Save Wong Ah Fook mansion

A pencil and ink sketch of the Wong Ah Fook mansion by
Buzz Walker-Teach, and art lecturer with Raffles University
Iskandar, Nusajaya
While I was travelling last weekend, I received a phone call from Tan Chai Puan, a local cultural activist who was instrumental in the transformation of the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk into a cultural hub in the heart of old Johor Baru. 

As the Head of the Arts & Cultural Development Department of Southern University College and an Advisor to the Malaysia-China Arts & Cultural Association, Tan is passionate about the preservation of Chinese heritage in Johor Baru and naturally concerned about the Wong Ah Fook mansion.  He knew I would be interested in the latest news because I highlighted Wong Ah Fook and the Johor Baru Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery in a recent feature, “Former clan house is heritage gallery” (NST, Feb 11).

A watercolour painting of Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
that features the Red House by Taib Aur
Needless to say, I was deeply distressed to learn that the historic mansion may soon be demolished to make way for development.  I’m a proud Johorean and often show my visitors the new developments in JB as well as our heritage sites but my heart always aches at the sight of the dilapidated state of the Wong Ah Fook mansion.  It is a building of considerable historic significance but yet the owners have allowed it to fall into ruin and now it is slated for destruction.

As a travel writer with a heart for heritage, I advocate preservation and the promotion of culture and heritage not only as tourist attractions but for the knowledge and education of every new generation of people.  Some of us often pay good money to travel to foreign destinations to enjoy visits to historical sites with castles, churches, cemeteries and old buildings to soak in their culture and heritage and come away enriched by fond memories and more knowledge about their local history.  In the same way, tourists here can also appreciate the heart and soul of our city when they come to see our well preserved heritage sites and buildings.

In JB, we have a rich history with a cross-cultural wealth in heritage buildings and while a lot still needs to be done, the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk has been transformed into an attraction for local and foreign visitors.  JB’s uniquely religious Chingay parade has attracted such keen interest among the Chinese in China that their journalists and TV crews now come to cover the event annually to be broadcast as documentaries in China.  Incidentally I also learnt that this year’s Chingay event attracted interest from journalists and photographers from National Geographic magazine as well as the Wall Street Journal!

Photo of Wong Ah Fook preserved in the Kwong Siew
Heritage Gallery at Jalan Siu Nam, Johor Baru
Over the years as I worked with leaders of the JB Tiong Hua Association to garner information for my stories, I learnt about the Chinese contribution to the economic development of Johor and their role in transforming JB from virtually a jungle into a thriving township in the 1800s.  The strong bond between the Chinese and Malay communities here started with the good relationship between the Johor Royal family and the early Chinese immigrants that established the peace and harmony that is distinctive in Johor. 

Wong Ah Fook, a carpenter turned builder, entrepreneur and philanthropist, became the chief government contractor and is credited for building the magnificent Istana Besar or Grand Palace, Istana Zahariah, Balai Zahariah and the JB Prison among other significant buildings in JB.

The Wong Ah Fook mansion in an ink and watercolour sketch by
Mohd Hafizal Nordin
Since the news, “Historic mansion may soon be history” (Star, April 4) was reported about the impending destruction of the 150-year old Wong Ah Fook mansion, my Johor Sketchers friends shared their beautiful sketches of the old mansion with me.  Their passion for sketching has led them to capture some of the most iconic scenes that are unique to Johor which they plan to compile into a valuable resource on Johor life and landscapes.  These sketches of the old mansion so clearly portrayed its turn-of-the-century architecture – an aesthetic that is so rare in this region – that it compels me to share them because of its huge potential to be transformed into a place of pride in our city.

A watercolour version of the Wong Ah Fook mansion by Taib Aur,
local sketch artist and co-founder of the Johor Sketchers
The social media was also rife with comments that expressed concern over the decision to demolish the old mansion.  One of the comments referred to an Iskandar development report on JB Transformation Day dated July 11, 2013 where Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin said, and I quote: “Old and new elements would co-exist in the city centre under this transformation project.  Conserving old buildings with significant historical and architectural elements is important in addition to the new developments.”  Bearing the sentiments of the Johor Menteri Besar in mind, I hope the developers involved with the project at Bukit Meldrum will apply their architectural expertise to design a development that honours Wong Ah Fook’s legacy in JB and preserve his mansion by turning it into the project’s unique centerpiece.

Wong came here as a 17-year old carpenter, got involved with the kangchu agricultural system that built the State’s economy and ended up partnering with the Sultan to build some of our city’s more important buildings.  We must value our shared cultural heritage and history by honouring his legacy because his contribution to JB was so significant that the main street in our city is named after him.  Preserving the Wong Ah Fook mansion at Bukit Meldrum as a lasting legacy is the first step in the right direction.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 18 April 2014

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