Readers' Haven

At Treasures n Books, shelves are stocked
with books arranged in alphabetical order
according to authors' first names

In Cultivating a reading culture, (Johor Streets, 22 October 2012) I said that Gerard, my friend who has a passion for Han Suyin’s writings, was disappointed because he cannot find any good second-hand book store in Johor Baru.  

This sent me on a relentless quest for used book stores and I was delighted to discover a place with a wide collection of well-thumbed volumes.  

Finally, I found a host of popular authors like Jeffrey Archer, Judith Kranz, Jodi Picoult and Harold Robbins as well as Han Suyin, in a pre-loved book store – right here in JB! 

Facade of Treasures n Books
in Bandar Baru Permas Jaya

When May, another avid reader friend, told me about a used book store in Permas Jaya, I made a mental note to go and see it for myself.  

One day I happened to be in the neighbourhood and decided to track down this store.  

When I saw the signboard with its familiar name, Treasures n Books, it was like finding a long lost treasure.  

The door was partially opened but I remembered too late, that May said they are still stock-checking and will usually see customers by appointment only.

As I approached the partially opened door of Treasures n Books, I earnestly hoped that Annie Khoo would let me in without an appointment.  

Coming in from the sun, it took a while for my eyes to adjust as I peeked into the dim interior through a glass panel on the door.  

I was thrilled to see shelves upon shelves, chock full of books but as it was difficult to speak through the glass, it took some serious gesticulating to seek her consent for entry.  I was relieved that Khoo found me rather familiar looking and welcomed me in!

A collection of books by Jefferey Archer
I got acquainted with Khoo several years ago in her tiny shop in Danga City Mall and even though a used books store is not a lucrative business, Khoo had a regular clientele.  

With an expanding collection of books, she had to shift into a shop-lot for more space both for storage and to increase the shop-floor.  

When she moved out from the mall, she asked for some time to settle in before I visit her shop but I inadvertently misplaced her telephone number and without an address, I lost touch with her.

When Khoo, a self-confessed book lover, moved into their new home with her family, she devoted a room to the storage of her precious books.  

While she ensured that her book collection is properly stored, Khoo made her family comfortable with the limited space in their small flat.  

Her books are clearly a priority and as every available space was taken up by books and more books, Khoo told me she was even prepared to sleep in the hall!

Older novels like these by
Harold Robbins, were found here!

It is interesting to discover that Treasures n Books has books arranged on shelves in alphabetical order according to the authors’ first names.  

So you will find authors like Jeffrey Archer, Judith Kranz and Jodi Picoult grouped together under the letter, “J” instead of by the first letter of their surnames.  

To me, it appears that Khoo understands that avid readers are so familiar with their favourite authors that they are on a first-name basis!

On the other side of the coin, a friend who works with a public-listed corporation said she recently met with a corporate trainer and learnt a sad truth from him.  

Apparently the trainer will usually gauge the participants by asking questions and one question was to indicate by a show of hands, if they read books.  When only one or two raised their hands, he was appalled to discover that so few working people read as a hobby.

Books are arranged according to
the authors' first names!

Since rediscovering Treasures n Books, I have been sharing their contact details with people who were also searching for a used book store to buy or borrow books and to donate their old books and collectibles.  

Khoo said she has plans to open another store and maintain one shop for storage purposes because she has such a vast collection and unless there are regular stock-checks, she may not know what books are in stock.  

For instance, when I asked for books by Han Suyin, Khoo admitted that she was unsure where her collection was stored among the thousands of books! 

Check out priceless classics
like these by Han Suyin
The good news is Khoo has found this priceless collection and I can tell Gerard that here is where he will find rare tomes by Han Suyin but it will take a great deal of persuasion to convince Khoo to part with them.  

You see, Khoo is also a great fan of Han Suyin and she is now reluctant to sell or rent out Han’s books that are now collector’s items since this author’s demise last November.  

For Gerard’s sake, I just hope Khoo has duplicate copies of Han’s books to share with him and other fans of this author who once lived in JB for about 10 years and worked here as a physician.

Treasures n Books have since relocated. For more info, please send enquiries to Tel: 607 - 3538112 or visit their Facebook page at: treasuresnbookshop

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 29 January 2013

UPDATE 7 Oct 2015:

For some time now, readers and friends who are keen on old books have been asking me about Khoo and her book shop which has moved out from Permas Jaya.  I tried calling Khoo, left voicemails and messages on her phone but I only managed to get a reply from her today!

I learnt that she is looking for a suitable spot to reopen the bookshop and planning to restructure the business in a partnership. Khoo is blessed with a grandchild and has her hands full with minding the baby, so it would be ideal if she could pursue her passion in books with the help of good partners. 

