Downtown Johor Baru: Heritage Traders


On Friday, a day before the Heritage Walk and Book Reading planned for Saturday, February 18, I was on a telephone chat with a neighbour, JN, to arrange for an autographed copy of My Johor Stories 3: Proudly Johor, Then and Now, for her brother who was keen to complete his collection of a trilogy of My Johor Stories.


Book Reading: Heritage Traders on Feb 18

In the course of our conversation, JN also mentioned that Chris Pocock, a friend visiting from the UK, would like to join my Heritage Walk and Reading, and had written to my webpage to book a place.


She said he even bought my 2017 MPH Bestseller, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage, and wanted me to autograph it. [Later I found out that he bought my book from Y-Space, Johor Baru.]


By this time, I already had the complete list of participants registered to join the Walk and Reading session on February 18 and when I checked (over and over again!) I felt awkward because his name was not there.


With Elton Ho to draw the
winners in a FB live event

The list for February was very encouraging – more than double the number of participants in the previous month – probably because the Chinese New Year season was well behind us and from photos and videos, participants caught a glimpse of the fun we had at our activities in January and wanted to be part of it in February.


JN went on to say that her friend will be turning up tomorrow morning and asked me to share the details of our meeting point for the start of the Walk.


I appreciated his enthusiasm and was ready to welcome him along so I told her to remind him to bring along my book for me to autograph it for him.


As our tropical weather may be unpredictable, I had reminded participants to wear comfortable clothes and walking shoes, bring along a hat or cap and an umbrella as well as their own drinking water.


Walking along Segget Walk to
see Heritage Traders in JB

The next morning dawned bright and clear with rain expected in the afternoon. That was fine because the Book Reading session was arranged comfortably indoors at the Holiday Inn Johor Baru City Centre.


This Heritage Walk experience would be completed by the Book Reading where I would read portions documented in My Johor Stories books that highlighted the Subjects that we visited/experienced in our Walk.


As the weather grew steadily warmer, the mood was upbeat as I made my way to the meeting point to welcome everyone on arrival.


At the entrance of Johor Baru City Square mall, I met with our videographer, Chong Han Sun of JB Twenty-Twenty. While waiting for the others, he shared with me his own memories of visiting this very site with his mother when it was then the Central Wet Market.


An adventurous trek along the
city's heritage shortcut walkway

As the participants arrived, I observed that this was an eclectic group made up of local Chinese, Malay and Eurasian – a couple, individuals as well as a family with three young children – two Singaporeans from the Singapore Consul Office in Johor Baru, an Indian lady from the Johor Baru International Women’s Association and our Japanese friend, Mihoku Yui of the Japan Club in Johor.


When we made a final headcount, I anticipated the arrival of just one more – the Englishman (not on our list) – and was soon rewarded with the arrival of a gentleman who approached and introduced himself as Chris Pocock.


It was much later when I discovered that Chris had written to the blog for My Johor Stories to express his interest to join instead of registering on the Google form provided. (I do not read this mailbox often so I failed to see his message!)


In my view, however, Chris scored highly for his determination to connect with me and to join the My Johor Stories in Downtown JB activities that day.


Stanley Yeow at using a giant 
needle on a cotton-stuffed mattress

With a round of introductions done and when each participant was given a sticker to identify them for this Walk, we headed off to our first destination which entailed a ride up the nearby elevator to Level Five and a short walk to Level Six.


I glanced at the excited group and was delighted to see Ms Hana Badriah, a representative from Think City Johor Baru, among them.


Meanwhile, Tengku Tarmizi Bin Tengku Aziz of the Sultan Ismail Library who joined the January Heritage Walk, was also on the list for February but he sent a message to say that he was delayed and would join us at some point, later.


On Level Six, I was pleased to introduce Mee Ho Seng Kee among the Heritage Traders that were featured in Book Two of My Johor Stories, My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, published in 2018.


I shared with the group that these popular wonton noodles, made in a family recipe that included ducks’ eggs, was an established brand now run by Elton Ho, the third-generation operator.


Some participants with Stanley Yeow at
Kedai Tilam Sin Keng Wah, Jalan Trus

It was Elton who moved their family business which originated from a push-cart and developed it into a brand of popular noodles served in a modern mall café, appreciated by generations of wonton noodles fans, here and abroad.


Chris, the Englishman who is married to a Johorean wife, chipped in with a comment that Mee Ho Seng Kee was also his wife’s favourite and they had placed an order for takeaways when they leave for the UK, later this month.


