One more Heritage Walk in 2023

 

There was no better way to close 2023 than to have another Heritage Walk, this time with foreign students who were in Johor under Antarabudaya Malaysia, a student exchange programme formerly known as the American Field Service (AFS).

 

One for the album: Our group at the foothills
of Bukit Timbalan with the iconic Sultan
Ibrahim Building as a majestic backdrop

A volunteer for AFS, Tan Bee Lian, told me that she read online about my Heritage Walks arranged under the My Johor Stories in Downtown Johor Baru project earlier this year and asked to hold one more specially for these students and members of their host families here.

 

When Bee Lian reached out to me with the proposal to do this Heritage Walk, she said that a guided Walk with me around our city’s heritage quarter was an ideal activity for the students while they were here over the Christmas holidays.

 

She explained that the group will comprise students from the United States of America and Venezuela, aged between 16 and 17, along with members from their host families at ages that ranged between 10 to 60.

 

With the group at the start of our Heritage Walk

To plan my Walk, I needed to know more about the participants and in a matter of days, Bee Lian coordinated the participant details and rushed the relevant info to me.

 

In response to my query, she confirmed that the group was truly an intercultural one, made up of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.

 

From experience, I knew that the group should be kept small so I told Bee Lian to limit the number to only 12 participants.

 

By keeping the group small, participants will benefit from the Walk experience when everyone can be within earshot to hear my commentary.

 

Participants checking out the Contents in
Book Three of My Johor Stories

With a date set for the Heritage Walk from 10am to 1pm, Bee Lian wasted no time in compiling the name list, complete with ages and home countries of the participants.

 

On the night before our Walk, I reminded Bee Lian about our outing planned for the next morning and her reply was very encouraging. She said:

 

“Everyone is very excited! Foreigners want to know more while locals are curious to find out how much they really know. But I am pretty sure nobody knows much about Johor history and heritage.”

 

Early the next morning, we woke up to a heavy downpour. While Bee Lian was concerned about the inconvenience due to the wet weather, I assured her – because I was earnestly praying – that heaven will cooperate to keep the rain away until our Walk was over.

 

A "we-fie" of the group while
walking on the promenade at
Jalan Wong Ah Fook

When I arrived at the meeting point to await the arrival of the participants, the rain had abated to a light drizzle.

 

I was prepared for delays due to the rain during this monsoon season but it was moments later when a young man approached and introduced himself as Solomon Khit, an AFS volunteer who was joining our Walk.

 

While waiting for the others, we chatted and was pleased to learn that Solomon was a student with the Newcastle University campus here. The mention of this university reminded me of Dr Ed Ong, a lecturer who was among the speakers with me in our 2019 TEDx Talk and it was fun to discover that Dr Ed was a mutual friend.

 

We happily folded up our umbrellas as the drizzle had already ceased.

 

Our chat was interrupted by the next arrival, a lady who asked me to guess who she was… And I guessed right. She was Bee Lian.

 

At one end of the Tan Hiok Nee
Heritage Walk, next to OCBC Bank

In the next 10 minutes, the participants arrived one after the other, so our start time was only slightly delayed.

 

Our Walk started along the promenade by the Segget River at Jalan Wong Ah Fook before turning into Jalan Segget and the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk towards the Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum.

 

It was my pleasure to lead the group to the foothills of Bukit Timbalan for a good view of the fa├žade of our iconic Sultan Ibrahim Building and shared with them, the uniqueness of the Johor Military Force and the beauty of Johor’s Street of Harmony.

 

Throughout the Walk, I was pleased to note that the participants listened attentively to my commentary and cooperated by keeping close together as we moved safely from place to place.

 

Participants listening to my commentary at
the Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum

While I kept an eye on the time, the participants assured me that they did not mind if the Walk exceeded the given time because they were simply enjoying themselves.

 

In My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, I documented stories on heritage traders who are still doing the businesses that were started by their forefathers and was happy to let the group have an experience of them.

 

After visiting the Johor Old Temple and the Indian Heritage Centre, we walked down Jalan Trus to visit a heritage trader, Sin Keng Wah traditional mattress-makers.




An Abbey Road (Beatles!)-inspired shot captured at Jalan Ungku Puan, Johor Bahru


It was uncanny that at the end of our Walk, just minutes after we parted ways, it started to rain again.

