Coffeeshop King reminisces

Hong Say Tee, JB's coffeeshop king, speaking
passionately about the Johor Baru he knows
Just as we listen to elderly members of our family talk about life in the old days, an audience gathered in the Red House at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee last Saturday night to share a nostalgic evening with Hong Say Tee, an entrepreneur who arrived in Johor Baru from Fukien Province, China in 1935. 

In coffee-shop circles, Hong is renowned as Johor Baru’s Coffeeshop King because he made a name for himself as a leading owner of coffee-shops and cafes in the city.  Listening to Hong speak about the Johor Baru he knows, was like turning back the pages of history for a glimpse of life in Johor Baru in pre-war days through to the 1950’s and early 1970’s.  

Hong [Right] with [R to L] his wife, a friend
and his daughter in front of the Red House
Tan Chai Puan, Director of the Teochew Eight Districts Association who gave a brief introduction of Hong, said that one of Hong’s coffee-shops was located at Jalan Ibrahim Sultan, a road known as hai ping lu or ‘seaside road’ (Mandarin) as it faced the Johor Straits.  In the 1960’s while Tan was in that area, he was involved in a motor accident and later realized that the rescuer who came to his aid was none other than Hong, the owner of the hai ping kopitiam or ‘seaside coffee-shop.’  The site of that shop is now occupied by a club.

Wearing a Chinese design white satiny top, 88-year old Hong, who still has a full head of hair and sports a little beard, looked every bit like the sage he is with much to share about life’s experiences.  If he was at first feeling rather awkward to speak into a microphone to an avid audience, he soon spoke passionately as he warmed to the subject close to his heart. 

Using visuals from old photographs, his presentation in Mandarin was casual, with frequent breaks to listen to comments and answer questions from his keen audience.

Chingay parade [1950's] at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
with the Red House in the background
Johoreans, familiar with the annual tradition of the Chingay parade, were thrilled to see a faded black and wide photo that showed part of this parade along Jalan Tan Hiok Nee in the 1950’s. 

This pulsating parade is an annual tradition in Johor that has been kept since the 1800’s without any interruption except once during the Japanese invasion in 1942.  As Hong discussed the history of the Red House on that road, he pointed it out in the background of this photo, a building then not painted in red but easily recognizable by the ornate design of its balcony. 

Hong pointing to himself, riding a bicycle
to his coffeeshop along Jalan Dhoby
Hong is familiar with this area because his family members also owned coffee-shops at Jalan Dhoby, Jalan Pahang and Jalan Wong Ah Fook.  Aware of the tastes of the British in Johor at that time, Hong was an innovative pioneer who transformed traditional coffee-shops into modern cafes and snack bars in the city. 

The mention of his former businesses in popular dining destinations like Wato Inn and Wato Snack Bar along Jalan Ibrahim, struck a familiar chord as many in the audience nodded their heads in recognition, probably because they once dined there!

Boats [sampan] used to sail along Sungai Segget
under bridges like this [Right]
Interesting details in a photo of Jalan Wong Ah Fook bordered by Jalan Siu Nam and the Segget River depicted boats that used to transport goods like fish, wood, pepper, gambier and charcoal. 

The river was then an important waterway, navigable up to where Tropical Inn is and bridges across the river allowed sampan laden with goods to pass through with ease.  From another photo of the old market built with wrought iron in 1894, located on a small triangular island where the Mara building now stands, Hong vividly described the market’s various sections allocated for the sale of meats, vegetables and other goods. 

Well-dressed men, waiting on the jetty for the
ferry to Singapore
Before the causeway existed, the mode of transport between Johor and Kranji in Singapore was by ferry and jetties were constructed along the Segget River’s sheltered estuary. 

A photo of one such jetty with travellers on it gave the audience an idea of how elite men in Johor Baru used to dress.  Their preference seemed to be the Western ensemble of linen trousers teamed with shirts and many wore neckties and blazers in complete white suits.

