All jazzed up!

Brochure and ticket
for the JB Jazz Fest 2015
From royalty to the most ardent of jazz fans from JB and Singapore, they were gathered under-one-roof in the Grand Ballroom of the DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru last night for the second show of the JB Jazz Fest 2015.  It was the night one of Japan’s greatest jazz musicians, Sadao Watanabe, was going to perform “live” here. 
The moment I step into the lift lobby, I overhear snippets of conversation which I can distinguish as the Japanese language.  It occurs to me that almost the whole Japanese community in JB may turn up to welcome, support and enjoy their own jazz legend who is in our city for his very first show here.  And I’m not wrong.

The ballroom foyer is flooded with clusters of people, many holding onto their precious tickets while others are talking animatedly, mostly in Japanese language.  I recognise some friends from the Japan Club of Johor and several ladies from the JB chapter of Ikebana International, with their families and friends. 

Then I hear my name called out and I turn to see Mihoko Yui making her way towards me in excitement.  We last met in the Japanese Consular office when I was doing a visa application for a travel assignment to Osaka.  She updated me with info that their consular office is now closed and gives me her card to tell me that she is now attached to the Johor Japanese School and also the executive secretary to the Japan Club of Johor. 

I commented to Mihoko that I guess almost the entire Japanese community in JB may be at the show and she nodded with a wide smile.  She did in fact, share the show info with club members and many have turned up.  Mihoko, married to a Malaysian and living in JB for the last 20 years, tells me that she reads my blog regularly and laughs politely as she asks me not to call her a “stalker!”

Event emcee, Allan Fernandez
The evening’s show started promptly as the emcee, Allan Fernandez, announced that the artistes explicitly requested the audience not to do any unofficial photography or video-taping.  He said if members of the media needed any shots, they are to approach the organizers.  So here I am, with my camera safely packed away.  But my eyes and ears are wide open while my pen is poised to jot down any thoughts for reference to write my feature. 

The Italian acapella group, Mezzotono Show, come on stage each holding a cordless microphone to perform with their versatile vocal talents.  Each of the five voices skillfully reproduces the sounds of various instruments to blend in beautiful harmony.  Their repertoire starts with a number of Italian songs and I happily groove along as I recognise a couple of classic pieces like, Hey Mambo and Quando Quando

As the audience gets warmed up, they readily respond to the artistes’ antics in a comical and interactive approach to draw them out to participate in the performance.  The classic, Smile, performed by David Gomes at the media preview last night so inspired Mezzotono that they decided to put their acapella twist to it for a rendition in their unique 5-part harmony. 

The five voice talents in Mezzotono Show
The lyrics of Smile, a classic written by Charlie Chaplin and made popular by Nat King Cole, reminded me to smile (though your heart is aching…) because at this point, I can feel my blood beginning to boil.  That’s because a couple who arrived late and did not hear the announcement about no photography or video taking – was pointing their mobile phone at the stage!  No prizes for the right guess about what they are doing!

I’m already peeved by two young couples seated in the row in front of me, who also have their phones out and are shifting about, taking selfies and we-fies, which adds to my annoyance about the kind of audience who just needs to be more considerate.  I guess some of the event crew also observed such recalcitrant behaviour and later positioned themselves at strategic points in the ballroom to check on any non-compliance.

Mezzotono ended their show neatly with the audience participating in a little ditty, Mahna Mahna, a tune that first appeared in a 1968 Italian film but was made popular by muppet characters in the Sesame Street series.  The audience is having fun with the melody and its nonsense syllables that resemble scat singing and eagerly participating by calling out, Mahna Mahna, on cue.  As the song draws to a close, the loud applause is proof of how Mezzotono Show has clearly won over the audience in JB!

Sadao Watanabe with his alto saxaphone

After a short break, the show continued with Sadao Watanabe and his band.  The audience warmly welcomed 82-year old Sadao with a sense of reverence as he is a much revered cultural personality in Japan.  He was also the first jazz musician to win his government’s Grand Prix Award in 1976, the first of many national and regional Japanese honours. 

