Jalan Ngee Heng nostalgia

“Wow! You’ve come a full circle! Nice to see a well, handwritten note – almost a novelty in this day and age of laser printers,” said cousin Malcolm in response to the photo of the welcome note that DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru general manager wrote me.

Aerial view of No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng taken during its
renovation of the rear section that was finished with
 a flat roof which we used as an airy balcony; Only the
adjacent row of prewar shophouses remain today
In the 1960s, cousins Malcolm and Philip, along with my siblings and I were the school-going grandchildren who lived with our grandparents at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng.

Some two years ago, I was a pre-opening guest with DoubleTree by Hilton JB to provide the hotel with constructive feedback on its facilities before its doors were opened to guests on 1 July 2014.

I told general manager Simon McGrath, about how I’m familiar with Jalan Ngee Heng because I lived in our grandfather’s house that used to be just across the road from the hotel.

The hand-written note from DoubleTree by Hilton JB,
general manager, Simon McGrath
Then I wrote about my stay experience, published as Returnto Jalan Ngee Heng, including how I was to give feedback in forms provided because the hotel is committed to their hospitality brand and takes a serious view about maintaining their food quality, facilities and service standards.

Now when I was invited back at the hotel for a review, McGrath wrote: “Welcome back to DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru, the hotel across the road from your childhood home.  Thank you for your support and I hope you have a wonderful two days with us.”

Besides showing Malcolm, who’s now based in Sydney, the handwritten note from McGrath, I also shared a photo which I took from the Executive Lounge on the hotel’s 29th floor.

View of the site of grandfather's house from level 29
of the DoubleTree by Hilton JB hotel, obscured by
a leafy tree that shades a warung situated there
When I went to the Lounge for breakfast, it was uncanny that I was shown to a table by the window.  And when I looked out of the glass panel, the view directly below was the site of our grandfather’s former house!

The bungalow was demolished in 1977 to build the highway. 

Only the adjacent prewar row of double-storey shophouses remain, which once housed family-run Chinese provision shops, Indian laundries or dhoby, a coffee-shop, a tinsmith and a coffin shop.  The upper floors were living quarters and I remember Indian, Chinese and Punjabi families who lived here.

From 29 floors above, all I could see was a triangle patch of grass on the left, widening to green fronds of a tree growing next to an advertising pylon.  The leafy tree and billboard obscured my view but I know part of the driveway into our former house is all that remains and an enterprising warung operator has set up business there.

My brother, Kenneth [Front Left] and cousin Philip with
Uncle Steven [then dating Aunty Polly] at the gates on
the driveway of No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng, the only
remaining evidence of our grandfather's former house here 
Using the driveway as a point of reference, I can visualise the badminton court to its left and beyond that was our double-storey bungalow, built in bricks on the ground floor with a wooden staircase and upper floor.

By a rough estimate, the size of the badminton court, bungalow and peripheral land would span across more than two lanes of the Jalan Tun Abdul Razak dual carriageway!

When I talk about our grandfather or Ah Kong’s house at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng, people may listen with interest but I guess they cannot visualize it. 

After I read McGrath’s message and saw its former site from the hotel’s 29th floor, I was determined to find an old photo of that home of many childhood memories.

I did better than that.  I found a shot of the bungalow while it was being renovated with a view of that prewar row of shophouses at Jalan Ngee Heng!

Up on the roof:  [L to R] sister Pearly, mum, aunty Sylvia,
brother Kenneth, sister Ruby and aunty Polly; the writer
[not looking at camera!] and cousin Malcolm are
squeezed together under the water tank!
This was a major renovation where the kitchen was extended and extra bathrooms and toilets were built with modern sewage systems.  Grandfather decided to keep its roof flat so that we could play and relax on the open platform just outside our room window.

At that time, a motor workshop occupied the land behind while Tropical Inn hotel – later built on the site beyond the row of shops – did not exist yet.

During the renovation, the bamboo hedge around the bungalow was damaged but it soon grew back to its usual height to keep out crosswinds from interfering with the badminton training matches which happened on the court almost every evening.

The view of the badminton court from outside was obstructed by the bamboo hedge but it did not stop passers-by from trying to peek in to watch the games.  They would crane their necks, watching from our closed gates and through the open window of the provision shop next door.

On the roof again: [L to R] Pearly,
Ruby and Peggy with Malcolm;
Gim Shew Building [background]
still remains today!
Before the highway was constructed, Jalan Ngee Heng was a main thoroughfare for cars, bikes and buses.  It was so busy that Ah Kong instructed my younger cousins, who studied in St Joseph’s School, to never cross the road unescorted by him.

On schooldays, Ah Kong would take the boys across the road for them to walk to school through its back gates.  The drill for them on their return, was to reach the opposite side of the road facing our gates and shout, “Ah Kong!”  Then grandfather, who was looking out for them, would bring them safely across the road.

Ah Kong’s house was bordered by roads with Jalan Ngee Heng being the regular route for mobile hawkers to pass by, sounding their signature calls as they headed down to Jalan Ungku Puan, the site of pasak- kia, our first Chinese food court, where they sold their food.

As soon as we recognised their distinctive calls from afar, aunty Polly – a fan of street food – would get the children (us), whoever nearest the upstairs windows, to yell and stop the hawker so that she could buy takeaway noodles or beancurd, taufoo-fah snacks. 

Familiar with this routine, the hawkers would safely park their push carts for us to bring our own containers – an eco-friendly practice – to buy takeaways!

Jalan Ngee Heng is now changed beyond what we are familiar with and reduced to a short road with modern buildings opposite the pre-war row of shops.  But it’s good to be reminded that there once was a No. 154 here.

A version of this was published in the February 2017 issue of The Iskandarian 

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