Richard's Quest - I

Richard Dunn was on a quest to see and do as much as he possibly could on a trail from Singapore, Johor to Labuan to see where his family members once lived, worked or died. 

Richard Dunn at the gates, Istana Pasir Pelangi, Johor Baru
When he started researching places in JB online, Richard reached My Johor Stories where some of my stories gave him historical background and local perspective.  Among other things, he learnt more about Johor’s heritage buildings, the cultivation of Johor’s first economy crops, pepper and gambier, and the Ngee Heng brotherhood!

His family was among the English who came to the Far East while many Asian nations were British colonies.  Johor, in particular, had a strong English influence as Sultan Abu Bakar was a good friend of Queen Victoria and the first two Johor sultans where distinguished as Anglophiles.  In the recent Sultan’s coronation, we learnt how Sultan Abu Bakar even modeled the Johor royal regalia after that of the British monarch’s. 

At the former building for JCSC at Seri Gelam
Richard’s grandfather, Frank Mogford Still, better known as F.M. Still, was a good friend and confidante of Sultan Ibrahim, who reigned from 1873 to 1959.  The sultan, who spent a great deal of time in London’s Grosvenor House, also passed away there.

From his grandmother’s memoirs, Richard discovered that his grandfather was Chief Accountant in the Johor Public Works Department in 1928 and in 1934, he shifted into a house, probably government quarters, on Bukit Jepun. 

At the main entrance to Istana Bukit Serene
His grandmother, Florence May Still (nee Drysdale) was headmistress of Ngee Heng Primary School in 1934, 1937 and 1941.  Grandfather was a Major in the Johor Military Force and also Inspector of Prisons, Johor.   

He was Honorary Secretary of the Royal Johor International Club and Johor Civil Service Club (now renamed Johor Cultural and Sports Club), and later also Honorary Secretary to the Royal Selangor Club.  While he was in JB, F.M. Still was also President in the Johor Football Association and President of the Johor Badminton Association.

The archway with Istana Besar or Grand Palace in background
This information was a helpful guide as to where I should take Richard but he had his own ideas – particularly about the palaces where his grandfather used to hang-out with Sultan Ibrahim – as recorded in his grandmother’s memoirs! 

Richard saw the 1902 Map of Istana Besar with surrounding buildings and its perspective in relation to the JB Prison from my story, Hills and Palaces – and wanted to see all these buildings!

I realise that palaces, even the Istana Besar or Grand Palace in the city, is out of bounds to the public, but I was determined to show Richard the outside, for him to get a sense of the place and let him imagine its grandeur when his grandparents used to frequent those palaces.

Students posing for a we-fie with Richard and Lindsay
at the second entrance to Istana Besar
When I picked Richard and his wife from the hotel on Friday morning, he was armed with his travel guide books, laptop and camera.  He had photos and documents loaded in his laptop to use as reference.  So as I drove, he would tap away on his keyboard to pull up a picture or some document to show me.

Our first stop was at the gates of Istana Pasir Pelangi to see the original building to a backdrop of beautifully maintained polo fields.   In the early years, Sultan Ibrahim’s rubber estates were nearby and this was HH sultan’s country house and estate office.

Then we made a stop at the former building of the Johor Civil Service Club (JCSC) at Seri Gelam, now refurbished as a restaurant and offices.  Richard had read from My Johor Stories about JCSC’s rich history in JB and saw some photos of its new building at another site.  My friends in JCSC administration, however, told me that they may not be able to find any old records, especially after they shifted into their new premises.

At the guardhouse with the Sultan
Ibrahim Building in the background
We talked about the origins of the running social club, Hash House Harriers, which may have started in JB while the founding runners were based here.  It was not until they were in the Royal Selangor Club when they formally named themselves Harriers, so the running club technically started in JB!

Then we went to the gates of Istana Bukit Serene where we could only see the driveway into the palace.  Once again, we wondered if Richard’s handwritten letter to the Johor Sultan ever reached him.  My friends with the palace reminded me that Richard’s query should be directed to the president of the Johor Royal Council for any arrangements, if necessary.  I realise that the timing was just not conducive for further plans but Richard was such a good sport about it and even ready to make another trip for this.

We took a pleasant drive along the coast road to reach the main entrance to the Grand Palace and made a stop at its second entrance for a view of the recently refurbished Balai Zarah.  I spotted groups of young people walking about – inside the palace grounds – even though it was supposed to be out of bounds to the public, and this aroused my curiosity. 

At the Johor Military Forces building
The sight of an English couple also made a group of female students walking to the gate, rather curious and Richard struck up a conversation with them, telling them briefly about his grandfather who was a good friend of Sultan Ibrahim.  Soon we learnt that the students were doing a school project on heritage buildings and were out collecting information and taking photos.  And of course, the students couldn’t resist capturing the moment with a photo memento of the English visitors!