Playing the alto saxophone with his top-notch band comprising the versatile Akira Onozuka on piano and keyboards, Takashi Yofu on electric guitar, Kiichiro Komobuchi on electric bass guitar, Masaharu Ishikawa on drums, N’diasse Niang on percussion with Steve Thornton as guest percussionist, they keep the audience bopping with fingers snapping and feet tapping.  For the next 80 minutes, the audience is enthralled by a non-stop show with many of Sadao’s own compositions that range from bop and swing to bossa nova and jazz-rock tunes. 

It’s a reunion of sorts for Sadao and Steve who first performed together in Malaysia back in 1989.  At that time Steve, who hails from Brooklyn, New York, did not even know where Malaysia was situated.  It’s very rare to see three percussionists performing together in one band but in this show, the audience thrilled to the treat of enjoying the combined talents of drummer Masaharu Ishikawa, Senegalese percussionist, N’diasse Niang, and Steve Thornton!

JSPA royal patron, Tunku Aminah [2nd from
Left] with JSPA founder, Yap Siong Cheng
[Far Right] and Suzie Yap [2nd from Right]
Sadao closed the show by introducing his band again and as each member takes a bow, the audience is on their feet and the applause simply thunderous.  With due respect to the presence of the JSPA royal patron, I hesitate to yell, “Encore” but a few others shouts something, probably in Japanese.  In response, Sadao and his pianist, Akira, stand together at the microphone to belt out a short Japanese tune that sounds like a traditional folk song.  This draws more applause and after the band leaves the stage, the audience slowly trickles out, deeply touched by the music and magic of Sadao Watanabe.

In the final show of the inaugural JB Jazz Fest on Feb 28, Steve Thornton and his band, Afro Asia, will be joined by local saxophonist, Razak Rahman.  Singapore musician, Jeremy Monteiro and Italian, Alberto Marsico with the Jazz-Blues Brothers and the Xiong Quartet will also perform.  For more info and tickets, please contact Tel: 6019 – 713 9900 or email:


Jazzing it up in JB

David Gomes and Junji Delfino jazzing up a duet at
the first show of the JB Jazz Fest last night
The much anticipated inaugural JB Jazz Festival kicked off with a media preview of some of the exciting acts in the star-studded lineup for a taste of what to expect in the Jazz Fest.  Held at the Grand Ballroom of DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru, the event was graced by Her Royal Highness, YAM Tunku Aminah Sultan Ibrahim, the Royal Patron of the Johor Society for the Performing Arts (JSPA). 

In her opening address, she commended the JSPA for organising the JB Jazz Fest, the first in a series of festivals under the Johor Baru: International Festival City (JB:IFC) initiative.  She also congratulated them for bringing together a good mix of local, regional and international jazz artistes to perform in the festival.

The Royal Patron of JSPA flanked by JSPA founder Yap
Siong Cheng [2nd from Left] and Tourism Johor Director,
Dr Haji Badrul Hisham Kassim [2nd from Right] at the event
Director of Tourism Johor, Dr Haji Badrul Hisham Kassim, is proud that the JB Jazz Fest coincides with the 20th World Kite Festival held at Bukit Layang-Layang, just a 30-minute drive from the city.  He hoped that the jazz artistes who visited the Kite Fest that day had an enjoyable experience.  As more festivals are lined up for the year, he said visitors to JB can look forward to enjoy a host of attractions for family fun, urban lifestyle and heritage sites in the city.

The festivals planned for this year include the JB Classical Music Festival (May 1 – 3), the Unity Drums Festival featuring JB’s own 24 Festive Drums (June 5 – 6), the first ever JB Film Festival (June 11 – 13), the 12th JB Arts Fest with Fringe Festival (Sept 10 – Oct 9) and the JB Food and Visual Arts Festival from October to December 2015.