Khoo has a vision to reopen a big library/bookshop to sell, rent, collect books and help to cultivate good reading habits. Meanwhile, we have to be patient until something is worked out and she may reopen the bookshop for readers to enjoy again!

Sumptuous Steamboat

Platter of fresh ingredients to cook in
boiling steamboat broth at Ho & Ho
With the Lunar New Year just around the corner, many families are eagerly anticipating their annual reunion dinner traditionally served in a steamboat meal.  This is a once-a-year tradition where family members chip in to prepare fresh ingredients like slicing fresh meats and washing vegetables before they sit down to cook and savour the meal together.  With several good steamboat restaurants in the city, this tradition is now slightly tweaked as families are relieved from tedious preparation and need only sit down to enjoy their meal.

Having established a reputation for quality and affordability, these steamboat restaurants have a loyal clientele who not only patronise their businesses at the Lunar New Year, but all year round.  That’s because there’s always a convivial atmosphere among friends or family members when they dine over a steamboat and the soupy meal usually fills you up before you can be guilty of gluttony!

Steaming hot-pot with cooked ingredients at Ho & Ho
Some steamboat restaurants like Kitamura Thai Suki & Shabu Shabu also offer a choice of Chinese-Thai-Japanese broths like herbal, spicy tom yam or miso.  One of the unique features of dining at Kitamura is the pleasure of helping yourself to a range of sauces and condiments at their Sauce Island. 

You can combine your favourite blend of delicious dips from sliced chillies, chopped garlic, roasted sesame seed paste, spring onions and coriander leaves among other condiments or just enjoy their signature Thai Suki and Green Chillie dips.  Even though this is a veritable buffet of sauces, remember it is a matter of courtesy to take what you can finish and refill later if you still needed more!

M. H. Tang and his wife, Evon, of Ho & Ho Steamboat
At Kitamura, the fresh ingredients are stored in chillers for diners to fetch their own choices in the baskets provided.  Here, ingredients are hygienically packed under cling wrap and priced according to the colour of the plates.  All you have to do is to stack up the empty plates for the waitress to tally up the bill at the end of your meal.  In this self-serving way, you can help yourself to as little or as much as you want to eat!

Another popular steamboat place is Ho & Ho Steamboat Restaurant in Taman Molek.  They charge a set rate for every diner and serve a minimum set for two persons.   You can pick your choice of fresh ingredients from a menu or order a standard set which is served piled up in a common platter, complete with two types of noodles and fresh eggs.  You can top up the set with additional orders of any favourite items and while waiting for the steamboat to boil, you can also savour side dishes like fried dumplings stuffed with minced pork and fried tofo blocks.

Fresh fish balls with pork meat balls [Background]
Opened since Sept 2000, the husband and wife team, M. H. Tang and Evon Low, have kept a loyal clientele coming back for more of this sumptuous soupy meal, served in a comfortable dining ambience. 

Their reputation for a delicious clear fish broth and six types of fresh ingredients shipped in from Pulau Ketam is a definite draw for discerning diners.  Fresh fish balls and interesting fish noodles – made from a blend of rich fish paste – are popular items to cook and savour with the steaming soup.  They also serve a special fried-shallots-in-oil sauce to add to the broth to bring out the best flavours. 

Ho & Ho has a signature blend of house sauce that may be quite a zinger if you are not familiar with spicy flavours.  The uninitiated should start with a tiny sample to acquaint your tastebuds with it and after a few dips, you may be ready for more.  Regulars confess that they often ask for a top-up of this spicy dip and shamelessly finish the second helping to the very last drop!

Facade of Ho & Ho Steamboat Restaurant in Taman Molek

Signature chillie dip [Top] and
fried-shallots-in-oil sauce to add to broth
Steamboat connoisseurs know that cooking and dining from a boiling hot-pot is a leisurely meal that should never be hurried.  So if you wish to have a steamboat meal at these popular restaurants, remember to make reservations or plan to go earlier or at off-peak dining hours to avoid disappointment. 

You will eventually get to your meal but the wait may be long and it’s really no fun to watch others eat while you salivate and your stomach growls…

Ho & Ho Steamboat Restaurant is a non-halal restaurant located at 85 & 87, Jalan Molek 3/10, Taman Molek, Johor Baru.  For dinner reservations, Tel: 019 – 7115572 / 012 – 7603209.


Larkin Walkabout

Tan Sri Dato Shahrir Abdul Samad with some residents
Finally my third installment on the lawless situation in Larkin Gardens, Keep Larkin Gardens safe, NST Johor Streets, 4 Dec 2012, managed to elicit a response from the authorities.  I was driving to Kluang last Saturday when my phone rang and I was pleasantly surprised that the caller was Member of Parliament for JB, Tan Sri Dato’ Shahrir Abdul Samad.  It’s not every day that a Tan Sri phoned me and rarer still that he wanted to visit me at home!

