A park named after Merdeka

One of the landmarks of Kluang in Johor, is Taman Merdeka, a park named after the nation’s independence.

Generations of children including Pow Chiau Yee, have
enjoyed endless fun on this slide structure in Taman Merdeka
When Central Johor was being developed with rubber and oil palm plantations in 1910, Kluang was then an administrative centre.  A railway line was established since 1915 to transport fresh produce and labour to cities and ports and the Kluang railway station remains virtually unchanged to this day.  

The kopitiam in the railway station continues to serve their Kluang Rail brand of coffee not only to locals but has also established itself as a nostalgic tourist attraction for visitors to Kluang.

Bordered by Jalan Dato Teoh Siew Khor, Taman Merdeka situated in the heart of town, is a focal point for people of all ages to gather for relaxation and recreation.  An iconic concrete structure designed with two heights of slides above and tunnels below, is believed to have provided hours of healthy outdoor fun to generations of children who grew up in Kluang.

Closer view of one of the concrete benches in the the park
Old fashioned concrete benches line the edge of the park at intervals for visitors to rest and watch while children played on the slides or the sturdy rocking boats made of wrought iron.  It was the trend in those days for the back rests of these concrete benches to be inscribed with the town council logo, names of the sponsor or special events like the UMNO logo with words that commemorate its Silver Jubilee.

Pow Chiau Yee, a local who is passionate about promoting Kluang to visitors, said that a tall structure that was built with a square space on the adjacent Dewan Jubli Intan Sultan Ibrahim, is believed to be designed for a clock but to this day, no clock was ever installed!

These rocking boats are another attraction in Taman
Merdeka; Note the benches around the park for visitors
to rest and relax in this popular destination in Kluang
In World War II, Kluang was occupied by Japanese forces who were advancing south of the Malay Peninsular and General Yamashita moved his headquarters from Kuala Lumpur to Kluang on 27 Jan 1942.  The military airfield in Kluang was used by the Japanese to launch air attacks on targets that ranged between Singapore to Sumatra.

In the mid 1950’s, the airfield was used for helicopters that were searching for terrorists who were hiding in nearby Bukit Lambak.  In the six months leading up to Merdeka in 1957, terrorism was largely driven out of the area.

Kluang’s Taman Merdeka remains a popular destination for the community that continues to enjoy the park as a green lung to the sprawling town that has developed almost three-fold in the last three decades.

A version of this was published in The Malaysian Insider on 22 Aug 2015 

AmBank-MyKasih benefits community in Masai

The AmBank Group recently launched the AmBank-MyKasih Community Programme in Johor and committed RM208,000 for two years to benefit 100 families in Masai, Johor.

MyKasih Foundation trustee Datuk Yaacob Amin [Right],
AmBank Group chairman Tan Sri Azman Hashim [2nd
from Right] watch a customer using the MyKasih cashless
system to pay for groceries at Mydin Wholesale Hypermarket
Since the AmBank Group teamed up with MyKasih Foundation for the AmBank-MyKasih Community Programme in November 2009, the Group has allocated the sum of RM1 million per year to benefit some 2,379 families in 17 communities in the nation.

The needy community in Masai, Johor, joins these communities who are being helped in Sentul and Cheras, Kuala Lumpur; Rifle Range and Bayan Baru, Penang; Pandan Jaya, Klang and USJ, Selangor; Tambun, Perak, Ayer Keroh, Malacca, Kuala Krai and Kota Baru, Kelantan; Kuala Terengganu, Terengganu; Menggatal and Sandakan in Sabah and Kuching, Sarawak.

“A project such as this helps to meet our objective to play an effective role as a socially responsible corporate citizen,” said AmBank Group Chairman, Tan Sri Azman Hashim, at the launch event held at Mydin Wholesale Hypermarket, Taman Rinting, Masai. 

MyKasih Foundation trustee Datuk Yaacob Amin [with
raised hand] thanking AmBank Group chairman Tan Sri
Azman Hashim [next to him] for the RM1 million
allocated to support MyKasih annually
“AmBank Group is very happy to be given the opportunity to participate in a community project which addresses real needs and is of real value while delivering sustainable benefits,” he added.