From US, Steve Thornton [Right] will
perform with Malaysian jazz star,
Razak Rahman, winner of Bakat TV
at the tender age of 12
“The JB:IFC perfectly complements the government’s initiative in promoting the Malaysia Year of Festivals (MYFest) 2015,” said founder of JSPA and organiser of the JB Arts Fest, Yap Siong Cheng.  “In the last 12 years, the JB Arts Fest has grown in size and stature while the city of Johor Baru, driven by Iskandar Malaysia, has also grown rapidly,” he added. 

He said JB:IFC is important because as the city expands its local and international reach, so must it continue to embrace and promote the arts as well as showcase the rich, historical culture of Johor and Malaysia to its many residents and visitors.

In the 4-day JB Jazz Fest from Feb 26 to March 1, connoisseurs of jazz in JB will have a real treat to experience the different styles presented by the artistes.  For more info and tickets, please contact Tel: 6019 – 713 9900 or email:

The Mezzotono Show are five voices from Italy who will perform acapella
Don't miss the live performances every night from Feb 26 to 28, with a Sunday Brunch Jazz show on March 1
at DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru


Yum cha at Wan Li

A variety of freshly made dim sum served
at Wan Li Chinese Restaurant
The Cantonese phrase, yum cha, literally means “drink tea” but the phrase also refers to the entire meal of drinking tea and eating dim sum, a range of small, savoury and sweet dishes.  Unlike the way we enjoy a hearty yum cha meal nowadays, the tradition of a yum cha breakfast in Hong Kong is a simple meal of two small dishes and drinking tea while reading the morning newspapers.  And usually, it’s the old men who enjoy an early start with a leisurely yum cha.

While this tradition may still prevail in some small towns here, the trend of eating small portions of dim sum is gaining popularity even among non-Chinese.  So when a Muslim friend invites me for brunch, I’m pleasantly surprised that she suggests we yum cha at Wan Li Chinese Restaurant in the Renaissance Johor Baru Hotel. 

A bamboo basket of Wan Li's "smiling" paus!
I’m familiar with Wan Li as I was recently there for the introduction of a new menu of their contemporary Cantonese cuisine.  Helmed by award-winning Chef de Cuisine Khairuzzaman Ahmad Hadzri, the Cantonese food prepared at Wan Li is the collective effort of a team led by Dim Sum Sous Chef Go Yong Jia, Chinese Sous Chef Alan Choong Wah Loon and Chef de Partie Tee Jerri.  

At the event, I witnessed how the chefs created exquisitely handmade dim sum before savouring their meticulous handiwork.  Now I can better appreciate the skillful art of dim sum making as I bite into each delectable piece!

Wu kok, deep-fried yam pastries filled with chicken char siew
It’s good that my friend invited her daughter, Farah, along because many types of dim sum are served with three pieces per dish and this is just right for us to share our meal.  With more people sharing, it’s an opportunity to eat a wider variety of dim sum.  But even eating only one piece each of an item, we may end up eating more but this is justified in a yum cha meal!

We enjoy a smooth drive to the Renaissance JB via the Permas Jaya Bridge and park in the multi-level carpark before taking an elevator down to the lobby where Wan Li is located.  An aquarium filled with ornamental fish marks the entrance to the restaurant.  As we are ushered to our table in the modern Chinese restaurant, I can feel my feet sinking into the plush carpet.  The waitress leaves us with the ala carte and dim sum menu and an order form to make our choices.  

Shanghai dumplings with a side of vinegar dip
She also recommends the All You Can Eat dim sum lunch promotion at RM39.99++ per person, which is certainly a good deal for big eaters.  None of us have the space for so much food so we opted to order from the ala carte menu.  The beauty about eating dim sum is the diners’ choice to eat as much or as little as we want. 

So while my friend and her daughter pick their favourites, I am the scribe – poised with pencil to tick the boxes in the order form.  Farah and I wanted some noodles too so she picked the Wan Li seafood noodles.  As more tables around us are being filled by guest arrivals, I’m glad that we are one step ahead of them because the kitchen will prepare each order as they are received so that dim sum are served freshly made. 

