Readers want old mansion saved

Façade of the Wong Ah Fook mansion at Bukit Meldrum
My story, “Save Wong Ah Fook mansion” in NST Streets Johor on Apr 18, evoked different responses from readers but all of them echoed the same sentiment to save the old mansion.  A reader posted my story in a popular social media site and netizens responded with comments, also urging for the preservation of this heritage building.  I can see from their names that people of all races share the same opinion that it is imperative to preserve the Wong Ah Fook mansion because it is part of Johor Baru’s rich history.

Another view of the old mansion
With a daily influx of tourists and travelers who pass through this city – probably along Jalan Wong Ah Fook – before heading north and other destinations, Johor Baru has long been regarded as the Gateway to Peninsular Malaysia.  We must face the reality that foreign tourists do not come here primarily to patronise our modern malls because the brands and merchandise may have originated from their own countries.  They are in fact, more interested in our handicrafts and products of local origin and in visiting sights like our museums, palaces, places of worship and the rows of pre-war and pre-independence shop-houses as well as our heritage buildings.

The elegant arches, airy windows and
original eaves have vast potential
to be restored to their former glory!
I know that public opinion can help to convince the authorities concerned to preserve a heritage building and I’m encouraged that netizens are just one segment of our community who are passionate about preserving our heritage.  When the news broke that the Wong Ah Fook mansion may soon be history, Stulang assemblyman Andrew Chen Kah Eng handed a memorandum to the state government to urge them to preserve the old mansion.  Meanwhile, leaders of the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Associations rallied together to prepare a formal appeal to the Johor Menteri Besar.

Last week the Rotary Club of Johor Baru considered the topic on Wong Ah Fook and the current issue about his mansion in their weekly meeting.  Members who are also passionate about the conservation of local heritage discussed the old mansion’s historical significance and how it can promote culture and heritage not just for tourism but for the benefit of future generations.  As a result of this discussion, a club member who was also former Johor State Executive Councillor and Wakil Rakyat for Gertak Merah (2 terms) and Stulang (3 terms), Datuk Freddie Long Hoo Hin, initiated a campaign to Save the Wong Ah Fook Mansion.

After Senior Consultant Surgeon with the Puteri Specialist Hospital, Dr S. Shanmugam, visited the Wong Ah Fook mansion, he was inspired and wrote me to express his concerns and shared a lovely poem that he penned.  Last Friday, Chen, Long and some media representatives witnessed workers removing debris and dismantling the ugly extensions at the old mansion and observed how its original façade was slowly revealed.  The sight of the elegant arches, airy windows and the original eaves on the roof are the conservationists’ dream simply because of the vast potential for them to be restored to their former glory!

Datin Patricia Lim Pui Huen, great grand
daughter of Wong Ah Fook with some of
the books she wrote about the history of
Johor and her ancestor
Both the government and property owners must understand that conservation of heritage buildings contributes to the emotional ties of the local people and their sensitivity towards the past.  As such, the authorities should act in the people’s interest to find solutions to enable our heritage buildings to be conserved while the property owners are not deprived of enjoying the value of the property.  Conservation work is expensive and the corporation that owns the old mansion should be given a package of incentives and tax breaks to help them with the building’s restoration work.

Incidentally I was at a Soroptimist International JB event last week where Datin Patricia Lim Pui Huen, the great-grand daughter of Wong Ah Fook, was a guest speaker.  She is a professional historian and author of several well researched books including, Wong Ah Fook - Immigrant, Builder and Entrepreneur (Times Editions 2002) and Johor – Local History, Local Landscapes 1855 to 1957 (Straits Times Press 2009).  After the event, we had a chat and I could sense her distress as she told me how she replied to the Chinese media who approached her for comments about the old mansion.

The former main wet market in Kuala Lumpur was preserved and adapted for reuse in 1986 as Central Market, a commercial cultural centre to showcase Malaysian traditional handicrafts, and is now a popular destination for both locals and foreign tourists.  This was achieved through the efforts of the Malaysian Heritage Society, the precursor of Badan Warisan Malaysia, which has expanded its heritage conservation work to Malacca and Georgetown in Penang – cities declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2008. 
Once the junk and debris are removed, the mansion's
graceful architecture will be clearly revealed
While heritage societies have been formed by Malaysians in Taiping, Perak and Sabah who are actively involved in conserving and preserving their local heritage, it is heart-warming to see how Johoreans are emerging with an earnest desire to conserve our precious heritage. 

They include under-graduates from the UTM Architecture faculty who are keen to study the old mansion and have joined the voices calling for the building conservation but this does not mean we want to stop development.  The government is the guardian of cultural and natural resources and they must use policies, laws, plans and guidelines to ensure the long-term sustainability of these resources.  Just as an old wet market was transformed into the vibrant Central Market in KL, the corporation that owns the old mansion must consider the unique potential of how the Wong Ah Fook mansion can be adapted for use as a shining centerpiece to add more value to their modern development.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 29 April 2014


By Dr. S. Shanmugam

Folks of Johor Bahru, come one, come all,
Rally and heed to the clarion call.
Preserve please Ah Fook's Mansion
Historic it is, within our dimension.

Built a hundred and fifty years ago,
On Bukit Meldrum strategically so.
Overlooking the Johor Straits, so calm,
From his verandah, a view to embalm.

A 29 room mansion of solid red bricks from Britain,
clever wooden louvres, railings, flooring still certain,
their elegance amidst this unfortunate decrepit state.
Its Johor’s past and present, preserve it at any rate!

A builder of some veritable calibre,
Earlier came he as a novice carpenter.
Built he, the Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque,
And other stately buildings as a task.

An arterial road so named honours him,
Divides the city, east and west in trim.
A great grandson, Peter Wong, espied recently,
A heritage Mansion, preserve it for posterity.

Alas as woeful news for his Mansion surfaced,
Oh, will it be torn down, oh dear, I grimaced!

Yes, dilapidated and run down, it is, I agree,
but do not tear it down for the sake of history.


At about 4.40pm on Thursday, 1 May 2014, I received a telephone call from Dr Shan who told me that the old mansion was being demolished!  He shared this photo of the demolition site.  The old mansion is no more.



  1. Sadly, it's no longer there...

  2. This is so tragic - many years of rich history gone because of the greed of the landowners. It could've been moved to somewhere else if development needs to be done. So sad to read it's gone. Our children will never get the chance to see all these ever again.

  3. Johor Bahru is older or maybe as old as Penang, but Penang conserve the old building, while Johor Bahru demolished them all. Even the beach, the Pantai Lido is gone forever.. Johor is the only state in the Peninsular Malaysia that have west coast, south coast and east coast, but Johor Bahru choose to destroyed the only beach left , the Pantai Lido and the Stulang Laut. While Penang conserved the Pantai Tanjung Bungah and Batu Feringgi. 30 years ago Pantai Lido is as famous as the Pantai Tanjung Bungah