Coping with life's ever changing landscape

Ah Kong and family in front of home at Jalan Kolam Air

MY eyes fixed on the mounds of earth and debris where the old government quarters used to stand in Jalan Kolam Air. "They're all gone!" I cried in dismay. After almost a month abroad, I returned to see the old houses along the road opposite Aloha Towers and Maktab Sultan Bakar (English College) demolished.

I felt a pang of sadness and loss. The last house in that row of semi-detached houses was my late ah kong's (grandfather's) home when he was a government servant in the 1940s. As a child, I couldn't get my little head around the word "servant". I grew up with one -- a mah jie, a domestic maid from China, who took care of me and did the household chores.

On our regular runs to the bakery in Jalan Tan Hiok Nee with mum and dad, my sisters and I would see the imposing Sultan Ibrahim Building majestically perched atop Bukit Timbalan. When driving to the Istana Gardens, mum would point to that impressive building and tell us that's where ah kong works. I could not understand how ah kong could be a "servant" in that grand palace that looked like it belonged in a fairy tale. We referred to that building as "ah kong's office".

Ah Kong at project site, clearing jungles for development

As I grew older, I learnt that grandpa was not the household servant that I imagined him to be, but a civil servant in the service of the government and the people. His name was Ng Ngoh Tee, and he started off as a clerk in the Public Works Department. His ability to speak, read and write English and Malay made him an asset in a workplace filled with Eurasians and Englishmen. He was soon made chief clerk in the Johor Baru land office.

Ah Kong awarded PLP award from Sultan Ismail Ibrahim

Mum told me that his work took him to remote areas in Johor Baru and Gelang Patah for projects like the clearing of jungles and building of rural roads. For his exemplary work and long service, Sultan Ismail of Johor conferred grandpa with the PLP Award (Pingat Lama dan Baik dalam Perkhidmatan). For years, the Sultan Ibrahim Building, built in 1940 during the British rule, was simply ah kong's office to me.

Ah Kong at his desk in the Land Office

Of course, it was much more than his office. It also housed the state secretariat and offices of the Johor state government -- facts that I innocently remained unaware of till much later. 

At a recent guided tour of the building, I walked its hallowed halls and climbed its lofty tower, all the while marvelling at its magnificent architecture, Upon reaching the top, 11 floors above ground, I was rewarded with the breathtaking 360-degree-view of the city and the Johor Straits.

While grandpa worked there, his two sons, Roland and Robert, went to school at English College, just a stone's throw away from their home. Mum remembers the friendly neighbourhood of Waterworks (now Jalan Kolam Air), and the nice Indian family who lived next door.

Later, when mum and her older brother started work at the General Hospital (now Sultanah Aminah Hospital), they commuted by bicycle on that straight route between home and the hospital. Unless they worked different shifts, uncle would ride with mum. At that time, there were no street lights. One night, while mum was riding home alone in the pitch darkness, someone followed her on a bicycle. The pervert suddenly pulled up alongside, reached out his hand and stroked her cheek. Mum screamed in shock but managed to pedal home safely, whereupon she flung her bicycle to the ground and dissolved into tears. 

Since that terrifying experience, mum was always escorted to and from work. When she and dad started dating, mum would ride pillion on dad's motorcycle. One night as they were riding home, the bike hit an unfamiliar bump. Dad arrived at the destination -- only to realise that he was alone on his bike! Mum had bounced off when they hit that bump and yes, dad was eventually forgiven for his negligence.

A bit of Johor Baru's history has vanished along with the demolition of the old houses in Jalan Kolam Air. The state administration capital has also been moved from the Sultan Ibrahim Building to Kota Iskandar. But my childhood memories of these places will forever be embedded in my heart. I will never forget that humble home in Jalan Kolam Air. To me -- and to many others, I am sure -- ah kong's old office is still the undisputed icon of Johor Baru.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 5 August 2009

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