The MyKasih community programme applies a unique technology that drives its welfare contribution in an efficient cashless payment system developed by ePetrol Systems Sdn Bhd which uses the chip technology on the Malaysian Identity Card, MyKad, and MyKasih smartcard.

The AmBank Group is pleased that through the AmBank-MyKasih Community Programme, they are assured that the intended recipients among the underprivileged and hardcore poor in our communities, will enjoy visible and tangible benefits from their contributions.

AmBank staff with members of the families who will benefit
from the AmBank-MyKasih community programme
The funds will ultimately reach the needy families, not in cash but in the form of essential goods like rice, sugar, flour, milk and cooking oil, purchased from selected partner retailers, like Mydin Wholesale Hypermarket, Taman Rinting, Masai.

Registered recipients will use their MyKad to spend a fortnightly allowance of RM40 to make the necessary purchases at partner retail outlets while student beneficiaries may use their MyKad linked with student smartcards to buy food and drinks at the school canteen as well as books and stationery from the school bookshop.

Also present at the event was Mydin Wholesale Hypermarket Director, Syed Ali Syed Abdullah, AmBank Group personnel as well as representatives from the 100 recipient families.

A version of this was published in The Malaysian Insider on 28 August 2015

First ever Ninjago live show at Legoland

Fans of hit TV series, Ninjago – Masters of Spinjitsu, will be thrilled that a live show, Lego Ninjago & The Realms of Shadows, will be staged at Legoland Malaysia Resort from Aug 28.

Artistes performing at the launch of the live Ninjago show
For the first time, the fictional world of Ninjago will come to live against a creative set that uses video mapping and illustrations with characters like Kai, Nya, Zane, Cole, Jay and Lloyd, featured as puppets in a 20-minute stage show.

The Lego Ninjago & The Realms of Shadows show was recently launched by Tourism Malaysia Director General, Dato’ Mirza Mohammad Taiyab and Legoland Malaysia Resort General Manager, Mark Germyn, witnessed by the show directors, puppetry performance mentor, Tourism Malaysia staff and members of the media.

VIP guests at the press conference include the directors,
puppet performance mentor and puppeteers [Left]
“We are very proud to be the first Legoland Park in the world to launch this attraction, especially on this scale,” said Germyn who was impressed by the work that went on behind the scenes.

“Visitors are in for a real treat when they experience the clever blend of technology with traditional bunraku, a Japanese puppetry theatre style, in an innovative performance,” he added.

The Legoland Malaysia Resort attraction that comprises the fun park, water part, themed hotel and live shows, is set to keep visitors coming for repeat visits,” said Dato’ Mirza as he expressed his confidence that this family-friendly destination will continue to attract tourists to Iskandar Malaysia.

A scene from the Lego Ninjago & The Realms of Shadows
live show at the Lego City stage
Guests at the preview were thrilled to watch the puppeteers as they skillfully manipulated the 1.2 meters high puppets that took the audience on a fantastic journey with the Ninjago warriors to overcome the forces of evil with wit and teamwork.

Conceptualized some two and a half years ago and scripted by the people behind the Ninjago TV series and the hit “The Lego Movie,” Kevin and Dan Hageman, the Lego Ninjago & The Realms of Shadows show will be performed in a daily schedule at the Lego City stage for a limited time.

From now to Sept 30, children aged 2 to 12 dressed in a Ninja costume and accompanied by a paying adult, need to pay only half price for admission.

For more info on Annual Pass promotions on offer to Johor and Singapore residents, visit website: www.Legoland.my

Celebrating JB Convent's 90th year

Almost 1,000 students and alumni of SMK IJ Convent Johor Baru recently gathered in Johor Baru for the grand celebration of the school’s 90th anniversary.

Mrs Antoinette Olivero [Left] presenting
the contribution to principal, Ng Lee Wan
Earlier this year, the anniversary celebrations kicked off with a school-level celebration while this recent event was held with past and present pupils who came from near and far for a reunion over a grand dinner banquet.

At the event, the President of the Convent Association of Past Pupils, Mrs Antoinette Olivero presented a mock cheque for RM25,000 to SMK IJ Convent JB principal, Ng Lee Wan, as the association’s contribution for the construction of a covered walkway for the students.

Established in 1925 with a tradition for excellence, the school has earned a prestigious reputation as a High-Performance School for achievements in education and co-curricular activities, and has produced countless successful professionals who are contributing positively to society.

