Heritage quarter named after Teochew kangchu

Jalan Tan Hiok Nee runs parallel to Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Dhoby, and is landmarked by OCBC Bank – the bank for Johor’s pioneer overseas Chinese – at one end with its opposite end facing HSBC, a bank with its roots in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Road sign with info plaque at the corner of
Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Pahang
This road was named in honour of Teochew kangchu, Tan Hiok Nee (1827 – 1902), the leader of the Ngee Heng kongsi or society who was responsible for transforming this kongsi 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.

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.

Linked with a network of roads like Jalan Trus and Jalan Pahang in the heart of old Johor Baru, this area was once a thriving metropolis with banks, lawyers, offices and businesses like coffee-shops, restaurants, provision stores, fabric merchants, electrical suppliers, dry-cleaners, stationers, barbers, hairdressers and other services.

The Teng sisters [Left] serving Hakka and Foochow style
stuffed tofu and fish-balls to customers
Some of these sturdy rows of pre-war shophouses were designed with dual road frontages as in the Johor Bahru Tiong-Hua Association at No. 42 Jalan Ibrahim which is also accessible from Jalan Tan Hiok Nee. 

When the 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 then Johor Menteri Besar, Dato’ Abdul Ghani Othman, declared Jalan Tan Hiok Nee a Heritage Walk and this area gradually transformed into a charming destination where traditional businesses continue to do operate among trendy cafes, coffee places, art galleries, boutiques and specialty shops.

Chiew Kek Whye at the counter of their family-run
Shanghai laundry shop at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
Hiap Joo Bakery & Biscuit Factory, run by the Lim family of traditional bakers since 1919, still bakes bread, cakes and pastries in an ancient charcoal oven and remains ever so popular that at peak hours, long queues of customers into their tiny bakery have to be controlled with an “In and Out” sign!

At Yong Lock Huang kopitiam, the Teng sisters operate a noodle stall that serves a regular lunch crowd who enjoy eating their range of Hakka and Foochow style stuffed tofu and fish-balls.

Across the road, the Chiew family’s Shanghai dhoby is still serving a loyal clientele including royalty and other dignitaries who entrust their precious garments and delicate fabrics to this experienced laundry and dry-cleaner.

“Since my father started this business in 1942, we have done laundry for four different sultans and five different menteri besar in Johor,” said Chiew Kek Whye who runs the business with his wife, Cindy Chow Geok Lian, and spend most of their days working together, washing, drying and pressing laundry in the shop.

A cute and quirky letterbox at the entrance
to Evangelione, a specialty shop here
The future of this traditional laundry is uncertain as the Chiews may have to close down when they are no longer able to work because none of their family members are keen to continue in this labour intensive job.

Meanwhile young entrepreneurs have moved into old buildings and refurbished them for new businesses and revitalized this area into a hip and happening heritage destination that is now popular with both local and foreign visitors.

“We are pleased with the development here since this area was declared a heritage walk,” said Tan Chai Puan, a cultural activist and member of Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk Committee, adding that they will now focus on redeveloping the nearby old roads into similar heritage attractions.

As Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk is drawing clusters of creative minds here to give new life to old buildings, visitors are enjoying the cool vibe in discovering chic brands like Chaiwalla & Co, Art52 Gallery, Eh He, Bev C, Table for Two, Pace, Evangelione, and Pockets, happening among traditional businesses in one of the city’s oldest heritage streets.

A version of this was published in The Malaysian Insider on 6 Sept 2015 

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