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

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