Preserve the spirit of heritage walk, please!

Jalan Tan Hiok Nee was declared a heritage walk in 2009
As the aim of creating a heritage destination to bring life back into the old part of the city is being met, unsavoury situations have arisen and if they go unchecked, this site will no longer be attractive to visitors.  In the last two years, more stalls have mushroomed next to registered traders in the JB Bazaar and the bazaar inevitably expanded into Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk.  

Regrettably, the visitors’ and traders’ rampant illegal parking on the paved streets and use of the back alley as toilets are creating potential health and fire hazards.  Aware of the crowded and unhealthy conditions that are choking up the city centre, MBJB allocated Jalan Syed Mohamed Mufti to the bazaar but instead of relocating the entire bazaar there, they simply dubbed it, JB Bazaar 2.

Tension is already strained between the bazaar traders and traders in the shops along the heritage walk and things came to a head last Sunday.  The peaceful community here was shocked by an incident that involved physical violence between a bazaar trader and a hairdresser who was hosting a party to celebrate Songkran, the Thai water festival, in a garden cafĂ© next to his salon.  It was his annual celebration with family and friends but it took very little to spark off a quarrel that resulted in their party being gate-crashed by more than 10 people armed with knives and sticks!

Security and cleanliness are vital to making a destination attractive to visitors but the toilet issue is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  The Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk committee has plans to hold cultural and art events here regularly but it is virtually impossible to do so with the JB Bazaar occupying the street every night.  Vast amounts of money have been invested to transform the pre-war shops into chic cafes and galleries but business is badly affected because every night, the shop entrances are blocked by stalls.  Since the recent untoward incident, discontentment is rife but violence must not be allowed to escalate before the relevant authorities come up with a viable solution.

Signboard at the corner of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
and Jalan Pahang in the heart of old JB
Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is named after Teochew kangchu, the leader of the Ngee Heng Kongsi of Johor, Tan Hiok Nee (1827 – 1902).  It runs parallel to Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Dhoby with OCBC Bank – the bank for Johor’s pioneer overseas Chinese – on one end while the opposite end of this road faces HSBC bank.  Tan, a trusted friend of Sultan Abu Bakar, was appointed Major China of Johor, a governmental position created for him, as well as a member to the Council of State and the first Chinese to receive the title of Dato’ Seri Paduka Mahkota Johor.

He was responsible for transforming the Ngee Heng kongsi or society, from a quasi-military revolutionary brotherhood into an organization of kangchus or river lords and revenue farmers for pepper and gambier, the first economic crops that brought tremendous wealth to Johor.  The strong relationship between the Chinese and Malay communities in Johor can be traced back to the 1800s when Johor ruler, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim, the father of Sultan Abu Bakar, invited the Chinese from Singapore and Indonesia to open up land in Johor to cultivate pepper and gambier, crops that contributed significantly to Johor’s economic progress.
Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is linked to Jalan Trus and Jalan Pahang, roads that are bordered by double-storey shophouses occupied by traditional businesses like banks, lawyers, offices and coffee-shops, restaurants, provision stores, fabric merchants, electrical suppliers, laundries, stationers, barbers and hairdressers.  When the Johor Bahru Tiong-Hua Association moved to their new building in Taman Sri Tebrau, their old premises here were refurbished and opened as the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum.  At the museum’s official opening in 2009, the Johor Menteri Besar declared Jalan Tan Hiok Nee a Heritage Walk.

Run by a committee, interesting weekend cultural events were organised and the Heritage Walk and surrounding streets transformed into a destination which is now popular with both local and foreign visitors in Johor Baru.  Visitors browsing at the daily night market or JB Bazaar at Jalan Segget spilled over to the heritage walk to enjoy themed events here.  In recognition of its significance as a heritage destination in the city, the Johor Baru City Council (MBJB) endorsed the plan to build two arches at opposite ends of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.  Completed in 2013, the twin arches beautifully complimented the paved road while the heritage identity of this area attracted self-motivated young people to start businesses here.

View of Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk from Jalan Trus
The heritage walk organically developed into an exciting community with traditional businesses thriving alongside specialty coffee cafes, a pop-up cafe, chic boutiques, art galleries and antique dealers.  For two consecutive years, 2012 (Dragon) and 2013 (Snake), Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk was among other locations in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Malacca and Kuching, featured in the exciting lunar new year live TV countdowns by Astro AEC channel.  

The charm of this heritage walk is being promoted not only nationwide but also internationally through online and print media when Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk was featured in Going Places, the Malaysia Airlines in-flight magazine and Fireflyz, the Firefly airline’s in-flight magazine, last year.

The time is ripe for MBJB, Tourism, Police and Traffic Police Departments as well as the social development arm of Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) to step up and take urgent concerted action and work with the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk Committee to preserve the spirit and identity of our heritage walk.

One of the ideas is for the heritage walk to be organised and populated by selected traders who promote art, culture and high quality heritage souvenirs along with themed activities for visitors to appreciate Johor heritage by night.  As IRDA aims to achieve their vision to create Iskandar Malaysia as “A strong and sustainable metropolis of international standing,” a great deal needs to be done to improve the image of our city and uphold the legacy of racial harmony established in the era of Sultan Abu Bakar and Tan Hiok Nee.

A version of this was published in The Malaysian Insider on 29 April 2015

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