Preserving art & culture at Eh He

Twelve months ago when I was introduced to Eh He, I had trouble trying to pronounce its name.

The seven units of shops that's now Eh He, enjoys three road
frontages at Jalan Trus, Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
The concept of Eh He, short-form of Earth Heart, was the brainchild of Art Director, Yap Leong, who took pains to explain it to me.  He encouraged me to look closer at the words, EARTH and HEART to discover ART as the consistent element within our earth and heart.  He said art is everywhere and beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder.

I agreed that the concept was both interesting and intriguing but I still could not figure out the right way to say the name.  But Yap insisted that it’s simple.  He demonstrated how it should be pronounced the colloquial way people say the phrase, “Er huh” in casual agreement to an idea!

Patrons entering Eh He Art Cafe from the
Jalan Tan Hiok Nee entrance
When Yap saw the potential in the old shops in the heart of Johor Baru, he gathered his artist friends together to brainstorm and create something special to preserve art and heritage here.  This strategic row of corner shoplots at No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 Jalan Trus, have the unique privilege of enjoying three road frontages at Jalan Trus, Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.  These seven old shops are now transformed into Eh He, a destination where art and heritage meets. 

This area is familiar to me because my dad’s Indian barber, mum’s hair salon and our favourite florist, once occupied the row of shops opposite Eh He.  In the 1960’s the vintage row of shops which is Eh He now, was once occupied by traders in electrical items, fabrics and a second-hand bookshop where I was a frequent customer.  In the 70’s, there was also a cool shop upstairs for Hallmark greeting cards, gifts and small knick-knacks.

Just before Eh He was opened to the public last year, Yap invited me over for a sneak peek and I had the first glimpse of a massive wall mural by the staircase, painted by Yap’s wife, Pauline See Poh Chen.  See told me she took more than two weeks to complete the mural that expressed the artists’ desire for freedom to pursue their dreams.

She has a series of paintings that feature birds and other creatures around the figure of a little girl wearing a red dress, holding mythical whales attached to vines clasped in her hands.  See is no stranger to art projects as her painting of the Johor Chingay with the Johor Ancient Temple or Gu Miao as a backdrop, clinched the top prize (mixed media) in the Tanjong Heritage 2013 national art competition.

A section of the vintage style Eh He Art Cafe where
patrons can dine in air-conditioned comfort
Last year, the Eh He team led by Yap and See, completed Magical Land, a wall mural on the façade of the Eh He building.  They were among several local artists who were commissioned to complete wall murals at five sites in JB’s heritage area for the Petronas #tanahairku project between July and August for the national day celebration.

While he was busy with Eh He and other art projects, Yap was also the curator of SHOWCASE, an inaugural visual and performing arts exhibition in the 12th Johor Baru Arts Festival.  Held at the White Box in the Mall of Medini from September to October 2015, Yap coordinated artists in various genres of art and provided them with a platform to present their talents.

Back to my sneak peek of Eh He, Yap rsaid the upstairs section of the building was designed as a gallery dubbed, The Classic Accents Art House, a space dedicated to showcasing the work of homegrown artists.  The floor of the old building was reinforced and replaced by new floorboards while the old planks were creatively reused as walls and some were transformed into pieces of furniture.

The concrete wall that divided 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 building style which is typically Teochew.  While this is a distinctly Chinese building concept, I learnt that this style was more prevalent in the Teochew province in China.

Yap Leong with his wife, Pauline, showing off some
artifacts in the Classic Accents Art House, upstairs
I was told that the walls between each unit of the shop-lots peak higher than the building itself because it was a safety feature for protection against fire hazards in rows of buildings.  As I observed the close attention to such details, I was encouraged by how Yap and his team are passionately preserving the building heritage in JB.

Recently I met Yap again in the ground floor of Eh He which has been transformed into an art café that serves an interesting menu of drinks and meals.  Subtle lighting enhanced the art that adorn the walls while wooden furniture was created from old planks that were salvaged from the original building.  I was impressed with the layout and seating arrangements, where some tables were created from wooden sculptures that resembled horses!

Yap Leong with traditional cut-out
auspicious greetings for abundance!
Even at mid-afternoon, the cafe seemed to be a popular hangout.  Diners were enjoying all-day breakfasts of local coffee and kaya toast or meals like rice, noodles, pasta and chicken chop with fresh fruit juices and desserts like chendol.  Seated in air-conditioned comfort, Yap invited me to sample some items from the menu.

As I sipped my coffee and nibbled on toast and open-faced sandwiches, I looked around and marveled at what Yap has done to this old building.  I remember just a few months ago, while the front section of the ground floor was being renovated, the rear section was used as a gallery for the first Johor Architectural Sketches Exhibition that featured two artists from distinct and different backgrounds – Buz Walker-Teach and Yap Hanzhen.

It’s encouraging to see the vision of Yap and his team who have turned old buildings into a modern business.  I’m looking forward to seeing more self-motivated young people move into the city’s heritage quarter to transform old buildings into tourist attractions.  Who knows?  Someday they may even be proudly featured in travel brochures and international magazines!

A version of this was published in the January 2016 issue of The Iskandarian

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