Eh He - Earth Heart

Last December I was at the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum with members of the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk committee for an event with Johor Tourism which ended with a tour of this road to look at old businesses and new attractions.  This was where I met a group of artists who are putting their creative minds together to transform a number of old shops into something exciting in the heart of old Johor Baru. 
Facade of Eh He - Earth Heart,
viewed from Jalan Ibrahim

The project was spearheaded by Art Director Yap Leong and one of his colleagues, artist Yeo Si Guan showed us visuals with the artist’s impressions of their plans.  Yap, who is also a member of the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk committee, saw the potential in the old shops and gathered his artist friends together to create something special to preserve culture and heritage through their art.  

They have taken over seven (7) units of old shops at the top of Jalan Trus that also enjoys road frontage at Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, to develop Eh He (colloquially pronounced: Uh Huh) – Earth Heart, a destination where art and heritage meets!              

Yeo Si Guan showing visuals of their plans last year;
Yap Leong is standing 3rd from Left
I was at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk again in mid January and my friends and I couldn’t resist the invitation from Yap to have a peep at what was happening with the renovations in progress.  It was twilight and fast getting dark so he reminded me to be careful as I climbed up the rear stairs – a relic they have preserved – and when I saw what they have done (thus far!) I was blown away! 
                      
The upstairs was designed into a café and gallery dubbed, The Classic Accents Art House, a space dedicated to showcasing the work of homegrown artists.  The space was created above two shop-lots and I saw how the entire floor was reinforced and replaced by new floorboards.  The old planks were then creatively reused as walls and some were transformed into pieces of furniture. 

Check out the peak of the dividing wall
seen through this fibre-glass roof
The concrete wall that divides the two shop-lots upstairs is an architectural feature, also carefully preserved and deliberately kept visible through a fiberglass roof to show how local builders adopted this typically Teochew building style.  While this is a Chinese building concept, I was told that this style was more prevalent in the Teochew province in China.  The wall between each unit peaks higher than the building itself because it is a safety feature that acts as a protection against fire hazards in rows of buildings.

The workmen were just closing up for the day but even in the fading light, I spied various pieces of old furniture and fittings that simply reek of nostalgia and I had a flashback to childhood days when I was living in our grandparents’ house.  The wooden meat-safe (cupboard) had its twin sagging doors thrown open, the ceramic pots for brewing evil-smelling herbal portions (that was supposed to be good for me!), the little transistor radio like the one Ah Kong (grandfather) used to listen to news and Teochew opera, and a collection of chamber pots complete with their solid wooden stands! 

A traditional chamber pot I spotted there!
I knew I was coming back to this place again just to see what Yap and his team was doing to give new life to an old building.  This is a familiar row of little shops because my dad’s Indian barber,  mum’s hairdresser and our favourite florist were just opposite and Eh He was once occupied by traders in electrical items, fabrics and a (dusty) book shop where my sisters and I often visited to borrow and buy second-hand books and novels.  In the 70s, there was also a cool shop upstairs for Hallmark greeting cards, gifts and small knick-knacks.  

When Yap invited me over for a preview last Saturday, I jumped at the opportunity.  I stood across the zebra-crossing on Jalan Ibrahim, waiting for the traffic lights to turn Green, and had a good look at the façade.  I was struck by the nostalgic design that sported bold radiating rays from the sun painted in the centre of the entire top wall with a similar design on both the pillars downstairs.  The name “Eh He” in Red capitals was fitted with bulbs that I was sure would light up by night and from the clever play of colours in the lettering for “earth heart,” the word “art” clearly stood out in Red.  Later I learnt that this vintage concept was inspired by the New World Amusement Park, one of the three amusement parks in Singapore that were popular between the 1920s and the 1960s.

The Ink Brew by Just Want Coffee on ground floor of Eh He
The moment I stepped across the threshold, my nostrils were assailed by the delicious aroma of freshly brewing coffee.  The Ink Brew by Just Want Coffee is the only place in the city where coffee connoisseurs can savour the taste of designer coffee specially created by Nelson Lai for The Ink Brew at Eh He.  Lai, who has established a reputation for quality coffee in JB, really needs no introduction.  But the most interesting morsel I learnt about him that day was that his grandfather used to live at Jalan Ngee Heng (in one of the shops) adjacent to my Ah Kong’s house at No.154!

Pauline See and the wall mural she designed
My hand felt the smooth wooden banister as I climbed the ancient staircase and I saw that part of the floor at the foot of the stairs was still covered by original mosaic tiles.  At the top of the stairs, my eyes were riveted to the gigantic wall mural and it took a while for me to take in the sight of birds and other creatures around the figure of a little girl (dressed in Red) who is holding mythical whales attached to vines clasped in her hands. 

Pauline See told me she took more than two weeks to complete the mural that expresses the artists’ desire for freedom to pursue their dreams.  She is no stranger to such major projects as her painting of the JB Chingay with the JB Ancient Temple as a backdrop, clinched the top prize (mixed media) in the Tanjong Heritage 2013 national art competition.

The metal window grille salvaged from former textile shop
[Left] with trade name, Thai Siang, designed in it
Natural light streaming through glass panels bathed the interior with mellow shades and created shadows against the wooden furniture and walls.  After Yap welcomed me, he showed me the metal window grille that was salvaged from a nearby former textile shop.  It had their trade name, Thai Siang designed within in Chinese characters.  

He said Eh He was collaborating with popular Chinese radio personality and performing artiste, Chong Keat Aun, (Mandarin pronunciation: Chang Chi Aun) to showcase a collection of cultural artifacts in The Classic Accents Art House.  In Chinese this auspicious name reads as, Ji An Tai Xiang.

The auspicious name, Chi Aun Thai Siang,
for The Classic Accents Art House
The enticing aroma of coffee beckoned and we went to The Ink Brew downstairs where I was introduced to three designer coffees aptly named after the pride of JB heritage: pioneer kangchu Tan Hiok Nee, JB Chingay our national heritage and the 24 Festive Drums.  Each of these coffees was meticulously created by Nelson Lai for The Ink Brew and it was my privilege and great pleasure to have my brew of Tan Hiok Nee personally served by him. 

Created with a blend of Liberica and Columbian beans, this siphon-brewed beverage is topped with a slice of caramelized orange and garnished by a dollop of icing sugar laced with essence of lime with licorice.  To best appreciate this brew, I followed Lai’s instruction to begin by melting the citrus-flavoured icing sugar on my tongue.  Just as he promised, the first taste evoked nostalgic childhood memories.  


Nelson Lai serving his special brew
inspired by kangchu Tan Hiok Nee
Then I gently lifted the orange slice off the cup and took a bite before dunking the rest inside the hot brew.  As I sipped and savoured my cup of Tan Hiok Nee, I privately wondered if this kangchu and Major China of Johor ever thought that one day his memory would be honoured by a designer coffee named after him!

Eh He will be officially opened in a simple ceremony on February 1 and is poised to become an exciting destination in the heart of JB.  Visitors to The Classic Accents Art House can immerse themselves in culture and heritage as they enjoy the priceless exhibits.  They will also thrill to the treat of seeing JB through the artistic eyes of Chong Keat Aun in an interesting collection of photographs he composed.  

Eh He is at No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, Jalan Trus, Johor Baru, Johor.  Open daily from 12pm to 11pm.


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