 

A fun-photo memento at the
Indian Heritage Centre

As I watched the monsoon rain turn into a storm, I was deeply grateful that the heavens held back the rain until our Walk was over.

 

When I sent a Thank You message to Bee Lian, I also asked her to follow-up with the students to give some feedback about their Walk experience.

 

Over the next few days, I received the students’ comments and am pleased to share their views about my Heritage Walk:

 

“The Heritage Walk was definitely enlightening. Bits and pieces of the history of Johor Bahru are well connected to match up with the glory today.”

 

“I was enthusiastic to learn that the late Johor sultans actually developed Johor by inviting the immigrants from China and India here, and the roads were named after the leaders among the clans in memory of their contributions.”

 

Participants watching a demo in making
a traditional cotton-stuffed cushion at
Sin Keng Wah Kedai Tilam, Jalan Trus

“I really enjoyed the Heritage Walk and would like to participate in other activities organised in the future.”

 

“I enjoyed it a lot. Each place was new and interesting. My favourite part was when Peggy was talking about how Singapore and Malaysia were once one country and how other cultures came here.

 

“I think you should do this (heritage walk) for the next students because its really helpful to understand the history of Johor and Malaysia.”

 

As I read each feedback comment, I could not help but felt much encouraged.

 

Another Heritage Walk was indeed a good way to close an eventful year while looking forward to more exciting projects for My Johor Stories in the new year.

 

Happy New Year 2024, everyone!

 

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Florence Liew and Tan Bee Lian

The Tan family's book tribute

 

In October 2023, I shared on the Tan family’s journey to preparing a precious tribute that started when Mei Ling, their eldest daughter, was on holiday at a resort in Desaru Coast where she discovered My Johor Stories placed in her room for the guests’ reading pleasure.

 

Tan Kiah Teck on a school trip to Thailand,
a photograph featured inside the book

She was pleasantly surprised to read that my book documented names of people familiar to her because after his retirement, her father had written about these very people among the many legal cases he handled in his law career in Johor.

 

Meanwhile Mei Ling and her siblings had been thinking of compiling their father’s recollections into a book to save it for posterity so reading My Johor Stories sparked the idea to rope me in to help them turn their book project into reality.

 

Her father, retired lawyer Tan Kiah Teck, had established a private practice in Tan & Tan Advocates & Solicitors in Johor Bahru.

 

Mei Ling and I with their book
tribute to Tan Kiah Teck

Tan and his wife sent their children to study in Singapore where their children, Mei Ling, Huai Ling and Cheng Ling continued to have careers and settled down in the neighbouring country.

 

When Mei Ling mentione that their father was gravely ill, it spurred us on to get started on the book project and to complete it in the shortest possible time.

 

I kept myself focused on this project in July and August and we made rapid progress in preparing the manuscript through numerous emails and WhatsApp chat messages.

 

Each time I sent her a message, Mei Ling would promptly reply with comments or give her approval on the pieces I had revised or edited for clarity.

 

It was after the first week of August when I noticed that her replies were slow and delayed, and gave me a hunch that something had happened in the Tan family.

 

Mei Ling, telling her Uncle Bon
about discovering My Johor Stories
during her resort stay...

On August 12, my heart sank when I read Mei Ling’s message that said:

 

“Good Morning. Received with thanks the revised documents. My father passed away yesterday so I haven’t had a chance to look at them.”

 

I was deeply saddened and immediately replied with condolences, knowing that the family would need time and space to deal with their bereavement.

 

When Mei Ling met her father’s partner in their legal firm at the funeral wake, he shared more details about their early years in the partnership and she told me we will add this anecdote into the manuscript.

 

Then her uncle showed them a bunch of old photographs of her father that they had never seen before and she picked some to add into the compilation of family photos in the book.

 

Our lunch meeting in Johor Bahru [L to R]
Uncle Bob and his wife, Mrs Tan and son,
Cheng Ling, [Standing with me] Mei Ling

In September the manuscript was submitted to the printer for layout and to prepare the mockup version of their book simply titled, Tan Kiah Teck – A Kampung Boy’s Search for Truth and Justice, for Mei Ling to review.

 

While it was a momentous task, I was happy to have participated in this book project with the Tan family to prepare a loving tribute to their father/grandfather, that will be distributed among their family and friends.