 A serving of fried carrot cake
Seated comfortably in Wan Li, we can hear pleasant instrumental piped-in music with snatches of conversation from around us.  I told Farah that in traditional yum cha places in Hong Kong, the noise can be deafening because a variety of dim sum stacked in bamboo baskets, are kept in steamers built on trolleys and waitresses will stroll around the restaurant pushing the trolleys to serve at tables.  They will call out, “siew mai, har gau,” the names of popular dim sum, to promote the items to diners.  Imagine the noise as diners call for more food, the warmth from steamy trolleys and the busy movement of several trolleys for various types of dim sum being served at tables!

Stir-fried Wan Li seafood noodles
Our orders for steamed siew mai or minced meat dumplings, and har gau or whole prawns steamed in pleated pouches, are served first.  Three types of sauces: sweet chillie, sweet dark sauce and roasted spicy chillie, are provided for us to add more flavour to the dim sum.  Deep-fried dumplings made with yam and stuffed with chicken char siew called wu kok, are light and delicious.  When the bamboo basket of steamed chicken char siew pau is served, I’m impressed with the fluffy pastry because there is an art in getting the pastry to split beautifully into what is fondly called, “smiling” paus!

Dim sum dessert of deep-fried pastries filled with lotus paste
I can understand that Farah is not too excited over the vinegar dip topped with slivers of ginger for the Shanghai dumplings because vinegar is an acquired taste.  I assured her that the fried dumpling tastes good on its own and encouraged her to enjoy the dumpling but forget that dip.  

The fried carrot cake, generously stir-fried with bean sprouts, chives, egg and a hint of spicy chillie, is clearly a big hit because we cleaned out that plate quite quickly.  When the noodles are served, I can see whole big prawns and help to apportion a prawn each with the noodles among us to do justice to this dish.

The team at Wan Li Chinese Restaurant in the Renaissance Johor Baru Hotel is ready to serve you!
I’m feeling quite full but the yum cha is not over until we end it sweetly.  Our dessert of sesame seed coated, deep-fried pastries filled with lotus paste is served on a long plate with three pieces – just right for sharing.  I congratulate myself for using my fingers rather than the chopsticks as delicious filling is oozing out on my first bite.  After we neatly finish our dim sum dessert, we sit back to sip brewed tea, wearing wide smiles of satisfaction.

Wan Li is a halal Chinese restaurant in Renaissance Johor Baru hotel located at 2, Jalan Permas 11, Bandar Baru Permas Jaya.  For reservations, Tel: 607 – 381 3333.  Visit website:


Our Aural Heritage

The artiste, Chong Keat Aun, lifting a
cup of coffee up to his upstairs window
Weekends are for hanging out at favourite coffee-shops for a leisurely breakfast of soft-boiled eggs and kaya toast with hot drinks, just as we did in olden days.  It’s no different at Kim Wah kopitiam which is doing brisk business with customers seated at extra tables that line the pavements, competing for space with a fast-gathering crowd here.  Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk is temporarily closed to vehicular traffic and the centre of the road is covered with something like a red carpet but on looking closer, I see it’s a 90m length of solid red cloth. 

The crowd swelled in a matter of minutes and suddenly all attention is riveted to two opened upstairs windows opposite the kopitiam.  The artiste’s dramatically painted face peeping out from one window sent cameras clicking.  His voice audaciously calls out an order for coffee in Teochew dialect and it is quickly served onto a rattan basket that he lowered from the window.  The cup and saucer are slowly lifted up and when it was safely received, the audience cheered!