I’m glad that my appeals for help in Larkin, also written in Boost Police patrols in Larkin Gardens, please, NST Johor Streets, 23 October 2009 and Resolve problems in Larkin Gardens, NST Johor Streets, 30 July 2012, did not fall on deaf ears.  I was calling for more Police patrols and protection because intruders robbed us for the third time in six months, adding our home to the list of rampant robberies in this neighbourhood.  It was ironic that while I was still seeking the authority’s attention, our neighbours continued to be robbed one after another, not only in the veil of darkness but even in broad daylight!

The metal grille in this neighbour's
driveway was stolen before and
this is its replacement!
One night I was awakened by the roar of a speeding motorcycle followed by a commotion in our immediate neighbour’s house and the sound of another speeding motorbike.  I soon learnt that robbers managed to steal the brand new motorcycle which their nephew just acquired and even though the boys tried to give chase, they lost track of the robbers.  They returned shocked and disappointed at their loss and it was a sleepless night in the neighbourhood as we were stunned at how slick these robbers are!

The new neighbour who recently bought over a property one door away had building materials assembled for renovation work but it was a magnet for those greedy thieves who intruded into his compound, not once – not twice but three times in a week.  After they stole lengths of iron rods and metal scaffolding, the house-owner instructed his workers to live in and guard their materials.  However, when the workers stepped out, the thieves came in again to cart off their gas cylinder and other metal items!

The residents in our neighbourhood have followed police advice to lock up and light up the front and rear of our homes as a deterrent to intruders.  All this was still ineffective probably because it was not complemented by Police patrols and their visible presence in the neighbourhood.  As the nasty intruders were still boldly coming into our lighted compounds, it came to a point when I wondered – who’ll be their next victim?

Tan Sri Shahrir [4th from Left] meeting residents in our friendly, multi-racial neighbourhood
It didn’t take long to answer that question because the very next morning, we learnt that our neighbour two doors away, discovered that his metal drain covers were stolen.  The robbers seem to be systematically stripping us of any valuable metal because they intruded into that same house again – this time in the afternoon – removed the hanging garments and dumped them aside before carrying the metal clothes stand away!  This recent incident was not only disturbing but infuriating because our privacy was violated over and over again while the robbers’ are boldly coming and stealing from us!

A patrol car of Police also turned up!  The corporal
is holding copies of the residents' Police reports.
With such lawlessness happening in our neighbourhood, I did not hesitate to welcome Tan Sri Dato’ Shahrir to come and meet the residents, and hear a first-hand account of their horrific experiences.  Shahrir certainly had an earful from the residents who told him about how they had gold necklaces snatched when the robbers rushed into their compounds, the loss of metal pots and trays in addition to the stolen metal drain covers and their constant fear of being mugged and robbed.  He also patiently listened to their comments about sewage and drainage problems as well as the danger of speeding traffic to students in the nearby schools along Jalan Dato Jaafar.

A passing heavy downpour did not deter Shahrir from his walkabout and he paused near the entrance to the adjacent village that has a charity home for the aged and a population of foreign immigrants, to look at a few ancient Chinese graves.  Some residents suspect that the robbers may flee and hide in this area which is virtually a labyrinth that no longer has a through-road for vehicles to Jalan Kebun Teh.  It is also common knowledge that there is a food outlet in the village which is a popular hang-out for Police personnel and just as Shahrir and the residents was chatting by the road, a Police van passed and its occupants waved at Shahrir without pausing and drove directly into the village!

Recently the Police are more visible and a
 Police van was spotted parked in Larkin Gardens!
It was again so ironic that while residents are desperate for Police presence and protection, we finally witnessed no less than two Police personnel in our neighbourhood but they were clearly not on duty.  Aware of this embarrassing gaffe, someone alerted the Larkin Police Station and in minutes, a patrol car of Policemen turned up to meet Shahrir and the residents.  

Finally, the residents had the full attention of the Police and they seized the opportunity to show the corporal, copies of their Police reports and appealed for their help to put an end to the rampant robberies in this neighbourhood.