“The school’s most recent achievement was an Overall Average Grade of 1.16 as the top school in Johor and the top day school nationwide for SPM 2014,” said Ng.

An artist's impression of the early JB Convent that
was housed in two rented shophouses at Jalan Ibrahim
In Johor the promotion of English education under the administration of the British General Advisors was supported by Catholic missionaries who were particularly active in establishing schools for girls.

English education for girls became available for girls in JB when three Infant Jesus sisters and two teachers – Ethel Filders and Winifred Allen – founded the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus as a co-educational school with pre-school and primary classes in 1925.

The sculpture of Virgin Mary, presented by the late Sultan
Ibrahim, still holds a place of pride in the school's facade
The early Convent JB was housed in two rented shophouses at Jalan Ibrahim and when news about the impressive quality of education caught the attention of then Johor Sultan, the late Sultan Ibrahim and his consort, Sultanah Rogayah, they presented the sisters with a piece of land at Jalan Yahya Awal to build a school.

In 1927 when the Convent JB was opened at its current site as the first all-girls school in JB, the boys continued their education in Bukit Zaharah School.

Some notable Johor personalities in the school’s co-ed alumni were the Kuok brothers, Philip and Robert, as well as Tun Hussein Onn.

Singing the birthday song to commemorate
the school's 90th anniversary
Sultan Ibrahim also presented a gift of the sculpture of Virgin Mary to the school and it still holds a place of pride in the school’s façade today.

The 90th anniversary celebration was graced by Bishop Sebastian Francis and Sister Luke Morales as representatives of the pioneer missionaries who established the school as well as former teachers and principals.

"In the past nine decades, Convent JB has educated, moulded and mentored young girls into successful and confident women of substance,” said Bishop Sebastian who congratulated the alumni on keeping their tradition of sending their daughters and grand-daughters to be educated in the JB Convent.

A section of the guests - students past and present - singing the school song at the 90th anniversary celebration in JB

"The first principle of the Rukun Negara or National Principles is, “Belief in God” and we wish to thank God for blessing us with 90 years of IJ Convent JB,” said Sister Luke who encouraged the alumni and present pupils to trust in God and continue to live out the school motto – Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty.

A version of this was published in The Malaysian Insider on 26 August 2015

JB architectural sketches show

Three students in the Bachelor of Interior Design course at Raffles University Iskandar worked together to successfully curate the first Johor Architectural Sketches Exhibition that feature two artists from distinct and different backgrounds Buz Walker-Teach and Yap Hanzhen.

Students [Right to Left] Tyler Lim, Ho Gay Lin and Claryl
Chan with Tan Sri Datuk Seri Shahrir Abd Samad and
the two artists, Buz Walker-Teach [Left] and Yap Hanzhen
Students, Ho Gay Lin, 21, Claryl Chan and Tyler Lim, both 23, rose to the challenge when Senior Lecturer Priya Metcalfe proposed that instead of studying the Exhibition Design module in the classroom, the students should put theory into practice and organise an exhibition in the city.

“The two artists were brought together in the exhibition because they share the same passion for architecture and culture in Johor,” said Chan, who was the driving force behind the team who planned and executed the organisation among themselves with the advice of Metcalfe.

All the hard work in the last three months paid off handsomely for the students when the exhibition was launched by Johor Baru Member of Parliament, Tan Sri Datuk Seri Shahrir Abd Samad, in the presence of Raffles University Iskandar President, Professor Graeme Britton, fellow university students and invited guests.

JB MP, Tan Sri Datuk Seri Shahrir Abd Samad [2nd from
Right] escorted by Raffles University Iskandar President,
Prof Graeme Britton [Right] at the exhibition held in Eh He
Among the guests were Singapore Consul-General and Ian Mak, Director (Museum & Art Gallery) Southern University College, Tan Chai Puan, who joined a throng of guests to admire the architectural sketches displayed in Eh He, a gallery in the heart of the city’s heritage area.

“Through drawing, I found an outlet to adapt to living in JB,” said Walker-Teach, an American visual artist, sketcher, illustrator and graphic designer who is also an art lecturer with Raffles University Iskandar, in response to the “culture shock” he experienced when he first arrived here three years ago.

