Johor's many names

The plaque in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
Did you know that before the reign of Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim, Johor was once known by obscure names like Lenggiu, Ganggayu and Galoh?  There was a time when the spelling for Johor was Johore – with an “e” – a word believed to have originated from the Arabic word, Jauhar, which means, “gem” or “jewel”.  When you pass the corner of Jalan Wong Ah Fook and Jalan Sawmill, look out for the Jawi rendition of the word, Jauhar which is now preserved there in a beautiful sculpture.

A plaque in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum states that when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim gained sovereignty over the territory of Johor in 1855, he called it Iskandar Petrie, which was renamed Johore Bahru (note spelling) in 1866.  Based on historical records, Johor had various ancient names like Hujung Medini, Ujong Tanah (Land’s End) or Wurawari, a Javanese word that means “clear water.”  The area south of the Muar River to Singapore was known as Ujong Tanah because this region was acknowledged as the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. 

Sacks of raw peppercorns [Left] and gambir [Right]
seen in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
When Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, the Chinese in the Riau Islands and Singapore were already successfully cultivating gambier.  In Singapore, the land around Kranji and Sembawang, they fondly called the “Old Mountain,” was exhausted and infertile after being cultivated for 10 to 15 years.  So when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim invited them to move into Johor to open the land for new plantations, the Chinese were ready to relocate.   

Aware that Johor had an enlightened ruler who understood the Chinese and encouraged them to come to Johor, their interest was aroused.  With a strong pioneering spirit, immigrant Chinese were attracted to the prospect of settling in huge tracts of land, just waiting for them to clear for cultivation of pepper and gambier under the kangchu or River Lord system.  Not long after Iskandar Petrie was established, the Chinese accepted Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim’s grants to establish plantations in Johor and started to arrive by cargo-carrying barges or tongkang through Sungai Segget or Segget River, and settled in the nearby area.

Jalan Segget remains a busy thoroughfare today
At that time Iskandar Petrie was only a frontier outpost with a few huts occupied by fishermen and charcoal-makers near Sungai Segget.  It was surrounded by jungle and mangrove forests and a flagpole flying the Johor flag near a police post on a hill represented the presence of a government.  Its capital, Tanjung Puteri, was situated at a coastal site that had the most convenient boat access to Singapore – opposite the end of Bukit Timah Road in Singapore.

If you have been to the former Royal Abu Bakar Museum, housed in the Grand Palace in the Istana Gardens, you will remember some of the Sultan’s hunting trophies preserved in the gallery.  The elephant skeleton and ferocious fangs of stuffed tigers standing in the showcases, gave us a glimpse of the types and sizes of wild animals that once roamed the dense Johor jungles.  In addition to being confronted by wild animals such as these, Chinese immigrants lost lives to strange diseases and the harsh environment as they braved physical challenges to clear the jungles and open up land through the rivers into Johor’s interior.  

Sungai Segget [Foreground] was the main transport
waterway from Singapore in the 1800s
Through the kangchu system, the River Lords could collect taxes and govern Chinese communities in their areas along the rivers. After Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim was succeeded by Sultan Abu Bakar, he continued his father’s legacy in trying to develop Johor into a thriving metropolis.  According to Wu Hua, author of local history written in Chinese, Tan Kee Soon opened up Tan Chu Kang near Kangkar Tebrau while Wong Ah Fook opened up Jiu Soon Kang on the left bank of the Sungai Segget.  Tan Hiok Nee opened a market on the right bank of Sungai Segget while Tan Tua Choon started a public trading post on Jalan Segget. 

To the Chinese, Johor is Yau Fatt Chow (Cantonese) while Johor Baru is traditionally called Sun San (Cantonese), Sin Sua (Teochew) or Xinshan (Mandarin) a name literally translated as, “New Hill”.   Sun San is a name believed to have been coined by the kangchu who had been farming pepper and gambier in Lim Chu Kang and Choa Chu Kang in Singapore, when they sighted a hill on their arrival in JB.  This hill – probably Bukit Timbalan – was then known as Bukit Bendera or Flagstaff Hill.