In the café, Elton played a short video to illustrate the process of making their family recipe of noodles in a method that remained virtually unchanged since his grandfather’s days.


A queue waiting outside traditional wood-oven
bakery, Hiap Joo, at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk

Just as he did when Book Two of My Johor Stories was published, Elton recently held a Lucky Draw among his diners to win copies of Book Three of My Johor Stories.


The group then witnessed as Elton did a Facebook Live event to announce the happy winners as I drew out ten dining receipts collected inside a box, one-by-one.


The affable Elton also generously gave all participants with a Food Voucher valued at RM20 each to spend at Mee Ho Seng Kee (Non-Halal) or to present to their non-Muslim friends.


Before the group moved on to the next destination, I took the opportunity to highlight two other heritage traders featured in my Book Two, who had moved out of the downtown area to continue their businesses in the suburbs.


Outside the vintage photo studio,
Johore Heng Photo Studio

They were familiar brands, Haji Wahid Mee Rebus, a family business that used to serve their family recipe noodles at the Satay Club, a site opposite the former Railway Station and Kerala Restaurant, another family business that served banana-leaf South Indian cuisine which was formerly located along Jalan Ibrahim.


Our group then headed across Jalan Wong Ah Fook for a brief trek along the Segget Walk, designed along the Segget River and exited the promenade to step into an ancient part of the city, the old shortcut that linked Jalan Wong Ah Fook to Jalan Trus.


Walking this short path on old flagstones, worn smooth by the footsteps of generations of pedestrians, was (at least to me!) a special experience on one of the city’s charming heritage trails for an authentic glimpse of old Johor.


We emerged on Jalan Trus, also known as Johor Baru’s Street of Harmony featured in My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage, because the places of worship for the early community in Johor, were literally located along the same route.


Making their way up the flight of
stairs to Johore Heng Photo Studio

From where we stood, the Johor Old Temple was directly opposite while the churches were to our Right at Jalan Gereja and Jalan Gertak Merah.


To our Left were the Gudwara Sahib Sikh Temple with the Arulmigu Raja Mariamman Devasthanam, Hindu Temple next to it while the Masjid India was at the corner where Jalan Dhoby meets Jalan Duke.


Vehicular traffic seemed extra heavy that Saturday morning as we carefully crossed the road junctions to reach the block of shops where the city’s last cotton-stuffed mattress-maker, Kedai Tilam Sin Keng Wah, was located.


I had briefed the mattress-makers, Stanley Yeow and his father, Ah Soon, about this visit and they were ready to demonstrate how a cotton-stuffed mattress was secured by skillfully stitching through the thick mattress with a giant needle-pulling-thread.


The Book Reading session at
Holiday Inn Johor Baru City Centre

Stanley welcomed us in and as many of us gathered around his work table to observe his demo. We watched while Stanley did his best to answer the participants’ curious questions.


The group also had the opportunity to touch and squeeze samples of a cotton-stuffed pillow and bolster, and learnt that orders could be made to their choice of firmness.


Then we headed to the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk via Jalan Dhoby to reach the corner where Jalan Pahang meets with Jalan Tan Hiok Nee. Here we paused at the road-sign to acknowledge the namesake of this road.


The three roads in this Heritage Quarter that run parallel to each other are Jalan Tan Hiok Nee bordered by Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Ibrahim which faced the Johor Straits.


Reading relevant portions from
My Johor Stories books at the
Book Reading: Heritage Traders

I explained that the open space between by Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Ibrahim that was now a carpark and had container cafes there, was once part of these rows of shophouses that had been destroyed over the years.


The double-storey shophouse at No. 24 Jalan Ibrahim, was once occupied by a pharmacy called Universal on the ground level while the upper level was Chow Dispensary, a clinic where patients would consult with a Eurasian doctor named Dr Chow (her maiden name) or Dr Comber (her married name).


I had shared in My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage about our connection to Han Suyin, that this medical doctor, Elizabeth Chow Kuanghu, was also a prolific writer and novelist who wrote in French, Mandarin and English under her pen-name, Han SuYin, and she lived in Johor Baru for about 10 years with her husband, Leon F. Comber.


In 1955, Twentieth Century Fox made her semi-autobiographical novel, A Many-Splendored Thing, into a movie, Love is a Many Splendored Thing which won Oscars for best picture, best song, best score and best costume.


Mee Ho Seng Kee on Level Six of
Johor Baru City Square Mall

When our group reached the traditional wood-oven bakery, Hiap Joo, its entrance was blocked by a long, long queue of people, patiently waiting to reach the small window to place their order for a choice of baked bread and/or banana cake.