He has completed more than 140 drawings of various sites in and around JB in the last three years but sadly, some 35 of these buildings have been demolished or undergone dramatic changes and adapted for other use.

The two talented and distinctly different artists,
Yap Hanzhen [Left] and Buz Walker-Teach
He likened the pairing of himself and Yap as the “The Past and Future of Art” with Yap, who at 16, was just starting his career as an artist.

In a short time, Yap, a gifted young artist from JB has achieved a great deal including publishing three books of his sketches that were drawn in exquisite detail, being exhibited not just locally but also abroad as well as receiving commissioned work.

"I'm happy that both these artists are exhibiting their architectural sketches aptly in a JB heritage site and hope that it will help us appreciate what we have in our building heritage,” said Shahrir as he congratulated the student organisers before launching the exhibition.

An exhibition of sketches of Johor Baru is held from now till Aug 28 at Eh He, No. 1 Jalan Trus, 80000 Johor Baru.  Daily from 10am to 6pm and up to 9pm on Saturday and Sunday.

A version of this was published in The Malaysian Insider on 23 Aug 2015

Sketches of real life

While shopping for Johor souvenirs at Jalan Wong Ah Fook a few years ago, I met local sketch artist, Taib Aur.

Taib Aur sketching a scene at
Kg Bakar Batu in Tampoi
His sketches of portraits, landscapes, buildings and local scenery were so impressive that I couldn’t resist buying a series of sketches that were reproduced as postcards.  Then Taib told me about Buz Walker-Teach, an American art lecturer with Raffles University Iskandar in Nusajaya, who also stopped to look at his sketches.  Walker-Teach, better known as Buz, was thrilled to meet a fellow artist who enjoyed sketching street scenes and their meeting along JB’s main street was the start of a special bond based on their common love for art.

Starting Out

Buz would hang out with Taib regularly, talking about drawing and introduced Taib to the concept of the Urban Sketchers who sketched from observation or drew pictures from life.  While Taib and other local drawing enthusiasts each have their own style and choice of drawing or painting mediums, they share the same passion for going on site to sketch or paint scenes from real life.  

Curious children watching as
Riki Maulana, better known as
Tok Rimau, sketches
When Buz presented Taib with a book of sketches by the Urban Sketchers, they were inspired to start a similar group in Johor with the aim to compile and publish a book on Johor life and landscapes.

Taib connected Buz with other drawing enthusiasts in Johor like Mohd Hafizal Nordin, Eric Ng Han Meng, Riki Maulana who goes by the moniker, Tok Rimau, and they in turn, invited their own network of artist friends to join them.  

These artists share a habit of keeping visual diaries to record a series of scenes that are viewed from a variety of angles before they decide on which scene to develop fully with water-colours or other types of paints.  The strong creative connection bonded this group together and as they adopted the core principles of the Urban Sketchers to draw from observation and real life, they became known as the Johor Sketchers.

On-Location Events

Taib tells me that the Johor Sketchers is an informal group of artists who just enjoys hanging out together.  They meet as often as twice a month for on-location events and have made trips to places like the Batu Pahat, Pontian, Kulai, the Senibong coast, Stulang Laut and various sites in the city to sketch landscapes, old mansions and iconic buildings.  

The Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque in water
colour by Eric Ng Han Meng
Eager to have an on-location experience with them, I asked Taib to keep me posted on their next outing so that I can join them.

Then I receive a message from him to go to Kampung Bakar Batu in Tampoi with directions to the village on the edge of the Danga River where Orang Seletar fisher-folk are still making a living with fishing and farming mussels.  

I arrive to see each artist at his or her chosen spot with sketch book and pen or pencil in hand, engrossed in recreating their view on paper.  Curious village children pause in their playing and gather close to the artists to see them sketch outlines on paper in rapid freehand drawing and watch in fascination, as the images gradually emerge.

“We get to know the place by talking to the local people who come to observe us while we sketch,” said Taib.  “This not only gives us a sense of the place and its history but also a better understanding of the culture or sentimental value of a building or traditional lifestyle that is fast disappearing in modern Johor,” he added.

Picture Preservation

The Wong Ah Fook mansion by Buz Walker Teach
before it was demolished
Buz, who has been living in Asia for almost 20 years, has spent more than two years in JB and is quite familiar with the city sights.  He inspires his students with field trips to places of interest in the city like the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk where they mingle with the local people and draw on location.  