The iconic Sultan Ibrahim on Bukit Timbalan [Background]
overlooks ancient Johor Baru with Sungai Segget
[Bottom Right] bordering the wet market
The literal meaning of the word, san may mean, “hill” or “mountain,” but the word, Sun San may likely be derived from the colloquial Chinese term, sanbah, which used to mean “jungle” or “rural area.”  So to Chinese immigrants, Sun San was in fact, the New Rural Settlement that was attracting them.  The Chinese who settled in plantations were mainly Teochew who were involved with jungle clearing and opening rivers while a large number who came to Iskandar Petrie were Cantonese, mainly from Taishan, with occupations like carpenters and artisans, who contributed to the development of urban settlements.

In 19th century Johor, the Teochew settlement spanned from Jalan Ngee Heng – which used to stretch up to present-day Jalan Tun Abdul Razak – down Jalan Trus to Jalan Tan Hiok Nee while the Cantonese community was centered in Kampung Wong Ah Fook, an area between present-day Jalan Sawmill and the start of Jalan Tun Abdul Razak near Komplex Tun Abdul Razak.  These two centers of early Chinese communities in Iskandar Petrie were geographically divided by Sungai Segget.  The contributions of pioneering Chinese to the development of modern Johor remains a lasting legacy in a state which we now call, Johor Darul Takzim, the “Abode of Dignity.”

A version of this article was published in The New Sunday Times on 21 April 2013

The Lim Kee Jin Wing

Entrance to JARO with the recently renamed wing
in the background
In 1952, Dr Beryl Wilberforce-Smith, a Chest Physician in the Johor Baru General Hospital (now called Sultanah Aminah Hospital) started to rehabilitate recovering tuberculosis patients by training them with skills in basketry, book-binding and tailoring.  This rehabilitation workshop was then a unit of the Malaysian Anti-Tuberculosis Association. 

These patients came under the care of Dato’ Dr Lim Kee Jin in 1958 when he was posted to the hospital as Consultant Physician and this started him on a life-long mission to rehabilitate special people by training and equipping them with marketable skills so that they can have a sense of dignity with financial independence.

Dato' Dr Lim Kee Jin
As they started accepting rehabilitees with other disabilities, the rehabilitation workshop changed its identity to Johor Area Rehabilitation Organisation or JARO, a registered charitable society and sheltered workshop.  Lim was elected Chairman of Jaro in 1962 and was popularly re-elected from 1962 to 2007 to the role which he held for the next 46 years.  When Lim stepped down in 2008 due to health reasons, Dato’ Jimmy Low Boon Hong took over as Chairman of the Jaro Management Committee.

Before Lim relinquished his role in 2008, he said, “We need to re-examine Jaro’s mission to rehabilitate and train people with disabilities for gainful employment and operate a sheltered workshop for those who are unable to find employment.  We need to expand and improve our existing facilities for these purposes and network with other welfare bodies not only in Johor but throughout Malaysia as well as organizations for the disabled throughout the world.”  This was quoted in a tribute to Lim by Dr Adam Liew on behalf of the Jaro Management Committee at an event on April 6 to rename the Jaro building as the Lim Kee Jin Wing.

Two auspicious dancing lions at the renaming ceremony
“He is a teacher, mentor, friend and a Giant in Medicine,” said Liew who went on to describe how Lim, the man behind the birth of Johor Specialist Hospital, the first private hospital in Johor Baru, is especially sensitive to the needs of the less privileged. 

Some 200 well-wishers joined the Jaro committee members, staff and rehabilitees in a simple ceremony to honour Lim as he unveiled the new name for the building.  This significant event was also witnessed by Lim’s wife, Datin Patricia Lim, their son, Professor Lim Seng Gee and his wife.

Dato' Lim Kee Jin [in wheelchair] unveiling the new name
by remote control while his wife, Datin Pat Lim and Chairman
of Jaro Management Committee, Dato' Jimmy Low, look on
This building has been Jaro’s permanent home since it was officially declared open in November 1968 by then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Razak Dato Hussain.  Lim was the driving force behind the application for State land and to obtaining a grant from the Federal Government and the services of the JKR or Public Works Department to construct a building for Jaro. 