 

Throughout this time, Mei Ling and I only “met” online but we had yet to meet in person. So Mei Ling and I eagerly anticipated that date for us to meet when she collected the books from the printer.

 

With Mei Ling and Cheng Ling;
Book opened to the page with their
kind messages to me.

After her review of the mockup version of the book, Mei Ling liaised with the printer to confirm all the details before they proceeded to print.

 

Finally, a date was set for Mei Ling to collect their book order from the printer so we discussed and agreed on a venue in Johor Bahru to meet for lunch.

 

I was delighted to learn that I will not only be meeting Mei Ling for lunch but more of her family members as she would be accompanied by her mother, her brother Cheng Ling, their Uncle Bob and his wife.

 

Mei Ling also said that her sister, Huai Ling, would like to have my books to present to her son, Linus, so I brought along the trilogy of My Johor Stories for her.

 

When I walked into the restaurant that day, Mei Ling and her family were already seated at a table. When Mei Ling spotted me, she stood up and approached me.

 

Even though we had never met, I have seen the photographs that were compiled and published in their book. So when we met, a strange familiarity prevailed because I had gotten to know the family while writing their book tribute.

 

When I passed my books to Mei Ling, she picked up Book Two, My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, to tell her Uncle Bob about how my stories in this book connected her to me.

 

Then I autographed my books that would be presented to their nephew, Linus.

 

While I was delighted to meet Mei Ling and her family, I was thrilled to receive a copy of the book, Tan Kiah Teck – A Kampung Boy’s Search for Truth and Justice, duly signed by Mei Ling and Cheng Ling with their kind words.

 

“Thank you for joining us for in our journey of creating our father’s memoirs,” wrote Mei Ling.

 

“Thank you, as this would not have been possible without you,” wrote Cheng Ling.

 

Over a sumptuous lunch, we enjoyed a convivial time together chatting about the topics, illustrations and photos that were documented in the book.

 

I was pleased to hear about how Mei Ling managed to get talented illustrators to create visuals that better portrayed the scenes of a bygone era, described by her father.

 

The display at the book launch event on
Christmas Eve at their family gathering

She said the book will be launched at a family gathering on Christmas eve with guests that included Professor Cheah Jin Seng and their cousin Doreen, who wrote the Foreword in the book.

 

Among the best gifts I received for Christmas Day 2023 must be the photos that Mei Ling shared with me, captured at this family gathering to launch their book tribute.

 

As I looked at the photos, I was pleased to spot my Book Two, My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, along with our photos taken when we met at lunch in Johor Bahru, was among the display at their book launch event.

 

While I could not be there in person, I was certainly with them in thought and spirit.

 

Thank you, Mei Ling and the Tan family, for letting me be part of your loving tribute.


Suvarna celebrates 30 years of artistic excellence

 

When I received the invitation to the 30th anniversary celebration of Suvarna Fine Arts from Dr Ajith Bhaskar, he reminded me that I have been part of their journey in the first 20 years and should be there for their 30th year celebration.


The dancers take a bow at the grand finale
of the The Ode to Lord Krishnan

 
I felt deeply humbled as I reflected on how much I have learned about Indian classical dance and the finer points of the art of Bharatanatyam when I joined Suvarna events over the years.


While I may not understand the intricacies of Indian performing arts, I know that music and dance transcend language.

 

I can easily appreciate the beauty of Bharatanatyam probably because I was brought up with family values that embraces the art and culture in our multi-racial community.

 

Celebrating with Ajith on the
30th anniversary of Suvarna Fine Arts

Ajith Bhaskar, one of the most accomplished male Bharatanatyam dancers of his generation, is not only a Dancer but also a Choreographer, Nattuvanar and Lyricist.

 

Through Suvarna activities, I got to know him better and had the pleasure to document his story under Portraits in my 2017 MPH Non-Fiction Bestseller, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage.

 

Just like any good Asian son, Ajith obeyed his parents’ wishes and completed his education to their satisfaction. And then went on to pursue his passion in Indian classical dance.

 

So Ajith can be introduced as, “A lawyer by training and a dancer by choice.”

 

A scene from the performance

At the peak of his international career, Ajith made news in the Los Angeles Times when he performed on stages around the world including prestigious venues like the Lincoln Centre and the Joyce Theatre Broadway.