This overwhelming crowd was clear proof of the bakery’s popularity. And when I squeezed in to ask for the baker, James Lim, I was told that he was not there. (I know we had arrived later than planned and learnt he had to leave for another appointment.)


I had (wisely!) made a prior order for banana cake so we only waited to collect this order to distribute to each participant for them to savour and enjoy.


Facade of Kedai Tilam Sin Keng Wah, Jalan Trus

Then we were off to our next and final destination in the Heritage Walk that featured another interesting Heritage Trader, Johore Heng Photo Studio.


While the adults were thrilled to visit a vintage photo studio, I observed that the youngsters were exhausted by the physical exercise in our tropical weather and had to be carried up the steep flight of ancient stairs.


I encouraged the group to appreciate the gallery of vintage photographs that showcased Johor Baru in a bygone era and to be prepared to pose for their own photos in the studio.


Alex Liew, who runs this photo studio with the help of his brother, showed off their ancient wooden cameras, photo negatives used for processing of photos and was happy to set up the lighting to capture studio shots of individuals and groups.


A valuable collection of vintage photographs
in the Johore Heng Photo Studio

Meanwhile, I had prepared photo-frames to let participants pick their choice to frame up their photos that Alex printed out for them to take home as souvenirs.


It was noon when I stepped out of the photo studio, at the corner where Jalan Trus meets with Jalan Ibrahim, and walked along Jalan Ibrahim to Jalan Wong Ah Fook to enjoy a breezy stroll on the Segget Walk to the hotel for my next activity.


After a short break, I was on Level 10 at the Holiday Inn Johor Baru City Centre by 1.30pm where my Book Reading session was arranged in a hall there.


Thank you all for being part of
My Johor Stories in Downtown
JB's February Heritage Walk

As registered participants trickled in, I recognised the familiar faces of Mihoko, Rhys and Chris from the Walk that morning.


I was much encouraged by the presence of Jonathan Lai, General Manager of Holiday Inn Johor Baru City Centre, who joined the Walk as well as this Reading with his wife and daughter. Incidentally, his wife who was from HongKong, shared very encouraging comments about her experience with me and My Johor Stories in Downtown JB.


While the Reading session was in progress, I observed that a lady had slipped in to join the group. Later, during our interactive time together, she introduced herself as Helen Cheng, sister of Lucy Cheng who was at our Reading session in January.


Helen said her sister, who have since returned to the UK, had such a refreshing time at our Reading session in January that she insisted that Helen joined this session in February.


Thank you all for being part of My Johor
Stories in Downtown JB's Book Reading
session for February 2023

Over refreshments, participants continued to reminisce about familiar things in Johor Baru and as we got to know each other better, discovered much in common in our passion to preserve the soul of this beloved city we call Home.


The Heritage Walks from 10am to 12pm in four different routes and the Book Reading sessions from 2pm to 4.30pm are arranged in hotels in Downtown JB that has particular relevance to the Walk and its themes.


They are the Amari Johor Baru on January 14, the Holiday Inn Johor Baru City Centre on February 18, with the DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru on March 18 and the GBW Hotel Johor Baru on April 15.


My Johor Stories in Downtown JB activities are planned for Saturdays in four different themes: the Segget Waterway on January 14 and Heritage Traders on February 18, with the next on Teochew Heritage on March 18 and Cantonese Heritage on April 15.


So let Downtown JB come alive for you again in an exciting experience hosted by My Johor Stories, only for two more Saturdays early this year.


Participation in each event is by registration, priced at only RM50 per person to receive a limited edition My Johor Stories tote bag, one book of My Johor Stories 3: Proudly Johor, Then and Now and an exclusive My Johor Stories souvenir bookmark.


At the Book Reading sessions, more copies of My Johor Stories 3: Proudly Johor, Then and Now are available from a book sale.


The activities planned for the My Johor Stories in Downtown Johor Baru is an initiative under the Downtown Johor Baru Grants Programme: Arts, Heritage and Culture, a collaboration between Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) and Think City, supported by Majlis Bandaraya Johor Baru (MBJB).


Focusing on the heritage core of Johor Baru, the grants programme aims to support community-based initiatives to reactivate Downtown Johor Baru. For more info, Tel: +6016 727 5537.

Note: Photographs are courtesy of happy participants of the Heritage Walk and Book Reading session in February 2023. Thanks everyone for capturing the exciting moments!

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