Overhead bridge that linked the Lumba Kuda 15-storey flats to the bus terminal

Former site of the wet market, bazaar and bus terminal,
now occupied by Johor Baru City Square

Hong's attentive audience in the Red House
In the mesmerizing 90-minute talk that included poignant anecdotes of atrocities during the Second World War, the number in the audience gradually swelled as visitors to the cultural street found their way into the Red House. 

This nostalgic evening with Hong Say Tee was organized by the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk Committee in a calendar of cultural events planned in the Red House and Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk to bring more excitement into the heart of old Johor Baru. 

The Red House is located at No. 56 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.  Enquiries to use the Red House for culture and heritage events may be directed to the office of the Johor Chinese Heritage Museum, at No. 42 Jalan Ibrahim, Tel: 607 – 2249 633, Fax: 607 – 2249 635 or email:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 18 October 2011

Nandita said:
Thanks for writing about Wato Inn and Wato Snack Bar.  Brought back wonderful memories of fried noodles at the Inn and curry puffs and chocolate milk shakes at the Snack Bar with Mom, Dad and little brother.  Well, actually there is one not-so-fond flashback: I remember going to watch the movie, "Earthquake" in '76.  Prior to the show, we went to the snack bar and I had my favourite chocolate shake.  Bad move!  "Earthquake" was, if I recall correctly, the first movie with sense-surround and the shakes both inside of me and outside was not a pleasant combination.  I went home and threw up!  Till today, I'm terrified of earthquakes although I'm happy to say that I managed to enjoy a two-week tour of Japan unscathed!  Look forward to more of your gems!


Gnaw on this!

Executive Chef Moretto Fabrizio presents
his signature crispy pork knuckle
at The Bierhaus
I have meat on my mind as I head off to The Bierhaus, a pub restaurant tucked away in the Daiman Bowl Complex in Johor Jaya, a suburb of Johor Baru.  

Two other carnivores with me are also eagerly anticipating a mouth-watering meal of the perfect combination of beer and pork.  By the time we turn off the expressway and leave the after-office traffic, we are so ready for a hearty meal at the only German pub in town.

As Executive Chef, Moretto Fabrizio, welcome us into the slick and sexy interior, I thought that the trek to the restaurant is well worth our time and trouble.  In the dim light, I see clusters of customers seated along rows of tall, dark wooden tables with matching bar-stools, chatting over drinks and large platters of fast disappearing food.  I can feel a pulsating chill vibe as my eyes adjust and are riveted to a busy long bar and a brightly lit wall cabinet lined with neat rows of premium wines.

Fabrizio, who has lived in Malaysia for 15 years, worked in Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada and Kuala Lumpur before moving to Johor Baru.  With an established reputation in another restaurant that serves authentic Italian food, this Italian chef started to think about a venture with a different concept to please all his customers.  Familiar with the European style of dining that starts with Happy Hours till late Fabrizio knew that the time is ripe for Johor Baru to have a place that serves German beer and pork.

Crispy pork knuckle with a frothy glass of Paulaner beer
Meat Mains

When I see the pork knuckle served with a knife stabbed in it, I get a vision of barbaric diners in a medieval age restaurant lit by flaming torches, slashing savagely into it and savouring the juicy meat with relish! 

I’m distracted by this chunk of sizzling roast.  Later I notice that it comes with a side of tangy sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, mustard sauce and applesauce.  While this delightful dish is prepared in its traditional German recipe, Fabrizio added his special touch to turn it into a winning combination of crispy skin and juicy meat.

Pork ribs marinated in Guinness stout
He said that the meat can be pre-cut upon request but we were impatient to sink our teeth into the crunchy skin and tasty meat.  Mmm…we nodded in agreement as every mouthful yielded juicy, meaty flavours, so tasty that it made us quite content. 