A scene in the dramatic experimental dance along
Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk for the opening of
The Classic Accents Art House in Eh He - Earth Heart
A flutist appears at the next window and as his mesmerizing music fills the air, he joins the artiste on the street for a dramatic dance performance.  The artiste – his face painted in dual male and female character – wearing batik pantaloons, a tiny top reminiscent of ancient Chinese lady’s underwear and an elaborate head-dress, puts down his leather suitcase and torn paper umbrella and removes his wooden clogs to perform an exciting experimental dance along the entire length of red cloth.  At the opposite end, he is joined by a calligraphist who writes an auspicious couplet on the cloth in bold black paint.  

To end his dance, the artist opens a wooden box to reveal an ancient gramophone’s turntable which he winds up.  And when he sets the needle to the vinyl record, we can hear classic Chinese opera music!

The design of the gallery's name is inspired by an
old window grille from a nearby fabric shop!
The Talents

The artiste is RTM Ai FM DJ & Producer, Chong Keat Aun, a gifted visual artist and street performer who is adding JB’s Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk to the many sites he has performed in Penang, Malacca and Kuala Lumpur.  After Chong removed his makeup and emerged in his street clothes, I almost didn’t recognise him.  He is speaking in Mandarin to the Chinese media and even though I don’t understand all he’s saying, I’m lulled by the rich timbre in his voice and remind myself that he’s a radio personality who uses his voice to soothe and entertain listeners.

Chong learnt contemporary dance with a dance theatre group since 2000 and six years ago, he started doing street performances mostly at KL’s Petaling Street and one of his most unforgettable performances was the last dance for Pudu Jail before it was demolished.  

Calligraphist, Pang Heng Khan, writing
while the artiste performed on the street
His dance performances are choreographed to the music performed by flutist and composer, Yii Kah Hoe who hails from Sibu, Sarawak.  This morning’s powerful performance illustrates the journey through a bygone era to preserve and present aural heritage at The Classic Accents Art House.  The dance culminated in the writing of an auspicious couplet by Pang Heng Khan, a skilled calligraphist who is no stranger to Johor as he has previously collaborated in various events with the talents from Lee Wushu Arts Theatre.

Chong’s foray into visual arts includes a series of award-winning photographs taken at Petaling Street by photographer Calvin Yew Pin Shi.  This successful collaboration resulted in another series of poignant photographs taken at familiar JB heritage sites.  These are displayed in The Classic Accents Art House from now till March 31.  One of my favourite shots is Chong, dressed in his dramatic attire, photographed against a backdrop of concrete crumbles and part of the river at the reopening of Sungai Segget that was closed up as a pedestrian walk since 2005.

The audience followed the artiste as he
performed along the road
The Inspiration

Chong is Cantonese but he’s fluent in Teochew, a dialect he learnt from his grandmother and he was exposed to Teochew opera and stage makeup from an early age.  Aware that more and more Chinese dialects are being lost with the passing of elderly folks, Chong embarked on a project to collect sounds, mainly in traditional music, to curate for posterity.  

As a radio personality, Chong is inclined to research our aural landscape and has garnered a vast collection of sounds in various forms of recordings to document the genres and traditional uses in our communities.  The Chinese have music and songs for most festivals and events like sowing, harvesting, the winter solstice, sending back the kitchen god, post reunion dinner and of course, the lunar new year!

The Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) in China wiped out a great deal of traditional opera, music and customs as literature and written records were destroyed and any traditions were only passed down through word-of-mouth because practice was prohibited.  As a result new generations in China are unfamiliar with what is authentic or unique about their dialects.  

A section of the display in The Classic
Accents Art House in Eh He - Earth Heart
His research revealed that dialect groups in the Malaysian Chinese community have in effect, preserved more authentic traditions here than in China.  In the past 10 years his passion for collecting sounds has taken him around the country to discover the language and music of the various dialect groups which are truly a valuable resource. 

I agree with Chong that even in Malaysia, each dialect is spoken differently by region like or it may vary in different states.  For instance, Penang Hokkien hardly resembles the Hokkien spoken in JB and the Cantonese words for money or currency in Perak are different from the same words used in Johor.  

