Old buildings, new lives

Façade of Hilltop Private School at Jalan Hassan Alatas
The rhyme, “Make new friends but keep the old.  One is silver, the other is gold,” comes to mind when I think of Johor Baru’s rapidly changing skyline.  Previously a popular picture of Johor Baru used in travel brochures was a view from the causeway that featured a few tall buildings clustered to the left of the checkpoint.  In December 2008, the view from the causeway changed when arrivals from Singapore were diverted to the Customs Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) complex in the Sultan Iskandar Building.  Drivers also welcomed the expressway that replaced the temporary winding racetrack-like route that links the causeway directly to the CIQ.

This staircase in Hilltop School reminded
me of the stairs in grandfather's old house!
Towering new buildings are coming up along our Southern coastline and construction is still in progress for the rebuilding of the former Komplex Tun Abdul Razak or Komtar.  Nearby, construction of more high-rise buildings along Jalan Wong Ah Fook is also in progress at the spots that were once occupied by Rex and Lido cinemas and the former Bangunan Azizah.  When all the buildings are completed, this end of Jalan Wong Ah Fook will have a brand new persona.  And while I welcome modern development and changes for the better, I’m also keen for old buildings to be preserved and to see how their owners are adapting them for current use.

This is not a new concept because since 1940, Hilltop Private School has adapted an old mansion at Jalan Hassan Alatas, for use as a pre-school.  The double-storey mansion is designed with servant’s quarters and annex buildings that the school has creatively put to good use as classrooms, music and activity areas.  I had the chance to tour the school premises when I was there for their festive and fund-raising events and I recall climbing up the sturdy wooden stairs that reminded me of similar stairs in my grandfather’s old house.  I know many Johoreans fondly remember spending happy pre-school years here and later when they had families of their own, their children and even their grandchildren also attended this school!

Façade of the Sri Ara Private Schools at Jalan Straits View
An old mansion at 23 Jalan Straits View, Johor Baru was also adapted for use as a school when the Sri Ara Private Schools opened there in 2007.  Students of various nationalities including Japanese, Australian, Indian and Pakistani from expatriate families in JB as well as locals who prefer to study in the English medium attend their Primary and Secondary schools in a choice of the Malaysian or Cambridge school syllabus.  When I was invited to their annual fund-raising events, I saw how the school was housed in the interesting mansion while the playing field was turned into a carnival ground for the event. 

Tera-Thai Fine Restaurant at Jalan Abdul Samad
Throughout the city, many old buildings have been successfully adapted for use as chic cafes and restaurants.  A traditional wooden house built on stilts at No. 31, Jalan Abdul Samad is owned by an entrepreneur couple – Thai husband and Malay wife – who originally bought the property for their home. 
But as the building was being refurbished, the architecture was so reminiscent of structures in the husband’s homeland that they decided to use it for a restaurant that specialises in Thai cuisine. 

A section of Tera-Thai restaurant
Since my first dining experience at Tera-Thai Fine Dine Restaurant in 2009, I have returned many times, not just for the food but because I appreciate the rustic beauty of the building.  Imagine my surprise and delight when a reader wrote to tell me that the building that houses the restaurant now was once their family home and he shared with me, an interesting anecdote about his grandfather who was a familiar figure in that neighbourhood! 

Another former family home at No. 1, Jalan Yusuf Taha that is successfully turned into one of JB’s leading Indian fine-dining restaurants, is Chakra.  Housed in a 74-year old double-storey bungalow, the restaurant can be seen from the Inner Ring Road and is accessible from the parallel slip road as you drive in from Jalan Yahya Awal.  I’m told that this family home once hosted Indian celebrities and now it remains a popular dining destination for politicians and dignitaries as well as Johor royalty.  There is an upstairs dining hall as well as private dining rooms downstairs and an alfresco terrace that’s perfect for tandoori parties. 

The original beams and structure
inside EightLido are carefully preserved
Along the coast road, No. 8 Jalan Skudai has become one of JB’s landmark destinations for dining and entertainment since it opened in 2011.  Situated on a hillock that overlooks JB’s renowned Lido Beach, EightLido is a trendy club housed within a 99-year old Spanish casa. 
Refurbished with just a few modern improvements, the original beams and structure of the sprawling hacienda remains largely intact and adds to the charm and ambience of one of the most happening nightspots in our city.  Created as a destination that exceeds the standards of clubs in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, EightLido is a popular venue for private events, garden weddings as well as live music entertainment that featured a host of guest artistes.

I’m excited to see an increasing number of enlightened entrepreneurs who can visualise the huge potential of old buildings in JB and have invested their resources to transform them with new ideas. 
Façade of One63 European Bistro & Bar at Jalan Ngee Heng
The vision and commitment of these entrepreneurs are absolutely mind-boggling as can be seen in the trendy cafes and charming restaurants designed within old shops.  I hope more enterprising people will follow the excellent examples set by entrepreneurs who opened Faculty of Caffeine (Jalan Trus), Maco Vintage Café (Jalan Tan Hiok Nee) and One63 European Bistro & Bar (Jalan Ngee Heng).

As Johor Baru is being transformed into a modern metropolis, we must do everything to preserve our city’s character and one of the ways is by giving old buildings new lives.  While modern malls may contribute to the economy, heritage buildings have earned their right to remain as the heart and soul of our city.  Just as we make new friends and keep the old, our city must preserve old buildings while constructing new ones because, “One is silver, the other is gold.”

A version of this article was published in The Iskandarian, Issue 22 in June 2014


  1. Anonymous9/19/2014

    I was in Hilltop many years ago.

    I wonder if EightLido is my old house from 40 years ago?

    Is it on a three-tiered hill, overlooking the sea on Jalan Skudai? It is right next to what used to be the Johor State Secretary's residence, with very large grounds?

  2. Hilltop School is still going strong and I'm privileged to share their story on recent event, Merdeka Week, organised by the keen principal, Mrs Jennifer Ho. EightLido, as its name describes, is at No. 8 Jalan Skudai. Your former house would be a distance away. Do you remember its address?