The taste is reminiscent of crispy siew yok or Chinese roast pork, while a dollop of the sauces add to its flavour and the tangy taste of sauerkraut helps to cut any grease.  We have no trouble sawing our way through the meat but we agree that the best way to thoroughly enjoy the pork knuckle is to savour meat, fat and skin in every bite and shamelessly gnaw the knuckle to the bone!

The Bierhaus has weekly specials like sausage specialties or chicken breasts wrapped in smoked, streaky bacon and this week, its juicy pork ribs marinated in Guinness stout.  The meaty ribs, served with a side of blended Guinness sauce, are so tender that the meat was ready to fall off the bones.  Another worthy main is the Mix Sausage Platter made up of three different types of grilled German sausages with a generous portion of my favourite grilled mushrooms and fried potatoes. 

A section of the bar at The Bierhaus
Tempting Treats

I love the juicy morsels of fish, squid and mussels in the tasty Pasta Marinara and to strike a balance with the meat dishes, I welcome the refreshing taste of greens like lightly blanched spinach flavoured with garlic and olive oil, and broccoli florets tossed in garlic and butter.  

Two star choices from the snack menu are Loaded Potato Skins topped with pork bacon and cheese and Crispy Mini Pizzas smothered with sausage meat and lots of cheese.  For seafood, there’s Grilled Prawns wrapped in pork bacon on skewers to dip in avocado and sour-cream. 

A sweet ending to our memorable meal comes in the form of smooth Crème Brulee and traditional Apple Strudel.  I can feel the creamy texture of the Crème Brulee glide so smoothly down my throat and I find myself scraping every bit from the bottom of the bowl.  Then the slightly tangy taste of baked apple slices, in stark contrast with the strudel’s sweet flaky pastry, tastes just right to round off our rich meal.

The Bierhaus offers 18 types of imported beer including Paulaner, a German beer which ranks highly among Germany’s best breweries – the perfect complement to their signature meat dishes.  German beers are brewed for maximum flavour and its robust taste makes it more than a mere tipple but the perfect partner for the pork knuckle.  The interesting meat and beer menu offers a different eating and drinking experience in Johor Baru and certainly lives up to their claim as the only German pub in town.  

Fast Facts

The Bierhaus, located at unit G5, Daiman Bowl Complex, No. 2 Jalan Dedap 3, Taman Johor Jaya, Johor Baru, is open daily from 2pm to midnight.  Tel: 607 – 3540776.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 20 October 2011

Teen Prodigy

Teen prodigy shows his artistic side

Leisure Farm Resort residents were privileged to view the inaugural solo art exhibition by Yap Hanzhen, a 13-year old special artist when it opened on 17 September 2011.  The exhibition presented in the theme, “Of Obedience, Solitude and Beauty,” is hosted by Leisure Farm Resort Corporation and Mulpha International.  Pencil sketches of dogs, cats and butterflies are at RM50 per piece and profits from the sale will be channeled to the Kiwanis Careheart Centre school fund. 

Hanzhen was diagnosed as autistic when he was aged 2 and his parents Yap Yew Peng and Yvonne Yap, both architects, believe that the creative environment at home helped to develop his language through drawing.  To expand his vocabulary and to communicate with him, they encouraged him to draw objects and label them.  So Hanzhen started to draw everything – from everyday items at home to what he saw when they were on holiday – often with great detail and accuracy.

He was home-schooled until age 7 before he joined a mainstream private school and successfully completed the UPSR exam.  He is now in Year Seven of the International section of the school which supports and recognizes each individual’s creative talents.  Hanzhen also plays the piano and attempted the Grade 4 exam as a normal candidate.

Besides art and music, Hanzhen’s memory capability is so advanced that he can easily compute numbers, especially calendar dates and days.  The family enjoys playing “Scrabble” together and as Hanzhen memorized the words used in previous games, he is able to make those words again, often scoring higher than everyone.  Two years ago, Hanzhen started sketching as a hobby and by drawing in a daily routine he has filled up dozens of sketch books with fascinating drawings.

