JB Heritage Walkabout

Elegant arches are part of the ancient architecture in
the heart of old Johor Baru
When members of my friend’s family came to Johor Baru for a short holiday, she was glad that her cousins and their young families can enjoy the themeparks in Nusajaya.  Having heard so much about Legoland Malaysia and Sanrio Hello Kitty Town, the youngsters were thrilled to head to these attractions but her uncles and aunts will find it more meaningful to visit old Johor Baru again.  

We know there’s no better way to appreciate the sights than to go on a walking tour so we set out with much enthusiasm.

Plaque seen at the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
The best thing about heritage walks is they are Free-of-Charge and we can explore on our own time and at our own pace.  We started at the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum where our visitors can have an overview of the history of JB from a chart that covers an entire wall on the ground floor.  

The info is provided in three languages for everyone to get a historical perspective and as we walked along, I shared interesting anecdotes and details to enhance their tour experience.

Road sign for Jalan Sawmill in old JB
Older folks are aware that Malaysia and Singapore were once one country so it saves me time in explaining the history of the Johor sultanate, the founding of Singapore and the development of modern Johor under Sultan Abu Bakar.  Based on historical records, Johor was also known as Hujung Medini, Ujung Tanah (Land’s End) or Wurawari, a Javanese word that means “clear water.”  In the museum, a plaque declares that in 1855 Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim gained sovereignty over the territory of Johor and founded the capital named Iskandar Puteri, the ancient name of Johor Baru. 

At the corner of Jalan Wong Ah Fook and Jalan Sawmill, there is a sculpture that depicts a Jawi rendition of the word, “Jauhar” which is Arabic for ‘gem’ believed to be the word from which Johor derived its name.  Nearby Jalan Meldrum is more than 150 years old and was named after a Scotsman, James Alexander Meldrum, who in 1860, built a sawmill close to the river mouth on the left bank of Sungai Segget.  Jalan Sawmill was named after this sawmill, then the biggest steam sawmill in Asia and the first industry that was established in Iskandar Puteri. 

Another ancient arch along Jalan Trus
This sawmill produced sawn timber as one of Johor’s main exports and to ensure that there was enough timber for the construction of a light railway between Johor Baru and Gunung Pulai, Sultan Abu Bakar wisely made Meldrum the engineer of the Johor Wooden Railway or Keretapi Kayu Johor.  Meldrum is also remembered for helping to establish the Holy Light Church in 1886.

JB’s main street is named after Wong Ah Fook, the carpenter-turned-builder and contractor and successful entrepreneur.  He is credited for building the magnificent Istana Besar or Grand Palace, Istana Zahariah, Balai Zahariah and the Johor Baru Prison.  For his services to the State, Wong was granted a special land concession in 1892 that is bordered by present day Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Jalan Station and Jalan Tun Abdul Razak.  Known as Kampung Wong Ah Fook, the main roads here were named after Wong’s three oldest sons, Siu Koon, Siu Nam and Siu Chin.

Facade of Thye Onn Pawn Shop at Jalan Wong Ah Fook
As more Chinese immigrants prospered, Kampung Wong Ah Fook became the centre for leisure and entertainment with clubs, restaurants, gambling houses, opium dens, brothels and the inevitable secret society activities.  Such vices follow immigrants wherever they settled and it was no different in 19th Century JB.  Merchants on both sides of Jalan Meldrum are still doing brisk business now as we try to look for historical info on plaques embedded in the pavements that are unfortunately cluttered with parked cars and cafe tables. 

Entrance to the ancient footpath that links
Jalan Trus to Jalan Wong Ah Fook
Opposite Johor Baru City Square, there’s Thye Onn Pawn Shop, a long established business.  In those days when a large family had a sole breadwinner, this valuable service helped to stretch money for food and new clothes especially during festive seasons.  When the family had saved enough money, their valuables could then be redeemed.

At the side of the Public Bank building, a staircase links Jalan Wong Ah Fook to Jalan Trus but I choose to take our visitors through an ancient footpath and emerge between rows of old shops on Jalan Trus.  Here we find Yong Heng, a quaint shop at No. 100 Jalan Trus that sells charcoal.  Before gas and electric appliances were common, charcoal was a basic necessity in homes and businesses like laundries, hawkers and restaurants.

Coloured mosaic tiles were used to create this
tailor's business name on two concrete pillars!
We pass the Kwong Lee Soon Kee Goldsmith and Mun On Tailor on Jalan Trus and see how their signboards are created from mosaic tiles.  It was a skillful art to arrange coloured mosaic tiles to form business names for signboards and on concrete pillars.  This design is so durable that the pillars at No. 26 Jalan Meldrum are still emblazoned with “Fashion Tailor” even though another business now occupies that shop.

Another interesting sight is ancient arches built between Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Dohby and one each along Jalan Trus and Jalan Segget.  In those days, JB was divided into various enclaves and the archway marked the entry into another section of town.  While walking near back lanes, I point to uneven patches low on the walls that appear to be squares that are sealed up.  It was easy for our senior visitors to recall that these former holes were for night-soil collectors to open and remove and replace buckets when JB had a bucket toilet system!

A peek into the charcoal oven at Kedai Kek & Roti
Hiap Joo on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
Two traditional bakeries in JB are probably the charcoal dealer’s best customers because they still bake bread and pastries in charcoal ovens.  Sallahuddin Bakery on Jalan Dhoby and Kedai Kek & Roti Hiap Joo on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee are thriving family businesses and piping hot products, fresh from their ancient charcoal ovens are quite irresistible.  

Pleasantly tired after our nostalgic walk, we end our tour with buying sugee biscuits, giant samosa, buns and banana cake and savoured them with a hot cup of coffee in a nearby kopitiam.

A version of this was published in the December 2014 issue of The Iskandarian

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