No visit to JB can be complete without a visit to the city’s iconic State Government Secretariat, now known as the Sultan Ibrahim Building on Bukit Timbalan, so we headed up that hill.  And it only took a moment for the affable Richard to start a chat with a gentleman who was seated in the pavilion at the guardhouse!

Then we went around to its other entrance at Jalan Abdullah Ibrahim for another view of this magnificent building designed with unique Indo-Islamic architecture that evolved in India.  Work on this building started in 1939 and for decades, this building dominated the city’s skyline.

After a lovely lunch at Eh He Art Cafe
Next to the Sultan Ibrahim Building was the unique octagonal shaped building of the Johor Military Force (JMF), in a neat and guarded compound.  While the guard allowed Richard to snap photos, he cautioned us to stay out of their restricted zone.  I told Richard and Lindsay that the duties of the JMF are now largely ceremonial as it continues in its services to the state and Sultan to this day.

We saw the signboard in front of the JMF building written in Jawi, the Arabic alphabet used to write the Malay language, and it was only the next day, when we visited the Gallery in Sultan Ismail Buidling, Kota Iskandar, that we learnt more about the JMF.

Selecting a garment for Lindsay at Bev C
It was time for a spot of lunch so we headed to Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk were I showed my visitors Hua Joo, the traditional bakery and bought freshly baked banana cake.  After a lovely lunch at Eh He Art Café, we browsed around the shops to see the charming new businesses in old buildings.

I was delighted when Lindsay responded positively to my introduction of Bev C, our local fashionista who’s making a name for herself with her unique designs.  It sure didn’t take long for Lindsay to pick out a dress to try on and decided to buy it!

A tour of the JB Tiong Hua (Chinese) Heritage Museum gave the visitors more info about the historical development of JB since the 1800s and then it was time for afternoon tea.  I realised that our banana cake was “outside” food but I was grateful that my friends at the Drums Café graciously let us enjoy the cake with our coffee.

Richard signing the guest book after their
tour of the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
On our way back to the hotel, we drove through Jalan Ngee Heng and I pointed out to my visitors, the spot where our grandfather’s house and badminton court used to be before the land was acquired to build the Tun Abdul Razak expressway.  I also pointed out that the site of the Ngee Heng School was up that way and we would see it on Sunday morning. 

Richard recalled reading about our family’s passion for badminton and while we were on this topic, I mentioned that legendary All-England champion, Wong Peng Soon, was our granduncle who was trained by our grandfather, Ng Ngoh Tee.
It had an eventful day together but it was not over yet because Richard and Lindsay were joining me for the evening show at the JB Classical Music Festival, happening that same weekend.  So after a rest and change of clothes, I was at the hotel again to pick them up to go to the show at Afiniti Medini.

I saw Richard lugging his laptop into the car and it crossed my mind that there was no need to bring the computer to the show.  But he was clearly bursting to show me something. 

Richard and Lindsay at Afiniti Medini for a show
He apparently spent the bulk of the time checking online for archive newspaper records from the Singapore Library website and came across a particular piece in the Straits Times dated 1 November 1936.  It was part of a report headlined, “Johor Baru to hold tournaments,” and the first line read:

“At a committee meeting the Johor Baru District Badminton Association presided over by the vice-president, Mr Ng Ngoh Tee, in the absence of the president, F.M. Still, it was decided …”

I read no further.  My jaw dropped in surprise!  I was speechless for a bit until I found my voice again.  How uncanny?!  Who would have guessed that our grandfathers, not only knew each other but also worked together in the same badminton association!?

Straits Times report dated 1 November 1936
I must confess that this shocking discovery was buzzing in my mind throughout the evening because I just couldn’t get over how Richard, a stranger whom I welcomed to JB in search of where his grandfather lived, worked or walked, also knew our grandfather!

The next morning over breakfast, I told my mum about this uncanny discovery about our grandfathers, and she coolly replied, “I know Mr Still.”  I was stunned!  Mum was Ah Kong’s eldest daughter so it was likely that she knew her father’s friends and associates.  Mum gave me yet another surprise when she said, “We also have his photograph!”

I begged mum to please look for it and when she looked into grandma’s old albums, she found it!  By this time, I was heading out to meet Richard and Lindsay again for a tour of Kota Iskandar and I hugged this new discovery along with glee. 

From our old album - Seated front row: F.M. Still [Left] and Encik Mat [Right] with
Standing Left to Right: Wong Peng Nam, Wong Peng Soon, Ng Ngoh Tee and Wong Peng Yee
Once again, Richard was holding his laptop, ready to show me something when he got into my car.  From the Singapore Library’s newspaper archives, he found a published group photo with our grandfathers at a badminton event!

Then it was my turn to tell him what my mum said and I too had a photo to show him.  Richard and I were simply amazed at the discovery that our grandfathers knew each other! 

His quest to discover more about what his grandmother recorded in Jalan Astern, continues in the next exciting episode of his journey to more sites in JB.

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