On a sentimental journey with Danny

Last February, I received a message from Danny Koh, a reader who said he recognized a familiar face – that of my grandmother – while he was using Google to search for photos of old Johor, in particular Jalan Ngee Heng!

Danny Koh at Kota Iskandar
He clicked on that photo and it led him to My Johor Stories and a collection of stories and photos which he read and re-read with interest as it brought back long forgotten memories. He regretted that over the years, he had lost all his JB contacts and he said, coming across my articulately written blog was like a Godsend!

Danny, the youngest of four children in their family, said he’s pretty sure that our paths had crossed on more than one occasion when I was little. That was because, his family used to live at No. 30 Jalan Ngee Heng, in the terrace row of houses across the road from our grandparents’ house at No. 154.

In 1965, their family moved from Jalan Ngee Heng to Taman Kebun Teh. He left Johor Baru in 1973 to further his studies in the UK and settled in London where he built his life and career.  In 2003, he migrated to Brisbane, Australia, where he now lives.

His mother, who’s now advanced in age, had moved from their home in Taman Kebun Teh to live with his sister and brother-in-law in Singapore.

In front of English College, Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar
In a long and rambling message, he listed names of my relatives whom he was familiar with and believed that they too would remember his parents.  He clearly remembered that his parents used to go across the road to attend events held on the badminton court at Ah Kong or grandfather’s house, like a wedding banquet and also to pay respects at the passing of Uncle Robert.

Danny’s memories rekindled my own because the wedding banquet his parents attended was probably that of my parents. In those days, it was common to invite cooks and their kitchen team over to serve a banquet and my parents’ wedding banquet was catered by New Hong Kong Restaurant in this manner, for guests to dine at tables set up on the badminton court.

Revisiting the site fondly known as Happy Valley
I also remember the crowds of people who came to pay their respects at his wake when Uncle Robert lost the battle to cancer. The casket was set up under a canopy on the badminton court. My siblings and cousins, who were then staying with our grandparents, had our share in making uncle feel more comfortable during his last days.

In the closing paragraph of Danny’s detailed message, he said the last time he visited JB was probably in 1997.  He said, “I do miss that little town which I grew up in. I travel to Singapore as all my family live there, and I have had fleeting visits to JB (mainly to indulge in food I have missed!)  Coming across your blog has made me realise I still have that ‘Johorean’ in me!  Perhaps it’s high time for me to make a special trip back to my roots.”

At the Church of Immaculate Conception JB
I replied and told Danny that JB is no longer a ‘little town’ as it has developed quite rapidly with widespread suburbs, many located much further than Taman Kebun Teh, a residential area which he said, was considered so far from town back in the mid 1960’s!

In March, his mother’s health took a sudden turn for the worse and he was asked to come to see her, maybe for the last time. Before he boarded his flight to Singapore, he rushed a message off to tell me about his unplanned trip and would be in touch later.

A week passed before I heard from him again. He told me how he spent the past week by his mother’s hospital bed and on the doctor’s advice, the family would move her to a palliative care facility.  After she was settled into the hospice, he thought it would be good to take a break with a weekend in JB, to meet me.

Later, I was told that his siblings would usually come to JB and drive directly to his mother’s house in Taman Kebun Teh to do what they needed to do and then return to Singapore immediately.  They hardly stopped to do any shopping or dining because negative news reports about the security situation in JB had somehow poisoned their minds and made them to think that JB is a notorious place and Singapore registered cars and its occupants, were unsafe here!

Danny with his sister, Lily, a studio
shot taken at Chau Wah Photo Studio
So that Friday afternoon when I took Danny to lunch, we got down from my car and walked across the road to a neighbourhood café.  As we walked that short distance, Danny told me that this was literally the first time he was walking on JB streets (other than from the car into his mother’s house!) since he left JB in 1973!

Then he shared with me, the wrong impression his family had of the security in JB.  I told him that as in any developing city in the world, our city has its fair share of crime. But falling victim to crime was really a matter of being at the wrong place at the wrong time and visitors must be street smart. 

I assured him that he would get a real sense of the security situation here as I show him new and familiar sites in and around JB. So in the next 48 hours, Danny got reacquainted with the JB he once knew. 