His collection of sketches include a precious sketch of the old mansion popularly known as the Wong Ah Fook mansion, which he captured in great detail, before it was suddenly demolished.

A traditional Malay house at Jalan Abdul Samad, JB,
by Riki Maulana, better known as Tok Rimau
“Johor has big aspirations to develop into a modern metropolis but where will all this go?” Buz asked with reference to the traditional lifestyle of indigenous people.  This is why the sketches of landscapes and buildings by the artists are a valuable resource in the preservation of a slice of life and history that is fast disappearing.  

“I take a long time to draw a scene because I often stop to talk to people,” he confessed because he also enjoys talking to observers who cannot resist asking him questions about his interest in drawing a particular scene.

"When you sketch, you absorb the soul of that place,” said Riki Maulana, better known as Tok Rimau.  He explained that artists usually analyse the scene or structure before starting to sketch.  They would make a series of outlines from various angles and pick one that they are most comfortable with before fleshing it out into a complete picture.

Sahrudin Omar, engrossed in
sketching a JB street scene
He said all of us learnt to draw while we were in kindergarten but somehow lost the skills along the way. Through drawing from real life, the Johor Sketchers are encouraging everyone to rediscover the joys of sketching again.

I can see their enthusiasm and camaraderie as the artists turn the pages of their well-thumbed sketch books to show me their favourite sketches and share various anecdotes on the outings to those destinations.  The adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words," rings true as I recognise and reminisce over familiar sites in the collection of sketches they have vividly captures from real life in and around JB.

Taib tells me that the ultimate dream of the Johor Sketchers is to compile their sketches of Johor scenes into a book and preserve them for posterity.  For now, he is simply thrilled with how the creative passion of the members is being ignited and honed by each other's energy and creativity.  For more info, visit website: www.johorsketchers.blogspot.com

A boat that Nurul Izzati Ramli saw at Jalan Pantai, Pontian, while fishermen were cleaning up after their day's work
Sketch of a boat at the Pontian fishing pier by Mohd Hafizal Nordin also includes the figure of fellow
Johor Sketcher, Buz Walker Teach [Right]
A version of this was published in The New Sunday Times, Life & Times on 16 Aug 2015

Ho Seng Kee City Square

The opening of a Ho Seng Kee outlet in Johor Baru City Square, marks the dawn of a new era for this Johor Baru brand of wantan noodle.

Yin, better known as Elton, at the entrance to their
JB City Square outlet
In the early 1940’s handmade egg noodles by Ho Seng, was served from a mobile stall parked outside Chuan Seng, a coffee shop situated at the corner of Jalan Siu Nam and Jalan Meldrum.  As it gained popularity, the business moved to a permanent stall set up within the shop and fans enjoyed their noodles here for more than 60 years.

Ho’s skills in making the noodles from fresh ingredients that include duck and chicken eggs, was passed down to his son, Weng, who took over the business in the 1960’s.  Still made fresh in the original recipe every day, the noodles are free from preservatives and artificial colours.

Besides operating a coffee shop/restaurant downstairs, Chuan Seng was also a hotel that occupied the upper floor.  When the property was sold in 2003, the food and beverage businesses in the shop had no alternative but to shift to other premises.

Chuan Seng, the corner coffee shop where Ho Seng Kee
noodles was first served in Johor Baru
Fans of Ho Seng Kee noodles followed them to their new location in a coffee shop at Jalan Harimau in Century Gardens.  The business, then run by the next generations in a father and son team, moved into their own premises at nearby Jalan Kanchil in 2009.

With the brand firmly established, fans of Ho Seng Kee came from near and far to savour these delectable noodles.  Very often diners from out-station would eat in the shop and order takeaways to put into deep-freeze to take home to Kuala Lumpur and even abroad to the UK!

Elton Ho [Right] at the counter of the City Square outlet
As Weng’s son, Yin, better known as Elton, helped his father serve wantan noodles to regulars, he took the business to the next level by developing a wider fan base through social media and online on www.hosengkee.com

Determined to share the unique taste of their brand of wantan mee with new generations of noodle fans, Ho Seng Kee has now increased their work-stations from just one in their previous shop to three in their City Square outlet.  

