Visionary Johor entrepreneurs

Do you know that Johor Baru was once a recreational destination for pleasure-seekers?

Entrance to Rowan & Parsley food atelier at Kota Putri
The city landscape is so different now that not many may recall that there was once a gambling farm – a casino built on stilts over the water – at the Johor Straits.  And there were so many casinos, restaurants, hotels and hedonistic attractions in Kampong Wong Ah Fook that it was dubbed the “Monte Carlo of the East.”  At that time, gambling was prohibited in Singapore so pleasure-seekers braved the long journey, first by horse carriage to Kranji before crossing the straits by boat, to enjoy the bright lights here.

This was decades ago when Sultan Abu Bakar granted two special land concessions to Wong Ah Fook and Lim Ah Siang to develop these areas by building roads and houses and inviting people to live here.  The concessions gave them the right to sell opium and spirits, and operate gaming and pawnshops.  In 1892 these were legitimate businesses, an integral part of revenue farming under the kangchu system and an important source of government revenue.

Facade of Sprout at Kim Teng Park
Kampong Wong Ah Fook, occupied mainly by the Cantonese, was on the left bank of Sungai Segget while the mainly Teochew occupied Kampong Lim Ah Siang, was located east of the railway track from the coast to Jalan Lumba Kuda.  The glitz and glamour of this bygone era is no longer evident in these early Chinese settlements but JB held onto the image of a border town where visitors could pop over for illicit fun and recreation.

For many years, “The Gateway to Peninsular Malaysia” was the tourism tagline for JB but it hinted that travelers only passed through this gate to go to other destinations.  Arrivals from the South still use JB as the gateway to the North but at that time, there was virtually nothing much here to attract tourists to visit or stay over.

Progressive economies in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur were magnets for many locals who sought better job prospects and entertainment choices across the causeway and in the capital city.  These cities offered professional opportunities to climb the corporate ladder and provided a quality lifestyle with a range of art and culture as well as food and entertainment options.  Next to cosmopolitan Singapore and the hip and happening scene in KL, JB was still a backwater town.

Regulars dining at Lemon Tree in Taman Melodies
On top of this sad image, visitors were staying away because JB was also perceived as an unsafe place.  It was not unusual for any developing town to have its share of crime but newspaper reports in a neighbouring nation, gave good coverage to such incidents and created a sense of paranoia about JB as a notorious, crime-riddled town!

As the Iskandar Malaysia project started to attract foreign investors and expatriate residents, JB gradually purged its lawless image through the concerted effort of the Police and its citizens.  It was a long and gradual process but JB was like the proverbial ugly duckling that was slowly shedding its feathers to grow into a graceful swan.

As the city became more live-able, JB started to look attractive for locals who went away to study or develop their careers.  The time was ripe to return to their hometown and apply their training and experience garnered from living and working in other cities.  So since 2000, JB experienced a phenomenon described as the return of Anak Johor or Johor-born locals, who wish to be part of the progress in Iskandar Malaysia.

Facade of Art52Gallery at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
These enterprising Johoreans share the vision of developing a vibrant city and want to contribute a balance of art and culture as well as food and entertainment to complement the physical development happening here.  Aware of the need of lifestyle products that meet with the urbane tastes of well-travelled locals and foreigners, visionary entrepreneurs started businesses in art galleries, handicrafts and fashion, and are achieving much success, especially in cafes and restaurants.

Now JB can boast of several chef-owned restaurants where the entrepreneurs are successfully applying their culinary and kitchen management skills to operate their businesses.  Discerning diners can pick their choice of food from a range of restaurants and cafes created in a variety of venues for their own dining pleasure or to entertain their guests with pride.  These outlets are thriving alongside international brand restaurants, established as easily recognised local brands with their own loyal clientele.

At first, it was a period of adjustment to establish themselves afresh in their hometown but through sheer determination and confidence in their skills and products, these entrepreneurs not only stayed in business but have even opened second and third outlets!

Night view of the facade of Cafe Racer
Lemon Tree restaurant, opened more than 12 years ago in Taman Melodies, proved their resilience and popularity as a neighbourhood cafe, and recently expanded with two more outlets in Indahpura and Permas Jaya.  When Grillbar Steakhouse started in 2010, it took some time before diners were convinced that this restaurant was not a bar for alcoholic drinks but a place for grilled quality steaks.  Buoyed up by its success, the affable Chef Gary “Ozzy” Hong opened his next outlet, Cafe Racer, designed with a cool hipster vibe and a menu that pleases a wider spectrum of diners.

JB even has restaurants that promote the concept of sustainable eating and sophisticated meals created from plant-to-plate, wild-caught fish and locally farmed meat and fresh vegetables. Sprout at Kim Teng Park and Rowan & Parsley food atelier at Kota Putri, are among the places where refined international flavours are served.  Private dining of tailor-made menus with modern European cuisine, can also be savoured by appointment only, at By Grace Sweet Treats.

EightLido is a popular destination at Jalan Skudai
Brazzo-By the Bay, EightLido and Sea & Saw are popular chill-out destinations at Jalan Skudai where diners can dine and enjoy “live” music entertainment.  Each charming destination is designed within a lush garden, as an idyllic tropical oasis of refreshment that compares favourably with vintage themed, award-winning restaurants opened in colonial bungalows in Penang, Kuching, Singapore and Bangkok.

The list goes on but suffice to say that dining and entertaining in JB is taken to new heights by visionary entrepreneurs who are investing their time, talents and passion to complement the city’s rapid development.  It’s exciting to see ordinary Anak Johor doing extraordinary things to make a difference in their hometown and helping to mould our city into that graceful swan – a vibrant and live-able city in the South.

A version of this was published in on 26 April 2016

Next exciting episode:  More than just a restaurant

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