When I showed him the impressive buildings at Kota Iskandar and the marina at Puteri Harbour, he simply marveled at the new developments in Iskandar Puteri.

Revisiting the shortcut that links Jalan Trus
to Jalan Wong Ah Fook
A large chunk of his memories were made when he used to ride a bicycle around and he fondly remembers the JB Convent where his sister went to school.  Then I took him to schools he studied in, first at Ngee Heng Primary School – the old premises, now a Government department – and secondary school at English College or Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar.

He remembers going for outings at a nature destination with a stream flowing through it fondly called Happy Valley and I took him to explore the site next to present-day Merdeka Park, for a glimpse of where he made many happy memories.

Danny told me he used to explore the area behind their house in Jalan Ngee Heng where he discovered the awesome sight inside the Church of Immaculate Conception, and how he embraced the religion.  He walked into the church by a side door and took his time to walk around the compound, retracing his steps when he often visited this sanctuary.

The structure at the rear of the shophouse,
has already caved in
To visit JB’s heritage quarter, I parked at the Galleria Kotaraya and as we were heading out, we met Andy Lim, the gentleman whose family used to operate the Chau Wah Photo Studio. 

Danny told him that their family used to go to this studio to snap their family photos, which was the thing to do in those days because not everyone owned a camera.  Then he (whipped out his smartphone!) to show off one of those precious studio shots of himself and his sister that was taken by Chau Wah Photo Studio so long ago!

We left the Galleria to walk up Jalan Trus to see the Johor Gu Miao or Old Temple – a place Danny remembered visiting with his father.

Across the road, Danny saw the shortcut that linked Jalan Trus to Jalan Wong Ah Fook and recalls how he used to enjoy eating a tasty laksa from a hawker stall that was usually parked around here.  He wanted to walk down the shortcut because his grandmother’s house was the shophouse next to the footpath, facing Jalan Wong Ah Fook.

At the entrance to his grandmother's place
As he led the way, I saw that it was a deeply sentimental journey for Danny as he reminisced about how he used to stay with his grandmother in this very shophouse and now to see its sorry state with the structure in the rear already caved in.  He said they used to live in both the downstairs and upstairs but later the downstairs unit was rented out to a coffeeshop business.

Then we walked down Jalan Ungku Puan to the site of the former pasak-kia or Chinese food court, where he remembered enjoying many good meals, and we saw that it was just a flattened, vacant piece of land adjacent to the infamous Sungai Segget!

A visit to the heritage quarter is not complete without a trip to the JB Chinese Heritage Museum so I had the privilege of sharing with Danny, a bit on the Chinese community’s role in the development of JB.  

Familiar food was another item on the itinerary so I took him to various destinations to have the street food that he sorely missed. When we talked about the noodles that he used to enjoy in JB, he was quick to say, ‘Ho Seng Kee’ and was surprised when I told him that they were still in business!

Glad he found his favourite noodles again!
They were not only in business, but the brand has been given a new lease of life in a café menu that is being enjoyed by regulars as well as new generation of noodle lovers who appreciate the unique taste of handmade egg noodles that are made with duck’s eggs!

I guess his mouth must have been watering as we discussed these delicious noodles and he was so thrilled that he rushed a message to his sister in Singapore – another fan of these amazing noodles. 

As we made our way to Ho Seng Kee on level 6 of Johor Baru City Square, Danny was telling me his strategy for eating these wantan noodles, first in the soup version and then, if he had some more space, the dry-tossed version. 

Check out the comments Danny wrote on the Visitors
book at the JB Chinese Heritage Museum!
Then he was silent, probably doing some mental calculations on how many bowls of noodles he wanted to buy as takeaways to give his sister a surprise treat!

So with two carrier bags full of Ho Seng Kee noodles, Danny left after an eventful weekend in JB.

Soon after he crossed the border into Singapore, he sent a message thanking me and saying how he had such a wonderful and emotional experience in rediscovering his hometown, going back to visit significant places of his early years and seeing in amazement how the town has grown into such a bustling city.  And of course, the delight of eating local food – so many restaurants, food courts and other makan places – which he said, requires more visits to further indulge!

I couldn’t help smiling when I read his message.  I was just glad I could help him reconnect with JB again.

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