Transforming Jalan Tan Hiok Nee

In the Nheart of old Johor Baru, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee runs parallel to Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Dhoby.

Visitors capture a photo memento of the arch at the
OCBC end of the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
The OCBC Bank – the bank for Johor’s pioneer overseas Chinese – marks one end of the road while its opposite end faces HSBC – a bank with its roots in Hong Kong and Shanghai.  Linked with a network of roads like Jalan Trus and Jalan Pahang, this area was once a thriving metropolis with banks, lawyers, offices and traders like coffee-shops, provision stores, fabric merchants, electrical appliance suppliers, dry-cleaners, stationers, barbers, hairdressers and other services.

This road was named after Teochew kangchu, Tan Hiok Nee (1827 – 1902), the leader of the Ngee Heng Kongsi of Johor.  He was responsible for transforming this kongsi or society, from a quasi-military revolutionary brotherhood into an organisation of kangchu or river lords and revenue farmers for pepper and gambier, the first economic crops in 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 was the first Chinese to receive the title of Dato’ Seri Paduka Mahkota Johor.

Road signs with brief info on historic
personality, Tan Hiok Nee
Over the years, many businesses on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee closed or moved to the suburbs and only a handful of traditional traders remain.  When the Johor Baru Tiong-Hua Association vacated their premises here and moved to their new building in Taman Sri Tebrau, their property was refurbished and opened as the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum.  At its official opening in 2009, the then Johor Menteri Besar declared Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, a Heritage Walk.

At that time, the state administrative offices in the Sultan Ibrahim building was gradually shifting to Kota Iskandar and this contributed to a marked reduction of customers in city businesses.  Between 2009 and 2014, the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk committee worked hard to organise a series of public cultural events on Saturday nights at the heritage walk.  The road was also closed to vehicular traffic in the evenings to encourage more people to come into the city to enjoy the street carnival activities.

Facade of the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
viewed from Jalan Ibrahim
When the Red House at No. 56 was restored to its former glory, this landmark building became a focal point on the heritage walk and a stage was set up in front to host a range of open-air shows.  Saturday night “live” shows included cultural performances in music and dance, theatre, martial and visual arts as well as events like a Teochew food festival.  With a weekly programme of activities, Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk gradually transformed into a popular destination in the city for local and foreign visitors.
For two consecutive years, 2012 (Dragon) and 2013 (Snake), Astro AEC channel picked Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk among other locations in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Malacca and Kuching to be featured in “live” TV countdowns for the lunar new year.  These TV broadcasts inevitably brought JB’s vibrant night scene to a nationwide audience.

Archway at the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
In 2013, the Johor Baru City Council endorsed the plan to construct two arches at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.  Built on both ends of the road, these arches designated this area with an identity as the city’s heritage quarter.  The rising popularity of this area for tourists in search of a vintage and retro experience was a boon to established businesses here and they stepped up to match the interest in this heritage walk.

Visitors simply fell in love with the charm of Hiap Joo Bakery & Biscuit Factory, a family of traditional bakers established since 1919, and the taste of local brewed coffee and kaya toast at Kim Wah kopitiam as well as old-school Teochew noodles at Sang Heng kopitiam.  There is a unique charm about old businesses like traditional kopitiam and bakery, noodle shops, a Shanghai laundry and clock repair services that continue to operate alongside cool new enterprises.

Chaiwalla & Co is a popular container cafe here
While chic salons like “Birth” and “My Little Corner” provide professional hairstyling, a container café was set up by Chaiwalla & Co at the edge of a parking lot.  Beverly Bee Ang of “The Girl Next Door” fame, partnered with Cally Chin to open “Bev C,” a stylish boutique with a café upstairs.  

Not long after that, Maco Vintage Café opened to serve meals, coffee and cakes.  And then Eric Tan and his artist wife, Grace Lim, turned No. 52 into Art52Gallery.  As trendy hairdressers, boutiques and chic cafes opened here, a new vitality slowly seeped into Jalan Tan Hiok Nee. 

The family who runs this Shanghai is still serving a host
of loyal customers
Since 2014, the cool vibe of JB’s heritage quarter was featured, not just in social media but in main-stream media as well as several airline in-fight magazines.  This marked an exciting milestone for JB as the city shed its old image of just a border town and developed a fresh identity as a city with a vibrant attitude that visitors appreciate and are coming back for more.

Interesting new businesses that recently opened here include collectible doll-maker Evangelione, Eh He Art Cafe, a trendy coffeeshop with an art gallery and “Pockets,” a lifestyle concept store with meeting facilities.  A café for Nyonya cuisine is on the ground level of the charming Red House while there’s coffee, pastries and wine at “Pace” and the Drum Café, as its name describes, is designed in the drum theme in honour of the 24 Festive Drums, a uniquely Johor art of drumming.

In 2015, the popularity of this area was further boosted when Petronas picked several sites for local artists to display their street art in their #tanahairku project.  Thanks to young Johor entrepreneurs with the vision to start new businesses in repurposed old buildings, JB’s captivating heritage quarter is now among the most photographed and Instagram-med hipster destinations in the region.  From what is happening here, the transformation of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is far from over.

A version of this was published in on 21 April 2016

Next exciting episode:         Preserving the soul of our city

No comments:

Post a Comment