Recently Hanzhen’s sketches caught the interest of Velvet House, an international boutique, and discussions are underway to have work commissioned for Hanzhen to be used with specialty merchandise for local and international markets.  Publicity and income generated from this would be channeled back to non-profit organizations to create better public awareness in autism.

“Hanzhen’s autistic attributes of memory and attention to details surely gave him an edge to be a good artist,” said Yap.  “His fine motor movement is very good and he can control the pencil like an extension of his fingers, letting him create highly advanced gray scale tones,” he added.

Yap Hanzhen [Left] with his father, Yap Yew Peng
[2nd from Left] and brother Yap Zhihan [Bottom Right]
hanging up his sketches at exhibition held with
Leisure Farm Resort, Johor
“If he continues drawing, we would like him to advance to formal art education at a reputable institution to explore his talent further when he finishes his secondary school,” said Yvonne.

This exhibition is in line with Mulpha’s Corporate Social Responsibility programme for the community as Leisure Farm recognizes the special talent in disability and is committed to support the campaign for autism awareness. 

“We are proud to host Hanzhen’s inaugural exhibition at Leisure Farm that features selected pieces from his Black and White collection,” said Ronn Yong, Deputy Chief Executive Office of Leisure Farm Resort Sdn Bhd.  

Visit: for more information on Hanzhen’s art.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 13 October 2011

Old flame

Reception desk at Yong Heng
A torch for an old flame

When I was walking along Jalan Trus, admiring the ancient architecture and absorbing the heritage in this part of the city, I noticed a quaint little shop.  

The display was not bright or attractive but I was curious about the bulky bags stacked with to one side of the shop floor.  

From the signboard, I could not tell what they were selling but when I looked closer at the merchandise I saw they were bags of charcoal.

I guess people hardly think about charcoal now unless they were planning a barbecue party.  

Even then, very few people know how to start a charcoal fire and keep it glowing consistently to barbecue meats or cook a meal.  This was proven by half-cooked or badly charred meats probably because they could not keep the flames under control. 

There was a time when every home kept a stock of charcoal because it was a basic necessity.  

Before gas and electric appliances were common, charcoal stoves and irons were the norm in homes and with businesses like laundries, hawkers and restaurants.  

In those days people used to buy charcoal or have it delivered regularly in five or ten kati bags by the supplier because these small, sooty black logs were the preferred fuel for making strong and smokeless fires to cook and iron clothes. 

Bags of charcoal stacked on
the floor at Yong Heng, located
at No. 100 Jalan Trus, Johor Baru

This brings to mind, a familiar figure I used to see around town – I named him, the Charcoal Man – wearing shorts and a singlet that was stained with soot and sweat, carrying a bag of charcoal on his shoulder and walking with an awkward gait, probably due to a physical deformity.  

I used to be terrified by the sight of him, jumping to the wrong conclusion that he was a pervert. But looking back now, I know that he was doing an honest day’s work, delivering charcoal to homes and businesses. 

I remember watching grandmother using a pair of long metal tongs to break up the charcoal and pick up little logs to arrange them inside a ceramic stove.  

This slow-burning flame was maintained by adding more charcoal as grandma believed in the value of slow-cooking to bring out the nutrition in her cauldron of soup.  

I often tried to be helpful because it was just fun to handle the long tongs to add in charcoal and keep the flame smoldering.

Before electric irons were introduced, mum said she used to press clothes using a cast-iron charcoal-heated iron.  

I vividly recall how clothes were scrubbed on a wooden washboard with a chunk of laundry bar soap – Axe or Palm Tree brand – and how white clothes had a final rinse in washing blue to make whites whiter.  

I used to enjoy seeing this little cube of laundry blue, usually wrapped in a square of cotton fabric, being stirred in to turn the basin of water blue.  

Clothes that needed ironing were also rinsed in a slimy starch solution so that they would yield smooth and crisp results when ironed.