Prepared by a team of cooks and assistants, fans of Ho Seng Kee are assured that they can now enjoy bowl after bowl of tasty egg noodles that should be served within 10 minutes of receiving the orders!

Elton [Left] with two members of the kitchen team
Designed as a café, diners at the Ho Seng Kee City Square outlet can select their noodle meals along with a range of snacks, side orders and beverages from a menu.  Just complete a simple order form and pass it to the order-takers to place your orders. 

Now you can sit in air-conditioned comfort and still taste the unique flavour and texture of Ho Seng Kee wantan noodles or kon-lo-meen [Cantonese for dry-tossed noodles], just as they were served from a push cart back in the 1940’s, at the nearby corner of Jalan Siu Nam and Jalan Meldrum.

A section of diners at Ho Seng Kee City Square

Ho Seng Kee [Non-Halal] noodle shop is located at Lot J6-07, Level 6 of Johor Baru City Square, Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Baru.  Open daily 10am to 9pm.

Hari Raya celebration at Jaro

The staff of Johor Area Rehabilitation Organization or JARO recently celebrated Hari Raya Aidil Fitri with a buffet lunch that was generously sponsored by well-wishers.

Jaro chairman, Dato' Jimmy Low [Right] helping to
serve food to Jaro staff at the Hari Raya celebration
Sixty staff and their families enjoyed the luncheon with Jaro chairman, Dato’ Jimmy Low Boon Hong, committee members, volunteers, well-wishers and sponsors who joined Jaro in an annual tradition to share their festive goodwill.

Hari Raya Aidil Fitri is one of three festive events including Chinese New Year and Christmas organised by Jaro to celebrate the annual festive seasons with their staff who are artisans with disabilities.  For many of them, the Hari Raya luncheon is an occasion where colleagues from Jaro’s workshops for book binding, basketry and tailoring, may come together to share a cross-cultural celebration.

Jaro staff helping themselves to the Raya buffet spread
Founded in 1952 as a rehabilitation center for TB patients, Jaro has evolved into an established non-profit charity with a sheltered workshop where disabled staff benefit from the work opportunities in the bookbinding, basketry, tailoring and handicraft sections.  

Jaro, which receives annual Government grants and public donations, is managed by Low with a committee of socially conscious professionals.  This charity is self-supporting by marketing its quality handicrafts and reinvesting the funds into its daily operations.

A section of the diners at the Jaro Raya celebration
“We wish to thank well-wishers and sponsors for their generous donations,” said Low who also presented each staff member with duit raya of RM50 each from Jaro.  Among the generous sponsors for the event were Member of Parliament for JB Tan Sri Dato’ Shahrir Abdul Samad, and assemblyman for Panti, Dato’ Haji Baderi Haji Dasuki.  

The festive buffet spread with an array of local favourites like satay and laksa Johor among other sumptuous dishes, was sponsored by Tropical Inn, Paragon Hotel and Ponderosa Golf & Country Club.  

“We must also thank Lim Yew Ann, a chicken wholesaler who donated fresh whole chickens to Jaro for the Hari Raya lunch,” said Jaro Finance & Admin Executive, Lee Lai Ying, who explained that they arranged for the chicken to be cooked in various recipes for the staff to enjoy.

Located along Jalan Sungai Chat, JB, Jaro has a gift shop stocked with handicrafts made by disabled artisans.  The proceeds from the sale of these products form a large part of the staff wages.  Open Sunday to Thursday from 8am to 5pm.  Tel: 607 – 224 5632.

A version of this was published in The Malaysian Insider on 11 Aug 2015

Old shops nostalgia

I’m always seeking the nostalgic charm of a bygone era so when I’m in districts like Senai, Muar and Kluang, I choose to browse around old shops instead of visiting modern malls.  

Facade of old provision shop that's still doing business in Senai
On these walk-abouts, I discovered interesting old shops that are still doing business the way they did back in the 1960s.  Shops like these are fast disappearing in the cities but in many of Johor’s smaller towns, they are still serving a regular clientele and doing brisk business.

A pair of Adidas Kampung, ideal waterproof footwear
These old-fashioned shops have a place in our history as they once provided the goods and services that early settlers and immigrants needed when they came to seek their fortune in Johor.  