That same night, the Police set up a roadblock and have been making their presence known, sometimes by sounding their siren, when they patrolled the area.  On behalf of the residents, I wish to thank Shahrir and the Police for showing an interest in our plight and taking the first step in the right direction to keep this neighbourhood safer.  The lawlessness in Larkin is just the tip of the iceberg because the same is happening in older residential areas like Taman Century, Taman Melodies and Taman Kebun Teh and residents are eagerly anticipating the authorities’ next positive steps to help us live in comfort and security again. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 24 January 2013

Tribute to Michael Parry

Identity Card of Michael Graham Parry as Captain of
the Malaysian Team at the 1954 2nd Asian Games in Manila
When I received this email from Roger Loong, a reader, I felt compelled to share it:

“While reading through the obituary column in the newspaper on Jan 13, I came across the name Michael Graham Parry.  Being a Track & Field Statistician, I wanted to find out whether this person was the national athlete who represented the country in the 1954 Manila Asian Games.  

So I searched the internet and read the very interesting article on him written by you.

He went to the Asian Games as an athlete in which he finished 5th in the 4 x 400 meters Relay Team.  At home, besides being the Malayan champion for 440 Yards in 1953 with a time of 50.9 seconds, he also finished second in the same event in 1951, as well as 3rd in 1954 and 1956.  He was a finalist in 1957, the only time he represented Johor.  May his soul rest in peace.”

A young Michael Parry, then the second headmaster of
the Muar High School, at his farewell event in the school
I’m glad that my article, Guru Extraordinaire (NST Johor Streets, 10 Jan 2011) helped Loong to confirm that this was the same Michael Graham Parry who led the varsity team to the Second Asian Games in Manila as team manager in 1954.  

In that year, Parry also led the University of Malaya contingent to the Inter Varsity Games in HongKong.  He was a keen sportsman who was once the manager of the Johor Athletic team and captain of the Hockey League and used to play tennis at the Johor Civil Service Club, (now Johor Cultural and Sports Club), as well as golf at the Royal Johor Country Club, (now Johor Golf and Country Club).   

On Jan 15, Parry would have celebrated his 82nd birthday but in the early hours of Jan 12, he passed away peacefully after a long illness.  News of his passing spread quickly among his former students and colleagues, fellow Rotarians and Lodge members and a large group came to pay their last respects at a memorial gathering.  For his service to the country in education, Parry was awarded the Pingat Kemahkotaan (PK), Pingat Ibrahim Sultan (PIS) and the Ahili Mangku Negara (AMN) and while former students remember him as a strict headmaster and Rotarians regard him as Past District Governor Mike, I had the privilege of knowing him as my friend, Uncle Mike.

Parry’s son, Chris, said that his father had a very complete life, was a champion in sports and achieved the highest honour in his profession – the prestigious Tokoh Guru award in 1990.  He said Sekolah Sultan Ibrahim (SSI) in Kulaijaya, the Muar High School, the Rotary Club, the Masonic Lodge and JGCC were a significant part of his father’s life.  He said his father was also a great Malaysian because he would fly the National flag on every national day and raise his glass to toast the Sultan on his own birthday!

I was first acquainted with his wife, Dawn, through the Johor Speakers Club and often met them as a couple at social events in JB.  I was working on an article with his wife, a former headmistress of SIGS, when she passed away suddenly in 2010.  Uncle Mike was aware of what I was doing with her and with his permission I went on to complete my article as a tribute to her.

Uncle Mike often talked to me about his late wife and I got to know him better over the past few years.  They were a special couple and the close relationship they had is something every married couple would aspire to.  I was very touched when I later learnt from another source, that as Auntie Dawn’s eyesight was deteriorating and she could no longer pursue her passion in reading, Uncle Mike would read to her. 

After her passing, it was difficult for him to adjust to the changes as he deeply missed her.  I know he enjoyed good food and had a group of friends who met him regularly for lunch at his favourite restaurants like Tua Thow restaurant for Teochew fish noodles and South Indian banana leaf rice at Kerala Restaurant.  Although he had retired from playing golf, one of his favourite places to hang out was still the Johor Golf & Country Club (JGCC).

Every now and then, I would meet him at the club for lunch or an ice kacang and we would chat while he enjoyed sipping his favourite iced Milo drink.  Among other things, we discovered that he and my dad were from the same church in Ipoh.  Since August 2012, Uncle Mike was in and out of the hospital but in spite of his deteriorating health, he still had a great sense of humour.  When I visited Uncle Mike in the hospital, he would introduce me to the nurses and tell them, “Dia sama agama dengan saya!” meaning, we share the same faith.

M G Parry saying a few words after being
named "Father of SSI" by Chong Lian How
at her retirement as 10th principal of SSI in 2011
Chong Lian How, the 10th principal of SSI, paid tribute to Parry who established SSI as the first secondary school in Kulaijaya and was their first headmaster.  She described Parry as “strict but fatherly” and acknowledged his vast contributions which led the school to excel both academically and in sports.  At her retirement, she honoured Parry with the moniker, “Father of SSI,” for his role in the history of SSI and how he was also instrumental to the formation of the SSI alumni.