Chong observed that Chinese dialects are often spoken with different accents in different states as most have adopted Malay words and even words from other dialects to form a rojak dialect.  As dialects are constantly evolving, Chong is keen to acquaint new generations with our aural heritage in an interesting audio showcase at The Classic Accents Art House.

Chong Keat Aun showing off an old vinyl record in his
precious collection of sounds in our aural heritage
The Art House                     

The sight of familiar transistor radios displayed in the Art House gives me a sudden flashback to childhood days when my grandma would tune in regularly to listen to popular Cantonese storyteller, Lei Tai Soh.  The Classic Accents exhibition is truly a labour of love, carefully curated by Chong to showcase a priceless aural heritage that was enjoyed by Chinese communities here before televisions became popular.  In the 1940s to the 1960s, it was common for Chinese to master more than their own dialect in order to communicate with others for business and social purposes.  A classic example of this era is preserved in a popular 1950s multi-dialect radio comedy sketch by a 4-member troupe, the precursor for the successful TV series Empat Sekawan that ran for two decades until the 1980s.

Teochew opera songs are sung acapella by
women from lyric books!
Chong’s excitement is infectious as he shows me the various audio stations where recordings of Empat Sekawan and a range of Chinese operas are available for visitors to listen to from headphones.  The wail of the chorus in typical Teochew operas transports me right back to my Ah Kong or grandfather’s house where he used to enjoy singing along to his favourite operas.  Listening to another set of headphones, I instantly recognise a familiar genre of Chinese poetry recited to the rhythm of a repetitive “tock tock” of chopsticks which I playfully call Chinese rap!

I hear a recording of female voices singing a cappella (I’m told) in Teochew and am fascinated that this may be the earliest form of karaoke.  Chong tells me how he rescued stacks of precious lyric books that were about to be burnt in Pulau Ketam.  In predominantly Teochew settlements, villagers usually buy a copy of the lyric books after watching the operas and it was customary for a few women to gather in the porch after dinner, to sing the songs a cappella!

Chong and his valuable collection of
Nanyang Radio Weekly magazines
Each station in the Art House is presented with an old radio cassette player plugged with a thumb-drive to play a loop of the recordings.  Relevant info about the recording is provided on plaques and old but colourful record sleeves as well as heritage bric-a-brac decorate each station.  

Then Chong shows me his priceless collection of Nanyang Radio Weekly magazines dated from 1950 to 1963, displayed on the shelves of an old meat-safe.  In those days, this was an essential magazine for radio buffs to follow their favourite radio series as it was filled with radio programme schedules, ads, sections to learn Malay and English languages and even featured a regular racy photo in the ilk of Page 3 girls!

Fast Facts

Exhibits in the Classic Accents Art House will be refreshed every two months.  The Art House is located within Eh He (colloquially pronounced: Uh Huh) – Earth Heart, at No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, Jalan Trus, Johor Baru.  Open daily from 11am to 10pm.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 19 February 2015

Old but hip

If you are familiar with Johor Baru, then you know that Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is a road that runs parallel to Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Dhoby.  OCBC Bank – the bank for Johor’s pioneer overseas Chinese – marks one end of the road while the opposite end of this road faces HSBC – a bank with its roots in Hong Kong and Shanghai.  

Road signs with an info plaque
at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee in Johor Baru
My earliest memory of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is buying bread from Hiap Joo, a traditional charcoal oven bakery.  I would sit in the backseat of dad’s VW Beetle as he drives downtown to stop in front of the bakery, call out his order, “Ngiau kai!” (Hainanese for “small one”) and the baker would pass a loaf to us through the open car window.  And when my sisters and I were sick, mum would take us to consult a lady doctor there who had a private practice at Low’s Clinic. 

This area, linked with a network of roads like Jalan Trus and Jalan Pahang, was once a thriving metropolis where banks, lawyers, offices and traders like coffee-shops, restaurants, provision stores, fabric merchants, electrical suppliers, dry-cleaners, stationers, barbers, hairdressers and other services operated.  

