Explore JB's Street of Harmony

If you have visited small towns, local or abroad, you will notice that each settlement has a shrine or place of worship as their social centre and particularly in European towns, there will inevitably be a Church Road.  

Steeple of the Church of Immaculate
Conception at Jalan Gereja, JB
Johor Baru is no different because we too have a Jalan Gereja.  The original simple, modest structure for the towering Church of Immaculate Conception (CIC) here dates back to 1883.  To better appreciate the religious and cultural unity that exists in our community, take a walking tour from Jalan Gereja down Jalan Trus to Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Duke to discover fresh insights on our Street of Harmony.

CIC is the oldest church in JB with the original church built on the same site donated by Sultan Abu Bakar known as the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes.  When the present building, designed in British Colonial architecture was completed in 1921, the old building was used as a funeral parlour.  The marble statue of Our Lady, a gift from Sultan Ibrahim (1895 to 1959), still occupies a place of pride in front.

In the early 1960’s, a one-storey parish hall was built to cater to more activities in the church.  With the increasing number of parishioners, children’s catechism classes were held in borrowed premises in neighbouring St Joseph’s School.  Recently an extension designed with modern facilities in the Notre Dame Hall, was built with a multi-purpose hall, funeral parlour, classrooms, seminar and meeting rooms and guestrooms as well as priests’ living quarters.

The Presbyterian Holy Light Church at nearby Jalan Gertak Merah, was founded by Presbyterian missionary, Reverend John Angus Bethune Cook in 1886.  Started by British missionaries fluent in Teochew dialect to minister to the Chinese-speaking community here, it is the oldest Chinese-speaking church in Malaysia.  Cook was helped by Scotsman, James Meldrum who was the son-in-law of Reverend Benjamin Keasberry, a tutor to Sultan Abu Bakar.

In 1860 Meldrum established the Johor Steam Sawmill at the mouth of Sungai Segget to process timber harvested from the jungle in Johor that was being opened by farmers for pepper and gambier cultivation in the kangchu system.  The steam sawmill was JB’s first industry and its timber was exported to China, Mauritius, Java and India where it supplied sleepers for the Indian railways.  When Sultan Abu Bakar presented the church with land at Jalan Gertak Merah, Meldrum supplied timber to build the original church which is now used as the Youth Hall.

The Church had a small English service for the Meldrum family and other expatriates in JB but it ceased with the demise of Meldrum and Cook’s retirement in 1924.  The English service was revived in 1952 and in 2009, the English-speaking congregation relocated to new premises at Hillville near Ponderosa Golf Club where a new sanctuary was completed in 2012.

Altars for the five deities of the five main Chinese dialect
groups are housed in the "temple of unity," Johor Gu Miao
A walk down Jalan Gereja and a right turn will lead to Jalan Trus and the Johor Gu Miao or Ancient Temple.  Built in the late 19th century by a group of Chinese community leaders led by the leader of the Ngee Heng kongsi, Tan Hiok Nee (1827 – 1902), it is dubbed “the temple of unity” because deities revered by the five main clans or Chinese dialect groups, are housed under one roof.  Chinese temples traditionally bear the name of a particular deity but this may be the first Chinese temple in Malaysia to be named after a State in honour of the sultan.

The temple was declared opened by Sultan Abu Bakar in 1870 and the early Chinese community lived together in peace with their worship of the five deities, Zhao Da Yuan Shuai (Hainanese), Hua Guang Da Di (Cantonese), Gan Tian Da Di (Hakka), Hong Xian Da Di (Hokkien) and Yuan Tian Shang Di (Teochew), united in one temple.  The Johor Baru Chingay, the annual night parade which is a uniquely JB tradition now recognised as a national heritage, is part of the temple’s 3-day religious celebration for the lunar new year.

Entrance to the Arulmigu Raja Mariamman Devasthanam
Hindu Temple at Jalan Ungku Puan with a view of
Gudwara Sahib Sikh Temple [Right] through the archway
The development of rubber plantations in the outskirts of JB in the early 20th century saw the arrival of Indians who were employed as labourers or mandore or supervisors.  When a mandore in Sultan Ibrahim’s Pasir Pelangi Estate appealed to him for land to build a temple for the religious needs of labourers, a site was granted at Jalan Ungku Puan.  The sultan also generously donated $500 – a huge sum in those days – towards its construction and when the Arulmigu Raja Mariamman Devasthanam Temple was completed in 1911, the word “Raja” was incorporated in the temple’s name to honour the sultan.

Like their compatriots elsewhere, Sikhs found ready employment in the police force and as watchmen or security guards while others were labourers and cattle herdsmen.  It’s interesting that the founding of the Gudwara Sahib Sikh Temple around 1921 was attributed to the boldness and quick-thinking of Sikh policemen.  When Sultan Ibrahim’s rubber store caught fire and the estate workers could not put it out, the police was called and Sikhs ran carts of water to the scene and cut branches to beat out flames.  In gratitude, the sultan granted them land on Jalan Trus to build their temple where the first school for Sikh children was also housed.

JB's Masjid India at Jalan Duke, off Jalan Dhoby
When you walk through Little India and turn right into the domain of the Indian-Muslim community, you will find Masjid India at the corner of Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Duke.  The original structure has been replaced by a new building but its distinct identity is evident from regular sermons in Tamil and the Tamil inscriptions on its fa├žade.

Our Street of Harmony clearly reflects the peaceful coexistence and unity of diverse groups of people from different cultural and religious origins.  Early immigrants, who are our forefathers, contributed to the economy and development of JB since the 1800s and as Iskandar Malaysia transforms into a modern metropolis, let’s treasure the precious peace in our multi-cultural community and work hard to strengthen the foundations rooted in shared struggles and the search for better livelihoods.

A version of this was published in the June 2015 issue of The Iskandarian

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