Parry certainly impacted the lives of many and there was a host of people who were ready to share their thoughts and experiences in an evening of bitter-sweet reminiscing.  Dr S. Shanmugam and Datuk Freddie Long recalled that Parry was their teacher in English College (now Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar) and acknowledged his guidance to them first as students and later as fellow Rotarians.  While J S Kwang described Parry as “generous,” Ng Swee Poh said Parry was active in Rotary Club activities and that they will continue the legacy of the Michael Parry Trophy which Parry donated in 2006.

The gathering at the memorial for M G Parry
I echo the words of Dr Maria Fernandez, who described Parry as “a legend – a warm-hearted gentleman, supportive husband and loving father.”  Fakir Singh, a former SSI colleague who fondly recalled how Parry installed him as the first Discipline Master, called Parry, “a gentleman, a scholar and an officer in every aspect of life” while former SSI student, Irene Fraud saluted Parry as “a giant of a man.”  Dr Ho Loon Shin, a former SSI head-prefect said that their alumni will miss his presence because Parry attended the alumni’s reunion every year. 

Michael Graham Parry [seated 2nd from Right] at the 2011 Rotary Club of Johor Baru dinner.
Peggy is seated on his Right.
Dr Ho also recalled that Parry often lamented that “half the fun is gone” after the demise of his wife but we are comforted because Parry was celebrating his birthday with her in heaven.  Fellow golfer, Kalbir Singh, said he has lost a very dear friend and brother and Chong summed up what everyone felt when she said, “We will miss him very much.”  Farewell Uncle Mike, until we meet again on that beautiful shore!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 21 January 2013

Our lady doctor

A 1941 photo of Alice Hwang [Right]
with her parents
Last year when we heard that Dr Elizabeth Comber, better known by her pen name, Han Suyin, had passed away in Switzerland on Nov 2, there was renewed interest in her.  

That was because she lived in Johor Baru for about 10 years after she married British Officer, Leon F. Comber in 1952 and he was attached to the Malayan Special Branch here.  Dr Comber was with the Johor Baru General Hospital before she opened Chow Dispensary [after her maiden name, Chow Kuanghu] situated near the former Cathay cinema, which later relocated to the clinic above Universal Pharmacy at Jalan Ibrahim.

In the late 1960s when Dr Comber decided to give up her private practice, she invited Dr Alice Low, her former colleague in the hospital’s Out-Patient Department, to take over the business.  For a while, the two doctors practiced alongside in adjacent clinics before Dr Comber left JB.  

A section of the Statutory Declaration that her mother
made concerning the loss of her birth certificate

I vividly remember walking up the wooden staircase to the clinic upstairs because as children, my sisters and I were Dr Low’s patients.  When Dr Low opened Low Clinic, a private practice with her husband, Dr Jimmy Low, in a shop-lot located close to OCBC Bank at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, my sisters and I continued to be her patients.

It appears that many mothers agreed that Dr Low was the lady doctor of choice for their daughters because I recently discovered that many of my classmates and their sisters were also her patients.  My friends and I admitted that we were petrified by Dr Low’s stern appearance and loud voice but being offered a sweetie from the colourful jar of quality fruity sweets on her table, more than made up for it!

Dr Alice Low [Right] with her father, Hwang Chih Wu [Left]
and mother, Chiu Su Hsi [Center]
Since her retirement, Dr Low has mellowed much but her memory remains sharp.  When I visited her with my mum and sisters, we shared a meaningful time of reminiscing as we looked at old photos and ancient documents.  While Dr Low may not have a background as romantic as Dr Comber, she too has an interesting and eventful life story.  

Born Alice Hwang on Cebu Island in the Philippines to Hwang Chih Wu and Chiu Su Hsi in 1926, she grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa before going to study medicine in HongKong.

Her father is best remembered as one of the early headmasters of JB’s renowned Foon Yew High School, an institution that will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.  She recalls that her father was passionate about introducing English as a subject in the school but unfortunately, the school Board disagreed.  In his disappointment, Hwang resigned from the school and went to work in Pontian but Dr Low is ever grateful that her father encouraged her to master both reading and writing in Chinese and English.

Ancient passport belonging to Alice Hwang
While Dr Comber changed her name when she remarried, Dr Low had but one true love in Dr Jimmy Low.  

They obviously had a strong and loving relationship because she defied her father’s objection to her marriage to Dr Jimmy as he was pure Baba or Straits-born Chinese, who could not speak any Chinese.  It was a clash of strong wills but her father ultimately accepted them and they shared a warm relationship until her father’s demise at age 93.