Through the efforts of Lim and Low, the adjacent piece of land was acquired in 1981 and a new building was constructed, renovated and rented out in 2012.

Esah Mahat [Left] presenting her poem with the
help of her colleagues in Jaro
The renaming of the building was celebrated with a traditional Lion Dance by an auspicious pair of dancing lions and the recitation of a poem written in Malay by Esah Mahat which she dedicated to Lim and presented with the help of her colleagues in Jaro.  Her simple words succinctly summed up the sentiments of the Jaro rehabilitees towards Lim’s contributions that gave them dignity and a purpose in life.  The towering influence of Lim when he led the Jaro committee with compassion, dedication and enthusiasm continues to motivate committee members to carry on the good work he started and take Jaro to greater heights of achievement. 

Prof Lim Seng Gee, Dato' Lim's son,
accepted the tribute on behalf of his father
“My father is not only a renowned physician but he’s also an excellent cook, a sculptor and a gentlemen farmer,” said Lim’s son, Professor Lim Seng Gee, as he shared some insights about Lim after he accepted the tribute on behalf of his father. 

He acknowledged that the social entrepreneurship his father started in Jaro is an essential ideal for a developed nation and is pleased that rehabilitees have their dignity and self-esteem restored as they are able to make a healthy living.  He also announced the donation of RM10,000 from the Lim family towards the fund for workers welfare and rehabilitation.

The Jaro brand has established itself through beautiful, quality and useful products made by special people that are a pride to own and a joy to present to others.  Many homes still use Jaro quality products like rattan baskets and furniture while charming Jaro smocked dresses for toddlers are treasured heirlooms that are being handed down in families for generations. 

The poem in Malay by Esah Mahat
Jaro also continues to receive book-binding orders from a regular clientele of satisfied customers and has long-term contracts with the law fraternity in Johor Baru, Malaysian and Singaporean universities, printing companies, and libraries.

While Jaro receives annual Government grants and public donations and is self-supporting by marketing its products and reinvesting the funds into its daily operations, they often run at a deficit.  As such Jaro recently launched its “Adopt a Person With Disability” (PWD) Programme where individuals and corporations can sponsor or adopt a PWD from RM5,000 annually or contribute towards the charity fund to pay salaries and other operating costs.  Tax deductible donations can be made to the Jaro Account at HSBC and Jaro event updates can be found on:\JAROJB.

Jaro is located along Jalan Sungai Chat, between Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar (English College) and the Mawar Complex, with retail outlets in City Square and Holiday Plaza. Open on weekdays from 8.30am to 5.30pm, closed on weekends and Public Holidays.  Tel: 607 – 2245632. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 18 April 2013

Tomb Sweeping Tradition

Grandfather's tomb with offerings made
in the annual Ching Ming tradition
Around end March to early April, you will see the Chinese visiting the cemeteries in and around Johor Baru.  This annual trek to the tombs is known as Ching Ming, the most important festival of the dead in the lunar calendar where Chinese who practice ancestor worship go to family tombs to make offerings and prayers to their ancestors. 

This Ching Ming festival is not to be mistaken with the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts when the Gates of Hell are open for spirits to roam the earth to be fed and entertained.

Eating is an inherent part of the Chinese culture so for Chng Ming, families will bring food like steamed pau dumplings, whole boiled chicken, braised duck and roast pork along with the favourite drinks of their dearly departed.  I remember the early years when Pepsi Cola first came into the market and our late great-grandmother used to enjoy sipping this bubbly soda which she called, “Pess cola.”  Now at every Ching Ming, the family never fails to bring a can of her favourite “Pess cola” to offer to her at her tomb!

