JB's early cafes and coffee-houses

On our walks to the town library, a building located beside the Johor Baru Post Office in the 1970s, I was introduced to Hua Mui restaurant by my street-smart schoolmates. If we had extra pocket money, it was always a treat to order a snack or a cold drink here.

Facade of Hua Mui restaurant viewed
from Jalan Trus
Since the 1950s this landmark double-storey coffee-shop on Jalan Trus was run by the Chiang family and its clientele then was mainly European government officers, their friends and families.

Located within walking distance from the Sultan Ibrahim Building at Bukit Timbalan, it was easily accessible to civil servants who worked in the state administrative office. Its popularity must also be attributed the menu of European dishes that were prepared with a Hainanese touch. 

While its business started as a traditional kopitiam furnished by wooden marble-topped tables with the ubiquitous spittoon below them, the upstairs section sported a modern design with private booths that lined one wall of the dining hall.

The two floors are linked by a wooden staircase and every step creaks underfoot probably because over the years, thousands of diners must have walked up and down this same flight of stairs.

Now the booths upstairs have been removed and replaced by dining tables but the ambiance remains virtually unchanged. Ceiling fans whir above while the banks of windows along two walls of this corner shop are thrown open for cross-ventilation breezes to cool its interior naturally.

Another unique feature of Hua Mui restaurant must be its ancient dumbwaiter. With its kitchen downstairs, food and drinks are conveniently hoisted up through an air-well and used tableware are lowered down for washing!

Now operating under a new management, Hua Mui continues to be a regular rendezvous for retirees who enjoy reminiscing over cups of coffee. While it remains the restaurant of choice for many locals and lawyers, its colonial charm keeps young people and tourists coming in for a taste of nostalgia.

In Johor Baru’s coffee-shop circle, Hong Say Tee, an entrepreneur who arrived here from China’s Fukien Province in 1935, earned his reputation as JB’s Coffee-shop King because he made a name for himself as a leading owner of coffee-shops and cafes here.

I met Hong during an event in 2011 where he used old photographs to give the audience a glimpse of life here in pre-war days to the 1950s and early 1970s.  

Old matchbooks collected from Wato Inn and Wato Snack Bar
Reputed to have owned a coffee-shop on almost every road, locals will remember one of Hong’s coffee-shops at Jalan Ibrahim Sultan or hai ping lu (Mandarin), translated ‘seaside road’ because it faced the Johor Straits. Hong was also dubbed, the owner of that hai ping kopitiam or ‘seaside coffee-shop.’

Aware of the tastes of the British then in Johor, Hong, an innovative pioneer, transformed traditional coffee-shops into modern cafes and snack-bars. It was Hong who first opened modern coffee-houses like Wato Inn and Wato Snack Bar along Jalan Ibrahim.

Wato Snack Bar on the ground floor of the OCBC Building and Wato Inn on the ground floor of the Foh Chong Building were then considered posh dining destinations because customers could dine in air-conditioned comfort.

This was probably where most guys would impress their dates with fancy drinks like Coke Float or 7-Up Float, served in tall glasses topped with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.

A matchbook from Lady Jade coffeehouse
Besides a menu of European and local dishes, a range of flavoured milk-shakes and Banana Split ice-creams, Wato would be best remembered for their warm and delicious curry puffs and chicken pies.

With the success of Wato, Hong opened yet another coffee-house at Jalan Segget. Lady Jade or LJ in short, had a musician to provide live entertainment and served a menu similar to Wato, including those popular chicken pies in flaky pastry!

The Wato brand was further developed into Hotel Wato Inn situated at Jalan Bukit Meldrum where it also had a Taiwan Porridge Restaurant and coffee-house.

At the top of Jalan Wong Ah Fook, there once was Bangunan Aziza, a prestigious address in the 1970s which housed the Orchid Hotel, before it was known as Pan Global Plaza.

The Scene coffee-house was on its ground floor while Bilek Anggerik or Orchid Room upstairs was a preferred destination for fine dining. There was even a club in this building for Malay live music and dancing with entertainment in popular dangdut and pop-yeah-yeah genres.

A matchbook souvenir from The Scene
The Scene coffee-house transformed into a club with live music and disco dancing for weekend Tea Dances and disco nights. This was also where the career of JB’s foremost rock band, The Heavy Machine, was successfully launched.

While many pop groups emerged in Johor between the 1960s and the 1980s, The Heavy Machine established a strong reputation and became synonymous with The Scene.

I fondly recall the band’s glittering costumes with matching platform shoes, their synchronized movements, highly polished brass section and the way they rocked the crowd!

With raw talent and huge popularity, it didn’t take long before they were talent-spotted and awarded contracts to perform in the capital city.

This 7-piece band left for the bright lights of Kuala Lumpur where they became renowned in the clubbing scene as JB’s most successful band and was dubbed the ‘Chicago of Malaysia’ after the American rock band, Chicago.

Around this time, Komplex Tun Abdul Razak was completed on the site of present-day KOMTAR JBCC and Café de Paris coffee-house opened on its first floor. It was a steakhouse and lounge with live music entertainment which branded itself as, ‘The most exclusive place to dine in town.’

As more hotels, restaurants, cafés and entertainment options opened in JB, Orchid Hotel ceased operations and the building has since been demolished. Among the new openings were Tropical Inn at Jalan Gereja and Hotel Regent Elite at the corner of Jalan Siu Nam and Jalan Meldrum, with The Ranch coffee-house on its ground floor.

Incidentally, all the early coffee-houses mentioned here, have ceased to exist while Hua Mui restaurant remains popular and continues to serve new generations of diners.

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

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