Preserving the soul of our city

1 May 2014 was a sad day in Johor Baru because we woke up to the horrific news that what was known as the Wong Ah Fook mansion on Bukit Meldrum, had been demolished.

A sketch of the demolished old building known as the
Wong Ah Fook mansion by artist, Taib Aur
Days prior to this, comments on social media expressed much concern over the rumours about the impending demolition of the old mansion.  One comment referred to an Iskandar development report on JB Transformation Day dated July 11, 2013 where Johor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin said, and I quote: “Old and new elements would co-exist in the city centre under this transformation project.  Conserving old buildings with significant historical and architectural elements is important in addition to the new developments.”

With this in mind, we hoped that the developers of that project at Bukit Meldrum would apply their architectural expertise to design a development that could preserve the old mansion and turn it into a unique centerpiece.  This was how the owners of Hardwicke House in Georgetown creatively preserved it by building a 31-storey L-shaped skyscraper around this heritage building.  But in JB, all this came to naught, when the Wong Ah Fook mansion was suddenly reduced to rubble!

A bungalow from the colonial era refurbished and used
as a private school at Jalan Straits View
Details surrounding the demolition were sketchy but it’s sad that a building of considerable historic significance was allowed to fall into ruin and then destroyed.  Perhaps it was too expensive to restore or the new owners could not relate to its heritage value but whatever it is, the loss of this old mansion is a hard lesson to learn.

If JB aims to develop into an international city, we must preserve our heritage buildings which forms the very heart and soul of our city.  The historical value and ancient architecture of old buildings is priceless as it is a portal into the rich and unique history of JB.  While new developments are rapidly changing the landscape in Iskandar Malaysia, it is essential to preserve our city’s soul and character. 

Another beautiful bungalow from the colonial era
is put to good use as a private school for preschoolers
We often travel to foreign destinations as tourists to visit historical sites with castles, churches, cemeteries, palaces and ancient buildings to soak in their culture and heritage and come away enriched by their history and folklore.  In the same way, visitors and expatriates in our city are also keen to see and enjoy our historical sites and heritage buildings.

Tourists do not come here .just to shop in our modern malls.  They are more interested in our museums, palaces, places of worship, pre-war shops and search for local food, products and handicrafts to buy as gifts and souvenirs.  

The regular throng of visitors browsing around JB’s heritage quarter is proof that tourists, both young and old, are seeking a unique blend of nostalgia-with-a-cool-hipster experience.  Chic boutiques and cafes in restored and repurposed pre-war shops next to traditional businesses exudes a special charm which is attracting visitors who want a taste of nostalgia with a touch of modernity.

The Red House, a landmark in the rows of pre-war shops on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, is now a café for Nyonya cuisine and a popular subject for photographers and sketch artists.  This 19th Century building was originally owned by an Indian family and changed hands several times before it was restored to its former glory in 2011.

The Red House is a corner unit of a double-storey
pre-war shop at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
When this road was declared a heritage walk in 2009, the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk committee held regular cultural events here with the façade of the Red House as an impressive backdrop.  Twice, the Red House was showcased to a nationwide audience when it was featured among other locations in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Malacca and Kuching in the Astro AEC channel “live” TV countdowns for the lunar new year for two consecutive years, 2012 (Dragon) and 2013 (Snake).

JB still has about 20 heritage buildings, the oldest being the old public library (Perbadanan Perpustakaan Awam Johor) at Jalan Dato Menteri 1/1 among others like the Johor Military Force building at Bukit Timbalan, the Dato Jaafar building on Bukit Senyum and the JB jail, built in 1882 at Jalan Ayer Molek.

The oldest building in JB, is sadly left to decay...
We can learn from Georgetown where heritage buildings are preserved and successfully put to adaptive use.  The Cheong Fat Tze Mansion, better known as the Blue Mansion, was restored into a unique destination for heritage homestays, guided tours and venue for special events.  The Suffolk House, former residence of Sir Francis Light, the founder of the British settlement on Penang Island, was rebuilt in 1805 and later neglected but restored to its former glory as a stunning example of an Anglo-Indian garden house.  

Suffolk House is now an elegant venue for social and corporate events, offers guided tours and has a classy restaurant, open to the public to enjoy its charms during lunch, afternoon tea and dinner.  In Penang, Singapore and Bangkok, vintage cafes and restaurants – some of them award-winning – have established a reputation for themselves as destinations for fine dining and elegant entertaining. 

The elegant porch of No. 8 Jalan Skudai, a Spanish casa
refurbished as a restaurant and cool event venue,
EightLido or Eight on Lido Hill
JB too has our share of magnificent old houses, colonial bungalows along Jalan Straits View and the stylish Spanish casas at Jalan Skudai.  Many properties here are still residential while many lie vacant as owners no longer wish to maintain them as homes.

These old bungalows with sprawling gardens have been successfully adapted for use as private schools while the Japan Club of Johor was at No. 10 Jalan Skudai before it moved to new premises in Bandar Seri Alam.  The Korean Garden Club restaurant was among the first to open in a stately mansion before nearby bungalows were creatively adapted for use as elegant restaurants and event venues like Maio the Italian restaurant in M-Suites Hotel, EightLido, Brazzo by the Bay, Pot’s Industries and Sea & Saw.

Now the city has some impressive venues with unique settings that offer guests an oasis of refreshment for dining and entertaining.  Opened by Johor entrepreneurs with a vision to create spaces where diners can chill-out, host events and entertain their guests, the heart-warming tales from each of these establishments will follow.  

A version of this was published in on 22 April 2016

Next exciting episode:         Visionary Johor entrepreneursthat vs an oasis of refreshment afspaces where guests in our city may chill-out vek

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