JB Chinese community leaders paying their respects
at the Ming Tomb
Interestingly, there is one special tomb in Johor Baru that does not have the remains of any ancestor buried within.  This grand tomb is located in the cemetery close to Jalan Abdul Rahman Andak and is simply adorned by two Chinese characters: Ming Mu meaning Ming Tomb.  History records that when Johor became part of the Unfederated Malay States under the British colonial authority in 1914, the kangchu system was abolished and the Ngee Heng kongsi or society was disbanded.  This kongsi, which started as a secret society, was legalised by Sultan Abu Bakar as an association in 1873 and assigned to take charge of Chinese community affairs in Johor.  

"Tomb Sweeping Day" indicated on this page
of traditional Chinese calendar!
United with the other Chinese clans as a legal society, members of this association built the Johor Ancient Chinese Temple at Jalan Trus, started the Foon Yew School and established a common cemetery for all dialect groups that Johor Chinese still fondly refer to as, Kongsi San.  When the Ngee Heng Kongsi was disbanded, their assets were dissolved and contributed to charity with a sum set aside to build a tomb for the burial of all their ritual and sacred objects as well as ancestral tablets. 

To this day, JB Chinese community leaders perform ancestor worship rituals at this tomb twice a year, during the Ching Ming and Chongyang festivals. 

The Chinese will not neglect the annual Ching Ming observance because they believe that as their forefathers are honoured, their future generations will be bestowed with blessings.  In stormy rains or sweltering sunshine, they will climb the hillocks to reach the tombs and pay their respects to their ancestors who have moved into the spirit world.  And after the rituals at each tomb, the pau, fruits and drinks would be distributed and eaten there as a form of a reunion meal with the ancestors!

A collection of paper replica games for gamblers!
During this season, there will also be quite a bit of open burning in the cemeteries because the Chinese believe that when paper items in the form of money and material goods are burnt, they will be sent to their ancestors to make them more comfortable in the netherworld. 

Traditionally this includes sacks of folded golden taels, coloured rolls of fabric, joss paper printed as Hell Bank Notes and paper replicas of material items.  These may be suits of paper attire, paper cars with chauffeurs, paper mansions with servants and luxury items like jewellery, sexy lingerie, cigarettes, plasma TV and even the latest gadgets like mobile-phones, ipads and laptops. 

A set of ko-yok or medicinal products too!
Recently I passed a shop selling Chinese joss items and couldn’t resist pausing to take a closer look at the range of paper replica items that are available for citizens of the netherworld.  I gather that gambling is also another innate part of the Chinese because among the interesting items like branded jewellery and laptop computers, I saw a box set with games I recognised like chess, mahjong, playing cards, domino cards and chi-kee cards. 

I was amused that even in the netherworld, the dearly departed can gather to gamble and when I spotted another box set of medicinal products with a range of ko-yok or traditional first-aid remedies, I was truly tickled because I never knew that they are still prone to itches, aches and pains!

It is not only an Asian tradition for families to remember their ancestors by presenting flowers and giving the tombs an annual clean-up as this is practiced even in other cultures.  People generally honour ancestors as they owe their very existence to their forefathers but just as we cherish memories of them after they are gone, it is better to value our elders while they are still with us.  So have no regrets but just go all out to give them your reassuring presence and practical support while they can still appreciate it. 

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

Lat Nostalgia

Our collection of Lat comic books!

I’ve heard so much about the three park attractions in the Puteri Harbour Family Theme Park in Nusajaya that when I received the assignment to go there, I jumped at the opportunity.  

I’m proud that Sanrio Hello Kitty Town and the Little Big Club are popular with families but I’m particularly thrilled that Lat’s Place, a unique themed restaurant and a first of its kind, has opened in Johor Baru.  

That’s because I’m a fan of Lat and his colourful characters ever since I started reading his cartoons in the New Straits Times back in the 1970s.

Unlike other young newspaper readers, I did not go straight to the comic pages whenever I open the newspapers.  

Yes, I’m familiar with the antics of Nancy, Dagwood and Blondie and Charlie Brown and friends in Peanuts but they did not possess a magnetic attraction for me.  

When Lat cartoons started appearing weekly in the New Straits Times, I used to zero in on it probably because even at that time, I could relate to the nostalgia and humour that Lat captured so vividly in his crazy illustrations.