As the nation celebrates its 58th birthday this August, the landscape in Iskandar Malaysia is changing with modern developments and it’s timely to reflect on the past when various race groups arrived and worked together to develop Johor Baru into a thriving trading post.  They opened up dense jungles and cultivated choice pieces of land close to the rivers into pepper and gambir plantations before going on to plant pineapples and rubber.

Dried provisions are displayed in wooden boxes

I will never forget the interesting story behind the name of a small town located between Skudai and Gelang Patah, named Lima Kedai, (Malays for 'five shops'), because this town developed for just five shops. This row of shops was a model of typical town centers at a time when the goods and services offered by each of these five shops, specifically met the needs of early settlers who were mainly involved in the agricultural industry.

Back then when there were no supermarkets or convenience stores, one of the most essential businesses in any new settlement was the traditional sundry shop.  It was a one-stop general store that stocked a wide range of provisions, household items and even joss products for Chinese religious rites.  Just as its name describes, the merchandise in sundry shops are such a wide assortment of items, quite similar to the inventory of modern departmental stores!

I remember driving pass Pekan Nenas, Malay for Pineapple Town, en route to Kukup and Tanjung Piai and when our car stopped at the traffic lights, I looked at the shops that bordered the road.  My eyes were riveted to a sundry shop that had developed into a type of department store because it also stocked clothes but it was the range of shoes that caught my eye.  I couldn’t help smiling when I spotted pairs of single-mould shoes on the outdoor rack, popularly known as Adidas Kampung, the ideal waterproof footwear for plantation workers!

One of the shops among the five in Lima Kedai was a bicycle shop not only to sell bicycles but also to provide repair services and replacement parts for their trusted two-wheelers because the bicycle was the most common mode of transport then.  Before bicycles were introduced, rubber-tappers had the back-breaking task of carrying latex in buckets suspended from both ends of a pole placed across the shoulders.  Later, tappers depended on bicycles to carry large metal buckets designed to collect the latex and travel across acres of estates to send the latex to the collecting station.

Shopkeepers still prefer to use the trusted abacus
instead of modern calculators
A tinsmith who made and mends metal buckets and other useful metal items for plantation workers, was another essential service in an early settlement.  Back in the day when battery powered lights were uncommon, rubber-tappers used simple metal oil lamps fastened to their foreheads for light to tap rubber in the wee hours when it was completely dark.  Skilled tappers could tap a tree in a standard half-spiral pattern every 20 seconds and completed tapping 450 to 600 trees daily, while some hardworking tappers even tapped two rounds per day! 

Another of the five shops would be a barber who provided settlers with another essential service in keeping them well groomed.  While women may have kept their hair traditionally long, it took trained professionals like barbers to help the men maintain short and neat hair.  In those days, getting a shave and a haircut was probably a big treat for these hardworking men.

Check out the variety of goods stocked here!
Finally, the fifth shop in early Lima Kedai must have been a traditional medicine or herb shop where the trader also doubled up as the sinseh who was skilled in offering traditional medical advice.  Traditional medicine has been trusted for generations and as physical outdoor activities caused sprains and other aches and pains, the sinseh could be consulted for regular treatments.  He would also prescribe the necessary concoctions of traditional herbs to brew and drink as a cure for ill health caused by hard work in harsh tropical weather.

These five shops must have served the daily essential needs in the simple lifestyle of early settlers where everyone was familiar with each other and traders would know their regular customers.  The sundry shop, in particular, played an important role in helping families make ends meet by extending credit to customers based solely on trust.  If food was sold only on a cash basis, many large families may have suffered but back then, the trader had a unique system of supplying provisions in advance with the bills settled when customers received their weekly or monthly wages.

A range of  familiar 555 booklets with the oldest version
[Right to Left] to a modern version still in use today!
The trader would just record the purchases in small record books, fondly known as 555 booklets.  All the customer needed to do each time he made his purchases was to tell the trader, “Masuk buku,” (enter book) and the trader would make a record in his booklet.  The astute trader would also recognise every member of the customer’s family so they could conveniently buy items and get them recorded in their booklet!

So when you visit smaller towns, give the malls a miss and seize the opportunity for a peek into traditional shops that contributed significantly to the humble beginnings and livelihood of many families.  This relationship of friendship, trust and goodwill, established in an era when the community was striving together for personal and national progress, remains both vital and priceless as the nation advances.

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