Our link with this lady doctor and her husband goes back to the mid 1950s when my parents were attached to the Kota Tinggi District Hospital and Dr Jimmy was their resident doctor.  Mum, a former midwife, said that maternity cases that required specialist attention had to be rushed to JB General Hospital and as it was then the Emergency period, she would call the Police Station to request for the sentry on guard at the Ulu Tiram town gates to open them for the ambulance to pass.  She said it was terrifying to travel under the threat of the Communist army hiding in the bushes that border the road – especially at night – but thankfully there was never an attack on the ambulance.

In 1955, Dr Comber’s frank autobiography written into her best-known novel, A Many Splendoured Thing, was made into a movie, Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing, and it went on to win Oscars for Best Song, Best Score and Best Costume with a nomination for Best Picture.  Its award-winning success gained her popularity as well as notoriety for her daring affair with Ian Morrison, a married Australian war correspondent in HongKong. 

Peggy with Dr Alice Low [Left]
Former patients may fondly remember the legendary Dr Comber or Dr Chow as she was once known, as a fascinating Eurasian lady doctor who could speak Hakka, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, French and English.  Dr Low remembers Dr Comber looking tall and beautiful, and quite temperamental because she would scold patients or hug them affectionately.  

She noted with a smile, that most of the male patients preferred to consult her probably so that they could tell others that they were patients of that physician who was also the famous author, Han Suyin!

In those days, many child patients were in terror of doctors and Dr Low blamed their parents because parents often used doctors and painful injections, to threaten their children into obedience.  Even as fierce-faced doctors and sharp needles are all part of my childhood doctor memories, I can never forget the antiseptic smell in Low Clinic and the creamy taste of the pink-colour, lightly sweetened cough mixture.  And when I reminded Dr Low of the cold pressure of her metal tongue depressor (that sat in a jar of antiseptic) which she used to examine my sore throat and made me gag, she offered to give that old tongue depressor to me as a souvenir! Aargh!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 11 January 2013

Golden Trip

Aunties in a photo memento at Sultan Ismail Building
My friend, Florence Liew, has a tradition of an annual family holiday and after their family’s beach holiday in Desaru last year, they were back again for a stay in Johor Baru last December.

While the Legoland theme park is the main destination for the children and grandchildren, she wondered what the older folks should do that day as they were not keen to join the youngsters.  When she approached me for advice on what to do with her senior family members, I was warned that the oldest is aged 82 and some of them are not able to walk too much.
A section of the Heritage Gallery at Dataran Mahkota
I’m all for tailor-made tours that meet with the tastes and requirements of the specific group and by understanding the guests’ needs, I considered a few destinations to plan their route for a day trip.  

Bearing in mind the monsoon weather, travel distances and the attractions I had in mind to introduce to them, I decided on a leisurely itinerary to show them the best of the old and new in JB.  The planning was considerably easy as our guests – uncles and aunties – are within an age group who are able to relate to the beauty and rich heritage of a bygone era.

Entrance is free-of-charge to the Siar Jauhar Gallery
On the day of our tour, the weather cooperated with cloudy skies and occasional bright sunshine as we set off at about 10am from the resort where they were staying.  Eleven of us travelled in two cars and headed to Kota Iskandar through new expressways in Nusajaya with a drive for a peek at Puteri Harbour and Legoland Malaysia.  

Now they can say that they have seen Legoland and those who came from Kuala Lumpur and understand the concept of Putrajaya can relate to the development of Kota Iskandar as the new administrative center of Johor Baru.  

Cheng Chee Tong, secretary of JB Kwong Siew Wai Kuan,
giving us a guided tour of the JB Kwong Siew Heritage
Gallery at Jalan Siu Nam
Our first stop was the Heritage Gallery that borders Dataran Mahkota where they could also admire the facade of the impressive Bangunan Dato Jaafar Muhammad on one side and the Bangunan Sultan Ismail located directly opposite.  

This outdoor gallery has a series of wall plaques inscribed with information shared in three languages – Jawi, Malay, and English – that charts the history of Johor to our modern age.  I reminded our guests to start reading in chronological order from the left to right to better appreciate the comprehensive info arranged on the wall.

Freshly baked coconut bun from
Hiap Joo's traditional charcoal bakery
It was good to cool down in the shelter of Bangunan Sultan Ismail where the seniors took their time to walk up the gentle path into Siar Jauhar Gallery.  One of Florence’s uncles, a philatelist, made a beeline for the post office there where he bought a series of postage stamps to add to his collection.  

Meanwhile everyone enjoyed viewing the interesting and informative displays in the gallery that included details on Johor's political and social progress, historical relics and Johor’s unique heritage that influenced the architectural design of the buildings in Kota Iskandar.