Mum said using a charcoal-heated iron was hot and tedious work because burning coals had to be replenished in the hollow of the iron to keep the heat strong enough to press out wrinkles and create razor-sharp creases for shirt sleeves and trouser legs.  

To keep the iron well heated, a stove with smoldering coals was kept nearby and long tongs used to pick the hot coals for regular refills.  

This task not only needed a great deal of patience and skills but enough strength to hold the heavy iron and ensure that ashes did not fly out to stain mum’s nurse uniform and Ah Kong’s (grandfather) white shirts, that were being ironed or it would mean another painful process to remove the ugly spots.

Skewers of satay grilled over
smoldering charcoal

When our family was living in Government staff quarters in Masai, I used to watch mum and our neighbours bake traditional Malay cakes like kueh bakar and kueh bahulu.  

Cast iron-brass moulds were heated over charcoal fires and I was fascinated to see how the mould cover was also topped with burning coals to bake the batter evenly.  

I agree with food connoisseurs that any food cooked with charcoal is more fragrant and tasty but with modern ovens in use now, this traditional method is probably no longer in practice. 

One of the most powerful images I have of charcoal is how hawkers in the former Chinatown food centre at Jalan Ungku Puan used to cook their food with charcoal fires.  It’s easy to picture how stoves can be refueled for simmering soups and broths but fires had to be constantly fed with logs and charcoal to stir-fry noodles.  

Fans of Chinese food know that there is something distinctively appetizing about Chinese cooking - fondly called wok-hei - when sparks shoot up from the sides of the stove and fire flashes into the wok!

Yellowed pages of order book at Yong Heng

So there I stood in the dusty charcoal shop, clearly a sunset trade in our modern metropolis, reminiscing about the humble but useful charcoal.  

In the sparsely furnished shop, an order book was lying open on the desk and when I had a peek, I felt a pang of nostalgia to see the pages, yellowed with age and printed with a six-digit telephone number.

As charcoal stoves are rarely used now and charcoal irons have become valuable museum pieces, the demand for charcoal has drastically dropped.  

It follows that it was only a matter of time before charcoal suppliers will also cease to exist.  

But with the thriving demand from satay stalls, and special cuisine promotions in the city's hotel restaurants, there is still hope yet for charcoal suppliers.  

That is because charcoal baked and roasted meat connoisseurs know that the best tasting bread and meats are those that are baked and grilled with a smoldering charcoal fire. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 28 September 2011

Six months on ...

It’s October now, six months since the soft launch of my blog on 11 March 2011.  When the blog went “live” in March, it marked the start of a New Era where readers can access my articles online and at their convenience. 

I’m greatly encouraged by the feedback and am glad to post some comments here.  My cousins and relatives were as expected, brutally frank, but it was all good feedback for the overall improvement of my blog. 

I share all compliments, especially for the design concept, with Chris who spent countless hours working on the blog and patiently guiding me (duh!) step-by-step from zero blogging knowledge to where we are today!

Phoebe said:  Peggy, you’ve done it!  Yay!  It’s so great and I like it!  The way many of your stories are grouped and categorized makes it so easy to find what we want to read.  I like the “aged” look too!  Now I can catch up on many of the articles I never got to read (like the one about the cheong sam and sam foo!  You know how I love the cheongsam!)  Great job!  Keep it up.  God bless!

Roseline Ong [Left] and Irene Tan exploring my blog
Irene said:  Hello, hello… I love the picture of you la… VERY nice!!!  Am so pleased this is finally up.  Then I can read at leisure.

Siok said:  Hi Peg, I am totally impressed with your blog!  And that title frame picture of you is so well done.  Good job, Peggy!  Well done!  When I feel homesick, I will definitely click on your site and travel down Memory Lane.  Thanks Peg.

Shafina said:  Very nice.  Exactly you!  Actually prefer this pic of you to the one in NST.  I was thinking about your branding too when I saw the blog.  Really gets you out there.  I think your name by itself is a brand too.  It’s a gorgeous pic!