Entrance to Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk from Jalan Trus

Over the years, many shops closed or moved to the suburbs and only a handful of traditional traders remain.  When the Johor Bahru Tiong-Hua Association moved to their new building in Taman Sri Tebrau, their old premises here were refurbished and opened as the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum.  At its official opening in 2009, the Johor Menteri Besar declared Jalan Tan Hiok Nee as a Heritage Walk and this area gradually transformed into a destination which is now popular with both local and foreign visitors.
I often bring my guests to the Heritage Museum with a tour of the pre-war shops in the Heritage Walk and tell them about the Teochew kangchu and Major China of Johor, Tan Hiok Nee (1827 – 1902), the leader of the Ngee Heng Kongsi of Johor, and why this road was named after him.  

A sign at Hiap Joo Bakery to help
control shoping crowds at peak hours!
He was responsible for transforming this kongsi or society, from a quasi-military revolutionary brotherhood into an organization of kangchus or river lords and revenue farmers for pepper and gambier, the first economic crops that brought tremendous wealth to Johor.  Tan Hiok Nee, a trusted friend of Sultan Abu Bakar, was appointed Major China of Johor, a governmental position created for him, as well as a member to the Council of State and the first Chinese to receive the title of Dato’ Seri Paduka Mahkota Johor.

Cultural Nights

To attract more visitors to the Heritage Walk, cultural events were presented free-of-charge on Saturday nights from 2009 to 2014.  In the evening, the road was closed to vehicular traffic to encourage more pedestrians to enjoy the street carnival activities.  Tan Chai Puan, one of the founders of the art of 24 Festive Drums, a cultural activist and Heritage Walk committee member, would brief me in advance and I often joined in the fun at many festivals and cultural events.  Tan and I met recently for coffee in a new café here and we reminisced on how this area has developed, particularly when the landmark Red House at No. 56 became a focal point and a stage was set up in front for a range of open-air shows.

The landmark Red House at No. 56
at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
I remember watching Dodo, a multi-talented artist from Harbin, China, who enthralled the audience with his dramatic mask-changing performance.  The momentum and mystery of the art added to the magic of that evening and he continued to thrill the audience with more amazing feats like blowing up the rubber tube of a truck tyre using a single nostril until the tube burst.  This prolific entertainer went on to play the saxophone, trumpet and traditional Chinese flute – with his mouth – and still had enough breath to belt out a few popular Chinese songs!

Another unforgettable performance was the exciting showcase of martial arts mixed with modern dance in “Farewell, My Concubine – The Movement of the Martyr,” a stunning blend of wushu, dance, theatre and visual arts, presented by the professional troupe from Lee Wushu Arts Theatre & Workshop.  Their performance at the open-air stage captivated the audience for almost two hours as they discovered the beauty and power of wushu in such an artistic show. 

Leong Yew Stationers are still in business at
Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
Saturday night regulars enjoyed a range of cultural performances in music and dance and just like them, I will never forget the energetic traditional dance, Yang Ge Wu or the “Dance for Sowing Seedlings”, by a troop from China.  This is an open square-dance that portrays the 108 Heroes of the Water Margin, performed in a parade of two parallel rows with dancers twirling short wooden sticks to the sound of drums, gongs and cymbals, along with segments of singing, dancing and martial arts.  
Tan is proud that for two consecutive years, 2012 (Dragon) and 2013 (Snake), Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk was among other locations in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Malacca and Kuching featured in the exciting lunar new year live TV countdowns by Astro AEC channel.  

Tan Chai Puan [Left] introducing exhibits in the JB
Chinese Heritage Museum to guests from Johor Tourism
I share Tan’s sentiment that this is proof that JB is developing out of its border town image as the inherent charm of Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk is pulling more people to this part of our city.  Tan said its success is the impetus for the committee to develop nearby roads in the next phase.

