Connecting with The Bear and Fish

It started as a quiet-private celebration for the official launch of my book sequel, My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, but it ended quite differently.

Vintage-looking vinyl record covers with records inside!
When my friends, who prefer to remain un-named, arranged for me to meet them at JWC The Bear and Fish Coffee Bar, I readily accepted their invitation to dinner because I deeply appreciate their goodwill and generosity to host such a celebration with me.

[I remember this café because one morning, when my family and I had a dim sum breakfast at a nearby restaurant, we decided to walk across to The Bear and Fish for a cup of coffee.

We soon discovered that the café does not open till 12noon, so we found another café to enjoy our morning cuppa together.]

I was told that the café now has a Food Menu – beside the Coffee and Beverage Menu – and I looked forward to a leisurely meal with my friends.

The coffee bar downstairs
As good hosts, my friends arrived ahead of me. I like the open carpark adjacent to the café and quickly found a parking space before joining my friends at their table.

I walked right into their chat while they were raving about the mug of Hot Chocolate which has a spicy aftertaste. It’s aptly named Demon Chocolate and they highly recommended it.

I enjoy good Chocolate (in any form!) but because I wanted to keep my space for dinner, I decided to defer it until later.

With their early arrival, my friends had studied the menus and found out from the wait-staff that there is an upstairs cocktail bar for after-dinner drinks and cake.

When they asked if we could have our dinner upstairs, the staff firmly replied that meals were served downstairs while the bar which opens at 7pm, was strictly for drinks and snacks.

So we placed our order for dinner and while we enjoyed our meal, we rehashed some of the exciting incidents that took place before, during and after my book launch event.

The wooden wardrobe that looked
similar to my grandfather's wardrobe!
When we were ready to move upstairs, we enquired with the waitress if we should settle the bill downstairs before leaving or pay the total later, at the end of our evening.

I listened intently, eager to follow the conversation and found it rather awkward and amusing because the waitress clearly understood the query in English – but she chose to reply in Mandarin.

It appeared that she understood the question but did not feel confident enough to reply in English.

Some of us who are comfortably bi-lingual, easily interpreted her reply – “Sui pien” or “It’s up to you.”

Which meant that we could choose to settle the bill downstairs or keep it for later.

So we picked up the receipt print-out and brought it along when we made our way up the flight of stairs.

This was the first time my friends and I are dining here so it was a whole new experience for all of us.

And when we reached the first floor (there was another level upstairs), we stepped across a wooden raised platform with an archway into a small lobby-like area with a few pieces of furniture but there were no tables and chairs nor a bar!

The calendar-poster on the wardrobe
Puzzled, we peeked out the glass window panels for a view that overlooked the parking lot but there was still no seating area outside.

Against the wall, a rack displayed a series of similar pictures on cardboards and when I looked closer, they were in fact sleeves/covers for vinyl records.

Nearby was a small sofa with a side table and a wooden double-door wardrobe.

The vintage look of this sturdy wooden wardrobe reminded me of a similar one that grandfather or Ah Kong, used to have in his room and I mentioned it to my friends.

One side of the wardrobe was fronted by a full-length mirror while the wooden panel of the other door was covered by a 1977 calendar-poster that featured (I presume) a Chinese male pop star reminiscent of the 70’s because his outfit was a ghastly two-toned bell-bottomed cat-suit!

Meanwhile, my friends and I were still baffled about where the bar was until a waitress (who probably guessed we needed help…) came upstairs to give us some clues to find our way to the promised cocktail bar.

The manual typewriter at the workstation
She spoke in Mandarin – indicating that there were two doors – and it was up to us to find them.

At once a blub lit up in my mind. But before I could reach for the door knob of the wooden wardrobe, two young men jogged up the stairs and made a beeline for the wardrobe.

“Best to let them show us the way,” one of my friends wisely said as we stepped aside to let these regulars go ahead of us.

It was like a scene out of C S Lewis’ book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” when the guys disappeared inside the wardrobe!

Then it was our turn.

After the others, I stepped into the wardrobe. I brushed aside the shirts hug from hangers and pushed at the back wall of the wardrobe which swung outwards to open into a dimly lit cavern!

When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a bartender behind a well-stocked bar (I was told) dedicated to a range of whisky, and he was taking drink orders from the young men seated on barstools, who had entered ahead of us.