Before heading to the old town in the heart of the city, we had lunch at a modern kopitiam in Bukit Indah.  At our next stop our guests, who are Cantonese, were delighted to discover their ancestral origins from a map of the various counties in Kwangtung Province in the Johor Baru Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery.  

Refreshment stop at Kim Wah kopitiam
Cheng Chee Tong, secretary of the Johor Baru Kwong Siew Wai Kuan, was on hand to give us a guided tour of this museum and when I saw several interesting artifacts in their priceless collection of memorabilia, I made a mental note to visit the gallery again for more in-depth insights into the cultural heritage of the Cantonese clan in Johor Baru.

A visit to Johor Baru is not complete without a trip to the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk and our guests were thrilled to observe the traditional art of baking in a charcoal oven at Kedai Kek & Roti Hiap Joo, a family business that still produces piping hot products from their ancient oven.  

The seniors climbed three flights of
stairs in the JB Chinese Heritage
Museum to view a special exhibit
The tiny space in the bakery was crowded with shoppers and curious tourists like us but no one left empty-handed because Hiap Joo’s freshly-baked banana cake and stuffed buns are simply irresistible.  It was then timely to sit down on the shady pavement of Kim Wah, a traditional kopitiam situated opposite the bakery, to savour these traditional pastries with a hot cup of coffee or teh-see, a favourite beverage brewed with evaporated milk.

Rested and rejuvenated by the tea break, we strolled along the heritage walk to the JB Chinese Heritage Museum where our senior guests took their time to climb three flights of stairs to explore the museum, all the way to the top level, for a special exhibit on the Ngee Heng clan.  

I explained how Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim encouraged the Chinese in Singapore to move into Johor to open fresh land for new plantations and the introduction of the kangchu or River Lord system to establish pepper and gambier plantations in areas along the rivers.  These economic crops gained a place of honour in Johor history and today, this motif with intertwined sprigs of pepper and gambier plants is widely used in various structures like lampposts and signboards throughout the state.

Our satisfied visitors to JB, at the JB Chinese Heritage Museum, at the end of the day tour
It was my privilege to enhance their visit with historical references and interesting anecdotes as I showed our guests the new development in Kota Iskandar and linked it back to the heritage in the heart of the old town.  On their part, the seniors did well by walking the heritage trails, re-discovering old and vanishing trades as well as reminiscing on the early immigrant’s way of life.  One thing for sure, exploring the best of old and new in JB was an enriching experience not just for our guests but also for Florence and I.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 10 January 2013

Best-kept Secret

Wrought iron gates at the entrance to Jeff's Cellar
I was in the middle of interviewing someone when my sister, Ruby, phoned.  I gave her a brief reply, saying I will speak to her later.  When I spoke to her again, she asked me what my schedule was for the next week and I answered her with a question: “Why?”

Then she told me about the prize she won from entering a contest last year, describing the 3-Day 2-Night stay inclusive of meals and spa treatments for two at The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat in Tambun, near Ipoh.  Since the deal will expire at the end of the month, I agreed to go with her but I was so tied up with work that I did not give much thought to our destination. 

Quaint little well close to the cave entrance
With this travel plan ahead, I organized my work and appointments to free myself up for the final week of the month.  In fact, I was busy writing till late and only managed to throw a few things into my travel bag at about 10.30pm before leaving the next morning.  Our stay at The Banjaran turned out to be such an extraordinary experience not only because of how this spa retreat lives up to its 5-star award-winning standards but because of its unique attractions in hot-springs, tropical jungles, waterfalls and limestone caves.

Special Touches

Check-in time is 3pm so while Ruby and I were eating lunch in Ipoh – a visit to Ipoh is not complete without a taste of sar hor fun or local rice noodles – the resort called to get our car registration number.  Later when we drove down a tree-lined road into the resort, we hardly stopped at the barrier next to the guardhouse when the guard recognized our car and ushered us in.  By the time we reached the porch, Kamal our butler was there to welcome my sister by name while another staff unloaded our luggage and parked the car!

Main bar inside Jeff's Cellar
It is interesting for me because for a change, Ruby is the resort’s guest while I’m just there to twin-share.  While Ruby did all the “work” to check-in and ask or answer questions, I can soak in the charming atmosphere lush with greenery in the water gardens, natural wood furniture and striking stalagmite showpieces.  

We are given waterproof wristbands to wear instead of keys or cards to our villa and I thought it is a clever use of technology and a comfortable convenience both as keys and guest identification!

Water cascading into terraced pools in the cave
Riding a buggy to our villa, Kamal gave us a quick tour for the location of the spa, waterfalls and various caves before he introduced in-room facilities like remote controls for the whirring leaf-bladed fans above, the sound system cleverly concealed in the ceiling and a mobile phone for use in the resort.  