Putri said:  Congrats!  It’s a lovely blog!  You have put much thought to it.  I especially like its nostalgic look and tone.  Maintaining it will keep you really busy but I’m sure you’ll do very well.  You may like to include your photo gallery later, and make some money out of the pix you have, especially the old photos of Johor – these can’t be easily found, so offer them at premium rates, with copyright still belonging to you and your family.  So glad NST is mentioned almost everywhere!  Thanks Peggy.

Yin said:  Congratulations and best wishes on the launch of your blog – well done, dear friend!  I’ve found the perfect place to reminisce on Johor.  Superb artwork!

Chong LH said:  Congratulations on the launching of your blog!  A collection of well written articles – your collection can be published as a book.

Liz said: Love reading your stories… Keep up the good work and looking forward to reading the next one.

Nancy said:  Harlo Barlo!  Thanks for sharing your most interesting stories.  The moment I set eyes on your blog, I already warmed up to it and I’m sure I will visit and re-visit.  The warm colour tone of reddish brown is very soothing to the eyes (unlike some with hue of bright colours that may attract immediate attention but soon tire the eyes).  I like the layout of your pages which is easy to navigate and interesting to read.  The photos attached to each article are interesting and makes me want to look closely and recall personal memories attached to the place.  I simply love your portrait in the front page.  Who did that for you ah? Great work!

Eva said:  Congratulations on this blog!  I’ve not had a chance to go through it all, but from first appearances, I love the look of it.  The sepia tones really invoke a feeling of nostalgia.  One can almost hear the crackling of a gramophone playing in the background as one reads through these stories.  Eat ya heart out Amy Tan…and make way for the upcoming best-seller, Peggy Loh!

Keerban said:  You have done a wonderful job.  Surfed through and seem to like the variety of interesting windows and its content.  Will keep you updated as I read along.  My sincere compliments for your down-memory-lane blog!

Mark said:  I had a sneak peek just now.  Looks like I’ve to add it to my list of favourites!  Keep on chugging…cheers!

Sheila said:  Your blog is excellent and it gives an insight to interesting articles of our hometown, the folks and your travels and thoughts.  From what I have read through so far, I like it and would like to share it with my family.  It is user-friendly and easy to navigate.  I will be checking it whenever I go on my computer!

Nandita said:  Congratulations on launching your blog!  It’s very well-presented, easy to get around in and the font is comfortable to the eyes – very important to me as I usually surf late at night.  Good to know I can reminisce about the good ol’ days anytime.  Now, when can we expect the book…? :-)

Harban said:  Wonderful blog!  I like it and have stored it in my Favourites.  Keep up the great job to colour the local scene.  I cannot imagine JB without your fascinating articles!

Gwen said:  I’ve been reading the articles I missed and re-reading my favourite stories.  I’ve also posted your link on my Facebook page and already my ex-classmate has been reading for the last hour or so too!  Keep writing.  I’m hooked and I know many JB friends will be too.

Belinda said:  The site is nice and people will visit again and again to read if the stories relate to them – trust that Uncle Roland is recovering well.  Nice front page/pix and easy to read…Love your stories!

Karen-Ann said:  Very interesting and impressive indeed.  You have made Johor sound and look so exciting!

Cousin Bernice [all grown up!] and I on holiday
at Lamma Island [for yummy seafood dinner] Hong Kong
Thanks so much, everyone!  I appreciate your feedback and encouraging comments.  If you have not already guessed it, the inspiration behind the design of my picture on the blog’s banner is my granny’s face powder!

Fans of Facebook will be delighted to know that now Peggy Loh – My Johor Stories has another avenue for readers to send in their comments and messages through Facebook / PeggyLohJohor.

Meanwhile, look out for my regular round-up’s as I keep you posted on what I’ve been up to and the happenings in and around Johor!   Happy reading!