The signboard and posters on the wall
inside the tiny alcove
With only two U-shaped sofas designed into the small space, it was a tad claustrophobic for us so we decided to exit and explore the other option.

The (Mandarin-speaking) waitress was still there to guide us into the other door.

On a workstation topped with a reading lamp over a manual typewriter, a soft-board mounted above was posted with diagrams and small notes.

What the waitress said was lost on me but I watched as my friends searched for a clue from the notes posted on the soft-board for the password required to be typed on the keyboard of the typewriter…

Then someone hit the right key and this released the door that was built into the wall. I thought this was pretty cool too.

I was ready to be wowed but I did not expect such a surprising connection with this place!

The muted lights showed us into a tiny alcove and on its wall, there was a signboard with names like Mong Kok, Kowloon Bay and Tsim Sha Sui, among other popular places in Hong Kong and below were two vintage painted posters that featured Chinese women in what appeared to be, alluring poses.

Rows of Sam Fong face powder!
On a nearby rattan shelf, rows of something familiar caught my eyes: Boxes of Sam Fong face powder – or what I call Granny’s face powder – squares of Hoi Tong pressed powder that my grandmother used to wear for her personal grooming!

The cover design of this square box of face powder, was in fact, the inspiration for the creation of my avatar – my iconic brand used on the masthead of My Johor Stories blog and on the cover design of both My Johor Stories books!

This gave me a hint of what to expect inside – a distinct vintage feel in the décor and theme in this cocktail bar.

And when we parted the curtain made of vertical strings of beads that separated this alcove with the bar – we stepped into a time warp of Shanghai during the 1950s!

A view of the wall decor from where I was seated
The music – vintage Mandarin songs in a playlist reminiscent of a nightclub songstress singing into a retro microphone for an appreciative audience seated in a dim and smoky nightclub – but I was glad that this bar was smoke-free.

The furniture was mainly cane and wood, quite sparsely laid out with woven rattan screens set up in between for more privacy.

We chose a table next to a stand lamp – for a little more light – and took in the sight of the cocktail bar with its bar in the shadows but lit up by little neon lights.

In the lighted backdrop design the word, GIN, was bracketed by two Chinese characters each to its left and right with the brand, “JWC” neatly affixed above.

On the window shades, I read the name “The Botanist” and figured that this brand of gin must be the featured drink in this bar.

The bartender-mixologist in action behind the bar
The bartender-mixologist who doubled up as the waiter, placed menus on our table and when we looked (more like squinted our eyes in the dim lights!) at them, we discovered that the beverage menu was all in Chinese!

Eh? Some of us may be bi-lingual in spoken Chinese and English but may not read Chinese… so we asked the bartender-mixologist-waiter to help with making our choice of beverages.

“Why all in Chinese?” was our pertinent question but he replied in jest: “This is Shanghai!” or something to that effect.

I understood that they wanted to remain true to their theme but this means non-Chinese reading/speaking visitors may have a problem in placing their drinks orders here …

He saw that we were really at a loss and relented by explaining that there were alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages served in three choices, with fruits, herbs or Chinese herbs.

All we needed to do was to pick either of the three choices, with our without alcohol, and he would mix a concoction from whatever ingredients he had at the bar. It sounded like Omakase for beverages to me.

So we placed our orders and sat back while he went back to the bar to mix our drinks.

From the décor to the music – mainly through the music – we were transported to an exotic era in Chinese entertainment as (at least some of us!) were able to recognise the tunes and artistes, both the Mandarin classics as well as Canto-pop hits by Hong Kong’s Heavenly Kings…

My drink choice was non-alcoholic with herbs and it turned up as a tall glass of chilled lychee flavoured with basil.

The others’ choices with and without gin, infused with chrysanthemum and rosemary among other herbs and flowers, turned out to be pretty attractive and exciting too.

As we chilled-out in this cosy cocktail bar, I could hear snatches of conversation coming from various tables behind the screens and hanging rolls of bamboo chicks.

This seemed like a favourite haunt for many but for us, it was an interesting discovery on an ordinary evening that started out with dinner together and then for drinks upstairs…

JWC The Bear and Fish Coffee Bar is at 65 Jalan Sutera Tanjung 8/3, Taman Sutera Utama, 81300 Skudai, Johor. Tel: +607 – 5540908. Open daily till 1am.

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