As he showed us the twin vanity counters in the dressing room and piped-in hot-springs outdoor jacuzzi in the rear, I cannot wait for him to exit so that I can let out my held-back gasps of wonder.  This is sheer indulgence as there is already a beautiful plunge pool in our villa’s front yard!

Banquet table elegantly laid out for
a private party in the cave
All this excitement is making me thirsty so I pour a drink from the labu sayong, the gourd-shaped ceramic carafe that is native to Perak, to quench my curiosity about how this naturally cooled water tastes.  As I lounge on the comfortable divan to savour the tasty sips of cool water, I’m glad to see how local icons like the juicy-sweet pomelo fruit in the welcome basket, the hot-springs water in the jacuzzi and those towering limestone cliffs around the villa, all combine to make this resort so special.  And this was before I discovered the best-kept secret of The Banjaran – Jeff’s Cellar!

Jeff’s Cellar

I do not have to lean back for the waiter to serve each course of our dinner at The Pomelo because they are trained to provide service that is attentive and yet unobtrusive.  Seated in a pavilion built over the hot-springs pond, the atmosphere is absolutely surreal as we watch the fascinating sight of swirls of steam gently shifting in the breeze.  The waiting staff who served and cleared away each course, helpfully answered our queries about the resort and one of them suggested that we pop over to Jeff’s Cellar later.

A peek into Tan Sri Jeffrey's private collection
“Who’s Jeff?” I promptly asked and he told us an incredible tale of how Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah, founder and chairman of the Sunway Group, discovered the cave while he was taking a walk.  Born in Pusing, a small town near Ipoh, Tan Sri Jeffrey is familiar with this area because he used to visit the hot-springs as a youth.  

So while the Sunway Group was developing the nearby resort township in 2002, he stumbled upon several interesting caves here including those dubbed the Balcony Cave, the Meditation Cave and this cave which he initially wanted to turn into his private wine cellar. 

Earlier on while Ruby and I were exploring, we spotted the crest and wrought iron gate overgrown with greenery at its entrance built into a limestone wall.  Now that it is open, we do not need much persuasion to go in for a first-hand experience.  As soon as dinner is over, a waiter is ready to escort us across a woody grove into the cavernous depths of a limestone cave that is Jeff’s Cellar.

Spectacular Sight

Even with my experience of limestone caves, nothing prepared me for the spectacular sight inside Jeff’s Cellar.  Ruby and I pause at the top of the short flight of stairs at its foyer, just to take it in slowly.  As my eyes adjust to the golden glow from subtle lighting reflecting on the limestone rocks, I consciously try to keep my mouth closed because so mesmerized was I that I can’t keep my jaws from dropping!

I know we are stepping on a firm boardwalk as I crane my neck to look up and admire the spacious chamber hemmed in by towering walls of uneven limestone.  I hear the rush of trickling water and my eyes are riveted to a gigantic stalactite that has streams cascading down its sides into a series of terraced pools below.  Wide canvas canopies span the ceiling in some parts of the cave and when I stand under it, I hear a firm “thud, thud” sound of water dripping from stalactites way, way above from the top of the cave!

View of Jeff's Cellar with terraced pools [Left] and elevated lounge [Right]
As I was gawking away at the sights, I suddenly realize that a staff is standing politely nearby, ready to take our drink orders.  Butler, Thaya introduced himself as the caretaker of the Cellar since it opened some 10 years ago, so I think he must be used to guests who are absolutely blown away by the unbelievable experience in this unique place.  He graciously showed us around, sharing interesting anecdotes along the way and even gave us a peek into another cellar that housed Tan Sri Jeffrey’s private collection!

Peggy enjoying a drink at the elevated lounge
in Jeff's Cellar
For a moment it was difficult to reconcile the stark contrast between the height of sophistication in a full bar, lavishly laid out banquet table and plush lounge seats furnished in air-conditioned comfort within such a primitive setting.  Yet this sheer disparity is probably the charm that attracts people to host their special events here.  

Seated at the elevated lounge – the best seats in the house, according to Thaya – and sipping our drinks, Ruby and I thrill to a panoramic view of the rough and rocky beauty of Jeff’s Cellar, agreeing that it is indeed the best-kept secret of The Banjaran!

Fast Facts

Jeff’s Cellar is an ideal destination for private parties like product launches and special events.  On 15 May 2012, The Banjaran was recognized as the World’s Best Resort accorded by Fiabci Prix d’Excellence at a ceremony held in St Petersburg, Russia.  For appointments and reservations: Email or Tel: 605 – 210 7777, Fax: 605 – 210 7778.  The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat is located just a 15-minute drive away from Ipoh along Jalan Tambun.  Visit website:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 10 January 2013