In our family, it was often a race to be the first to read the Lat cartoon and tell the others about it.  

In those days it was common to keep newspapers clips and when my dad started us on collecting the Lat cartoons, it was like a regular ritual to cut out the cartoon strip and paste it in a large F4 size hardcover book.  

Sometimes when I turned to the page in the newspapers for Lat’s cartoon, I was greeted by a gaping hole because someone had already cut it out!

Needless to say, dad and my brother are also fans of Lat and we used to enjoy discussing the colourful characters and laugh about them.  

One of my brother’s favourite characters is Ricky, a Chinese boy on a wheelchair that Lat encountered when he was admitted to hospital.  

Ricky is the classic annoying pest who’s just too friendly and inflicting himself on other patients, asking them to play cards or games, while all the patients wanted to do was to rest.  

This is just one example of how perceptive Lat is in his observations because there are such people in any hospital.

Lat cartoons were also a source of cross-cultural education for me because I learnt a great deal about different people, particularly the Malay, Indian and Punjabi cultures.  

Another unforgettable character is Surinder, a Punjabi girl who was being trained in the kitchen so that she would be a good traditional wife.  

I can still recall how it tickled my brother and I to see Lat’s illustration of the hapless Surinder with an unsuccessful solid disc of chapatti that was balanced like a plate on her upward pointed finger!

Some of Lat’s cartoons reflect an obvious influence of P. Ramlee movies as can be seen from his dramatic ‘60s-themed story of a wayward husband, trying to get the first wife’s permission to marry a second wife.  

The distraught and overweight first wife took a girlfriend’s advice to go for a total makeover and emerged with a Saloma-esque figure.  

When the husband had plucked up his courage to demand for her permission, he was so taken aback by her voluptuous figure that he shelved the idea and stayed with her instead!

A picture truly tells a thousand words and Lat effectively used his drawings to tell his stories and add his brand of humour even to historical events.  

His cartoons are often presented in a single frame while his standard cartoon strip format has a series of small frames with the punch-line delivered in the final frame.  

And with the perfect blend and accuracy in his words and illustrations, it takes only a few tongue-in-cheek, well-chosen words inside a tiny dialogue bubble, to crack me up!

Take for instance the history of the Larut Wars in the 1800s where the Ghee Hin and Hai San clans had bloody clashes and nobody seemed to be able to bring the war to an end.  

In his comic strip, Lat drew dramatic scenes of Chinese kung fu fighters in various fierce pugilistic stances with some lying on the ground to depict fallen fighters.  

In the background, a group of Malays representing Ngah Ibrahim and his men looked on helplessly and the subtle words in a small dialogue bubble read, “Jangan gadoh la tokey!” 

One of my personal favourites must be the Police story about Inspector Muniandy and the melodramatic tale of his reunion with long-lost twin brother, Ravi – the villain.  

The storyline is clearly predictable but in the first of the series of comic strips, just as Inspector Muniandy was about to leave for the crime scene, he makes another phone call.  

Lat’s illustration of the crisp uniform against his skinny legs – they wore shorts then – on his classic MGR/Sivaji Ganesan look-alike hero, gave the impression that it was serious business but in the little dialogue bubble, Inspector Muniandy said, “Hello, cancel the tosey.”

My interesting dining experience at Lat’s Place evoked nostalgic thoughts of Lat and I was determined to dig out our Lat comic books and re-read them.  

I was pleasantly surprised to discover a stack of Lat cartoon books in our cupboard and when I met Ricky and other familiar friends again, I had an attack of irrepressible giggles. 

As I wiped away tears of laughter, I marveled at the wit of Dato’ Mohd Nor Khalid or Dato’ Lat – the Kampung Boy - and his ability to laugh at himself and our Malaysian ways.  

His unique brand of humour is a common thread that binds us together and it’s an eye-opener for us to look for ways to unite ourselves with humour and humility.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 2 April 2013

Lat cartoons are used by kind courtesy of Dato' Lat.

Update: Sanrio Hello Kitty and Lat's Place in Little Red Cube have ceased operations.