rows of shops were built around it, the old mansion was no longer visible from the main roads and made it virtually forgotten.  The old mansion was formerly used as a school before it was rented out and over time, the building gradually turned decrepit as a squatter settlement.

The Johor Gu Miao or Ancient Temple is carefully
preserved while high-rise buildings are built around it
Lim discussed several examples of how heritage buildings have been transformed into prestigious tourist attractions that proudly adorn travel brochures.  She cited the Cheong Fat Tze Mansion, better known as the Blue Mansion in Georgetown that was successfully restored into a unique destination for Heritage homestays, guided tours and venue for special events. 
Another interesting heritage house in Georgetown is Suffolk House, former residence of Sir Francis Light, the founder of the British settlement on Penang Island that was rebuilt in 1805 and later neglected but restored to its former glory as a stunning example of an Anglo-Indian garden house.  Suffolk House is now an elegant venue for social and corporate events, offers guided tours and is also open to the public to enjoy its charms when they have lunch, afternoon tea and dinner in the charming restaurant. 

Dr Shan reciting the poem that he was
inspired to write about the old mansion
at Bukit Meldrum
She pointed out that Hardwicke House in Georgetown was creatively preserved for adaptive use when the owners built a 31-storey L-shaped skyscraper around the heritage building.  A similar example of such conservation here is how Menara Ansar and the Puteri Pacific Hotel are built around the 100-year old Johor Gu Miao or Ancient Temple along Jalan Trus because of the temple’s strong significance in Johor’s rich history.  Similarly, the owners of the old mansion could preserve the heritage building and challenge their architects to come up with a creative building – not necessarily as impressive as the 44-storey skyscraper as the China Central Television headquarters in Beijing – but just as creative and functional!

It was such an eye-opener to hear various views and ideas from likeminded locals from different walks of life who share a common passion in preserving the character of our city that I was determined to look up the oldest building in JB (and I did!).  The event came to a close on a poignant note with Dr Shanmugam Subbiah’s recitation of the poem that he was inspired to write about the old mansion on Bukit Meldrum.  It was ironic that even while we were discussing the issues concerning our city’s heritage buildings, excavators were already moving into place and on that same night, the old mansion was demolished.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 9 May 2014

1 comment:

  1. So surprise! I thought the old Public Lib was turned into some other purpose. I always go here whenever i need to research about work related informations.

    That was in early 2000's. I liked the atmosphere there even though the building was old. It reminds me of my childhood place, where we lived near an old school building. (The upper floor is made of wooden planks)

    So sad!The building now left to rot . MBJB should take action to preserve the building .