Traditional Traders

I’m both amused and sad that business is so brisk at Hiap Joo Bakery & Biscuit Factory now that a sign was put up to control large crowds and long queues at peak hours.  Many times I popped in to buy my favourite banana cake but left empty-handed because it was all sold out.  Products run out too fast probably because customers buy multiple packs to enjoy and distribute to others.  Regulars who simply can’t wait to taste the freshly-baked goodies often emerge from the bakery and conveniently step across the road to savour their cake and buns with hot coffee or tea at Kim Wah kopitiam

Chaiwalla & Co serving customers at their container cafe
On Jalan Dhoby, Salahuddin Bakery bakes in a similar charcoal oven and also enjoys a loyal clientele for their range of breads, cakes, spicy samosa and sugee biscuits.  It Roo Café, a family restaurant opposite, reputed as the place for “The Best Chicken Chop in Town” is one of the oldest Hainanese restaurants in the city and packed with customers especially at meal times. 

Old businesses like Leong Yew Stationers, established since 1955, are still open for business here.  A clock and watch shop is proud of their original signboard, now displayed indoors, as they continue doing business with regular customers.  

Art52Gallery at No. 52 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
has a little cafe upstairs, Art52Coffee
Bharath Store sells a wide range of provisions and still offers biscuits sold by weight from a stack of large tins, each filled with different types of biscuits.  Next door, ST Cargo & Travels, is an agency that specializes in outbound tours to India.  Further along the road, two shops stock such a wide range of products that they are virtually mini department stores where you can buy a suitcase to pack all you need for travel.

Cool New Places

I remember the buzz Roost Juice & Bar created when they opened for business at Jalan Dhoby because this retro-style café is furnished with an eclectic choice of mismatched furniture. The owner, Sea Wong, told me that he used to drive around residential areas and if he spotted any discarded furniture, he would collect them to refurbish for his café.  His penchant for salvaging old furniture and fittings led him to open Roost Repurposed & Recycled nearby for snacks, salad and good coffee.  The décor here is a showcase of his crafting skills in recycling material for reuse.

Beverly Bee and Cally Chin at Bev C
A new vitality slowly seeped into Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk as trendy hairdressers, small boutiques and chic cafes opened.  My Little Corner is where Elvis Long has a tiny space for his hair salon.  Then Nazrul Hakim Putra and his team set up Chaiwalla & Co, a container café that serves a range of teas at the edge of a parking lot.  Beverly Bee partnered with Cally Chin to set up Bev C that has a stylish boutique on the ground floor with a café upstairs.  Not long after that, Maco Vintage Café opened next to Hiap Joo Bakery and serves a meal menu as well as coffee with a selection of cakes. 

No 52 started as a gallery for events organised by the Heritage Museum and was often leased to artists.  A year ago Eric Tan and his artist wife, Grace Lim, took over the premises and gradually transformed it into Art52Gallery.  Then barista Ang Yee Siang set up Art52Coffee in the upstairs gallery to serve his hand-brewed artisanal coffees.

Facade of Eh He seen from Jalan Ibrahim
Recently Tan introduced me to a group of artists who have transformed seven units of old shops at the top of Jalan Trus that also has road frontage at Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, to develop Eh He (colloquially pronounced: Uh Huh) – Earth Heart.  The Ink Brew by Just Want Coffee occupies the ground floor while the upstairs is a café and gallery dubbed, The Classic Accents Art House, a space dedicated to showcasing the work of homegrown artists.

As I sip my brew of designer coffee at The Ink Brew, I can’t help but agree with Tan that this is the epitome of JB’s young creative minds coming together to create something special to preserve culture and heritage through their art.  

As Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk is drawing clusters of creative minds here to give new life to old buildings, it’s heartwarming to see how old and new businesses continue to thrive in multi-racial harmony just as they did in a bygone era.  It’s delightful to witness such an evolution and I wonder what kangchu and Major China of Johor, Tan Hiok Nee, will say if he knew that a road named after him has turned into a hip and happening place in Johor Baru!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times, on 19 February 2015