 

While he made a name for himself, dancing on the international stage, he also established Suvarna Fine Arts, his own dance academy with the aim to train and pass on the discipline of Indian classical dance to his students.

 

He is the principal and artistic director at Suvarna in Johor Bahru with branches established in the city and nearby districts, led by senior graduates.

 

Another scene from the performance

With more than three decades of teaching experience at Suvarna, Ajith is a much sought-after choreographer, renowned for his expertise in complex and vibrant dance works.

 

After Ajith was featured in My Johor Stories in 2017, I was proud to witness his next exciting accomplishment in 2018 when he was the proud recipient of the Iskandar Malaysia Social Heroes Award (IMSHA), recognised for his service and excellence in the arts.

 

As I fondly reflected on our journey together, I did not hesitate to say “Yes!” to his invitation and arranged to attend this special recital titled, Natyanjali 2023, Krishna Priya – An ode to Lord Krishna – held at a venue in Taman Bukit Indah.

 

Candid shot: Ajith and I looked like we
were performing a dance move!

The monsoon weather on that evening, however, did not deter me from heading to the event. When I reached the “Beautiful Hill,” I was pleased that the clouds cooperated by holding back the rains for a more comfortable arrival.

 

As I walked towards the hall entrance, I observed that most of the guests were dressed in traditional costumes, many of the ladies in sarees that sparkled with gems.

 

When I approached the reception table in the lobby, I was pleasantly surprised when Ajith himself met me midway to the table.

 

After a warm welcome, he handed me over to an usher to guide me to my seat in the hall but I paused to ask for a photo together because I knew that moments later, Ajith would be swept away by a tide of guest arrivals and then engaged with the many details for this special event.

 

Lord Krishna portrayed
at a younger age


I am familiar with recitals by Suvarna but Ajith gently reminded me to bear with the first part of the event programme which was dedicated to acknowledge key people that included loyal patrons, parents and sponsors to Suvarna throughout the years.

 

I know that Suvarna recitals were presented with narration in English so that a wider audience was able to appreciate the performances and Ajith assured me that the recital that evening will be a spectacular non-stop show.

 

When I handed my camera to someone to help capture a photo memento of Ajith and myself at this important occasion, I did not know that she had started clicking before we had composed ourselves to pose for the shot.

 

[Much later when I checked my photos at home, I saw that there was a candid shot that caught Ajith and I in a synchronized stance that looked like we were performing a dance move together!

 

I did not hesitate to share it with Ajith who also enjoyed the photo and replied, “I love this photo! We are dancing together!”]

 

He mimed the narration
in-between dances performances
 
The usher who brought me to my seat told me that “Master,” meaning Ajith, said that I should sit where I have a clear view of the stage so that I may capture some good shots.

 

As more guests arrived and filled up the rows upon rows of seats in the hall, a few chairs next to mine still remained vacant. Not long after that, the usher brought three Chinese young men to take the seats next to me. I know them as drummers from JB Drums, who were skilled in the art of the 24 Festive Drums.

 

Early this year, JB Drums in collaboration with Orang Orang Drum Theatre, started presenting a series of drum shows dubbed, Drum Up JB, at the Permaisuri Zarith Sofia Opera House. Ajith was among the audience to enjoy this show in March 2023.

 

Among the activities organised to celebrate the 35th anniversary since the founding of the 24 Festive Drums, was a Coffee Talk held in June 2023 where key personalities in the local arts, culture and heritage scene like Ajith and co-founder of the 24 Festive Drums, Tan Chai Puan, were brought together to share their thoughts and ideas.

 

A scene that portrayed Lord Krishna
at another age
 
When the drummers expressed interest to collaborate with Ajith, it was significant that in July, I had the privilege to witness the Chinese drummers – drumming Chinese drums to the rhythm of Indian classic dance – training with Ajith and his students in Suvarna.

 

Since then, the drummers have been training regularly with Ajith and they too received the invitation to this recital in celebration of Suvarna’s 30th anniversary.

 

When the Chinese men had settled into their seats, I soon discovered that this was their first experience of a recital by Suvarna.

 

The manifestation of
Lord Krishna [Left] in the finale


So I told them about the initial part of the programme where Ajith will acknowledge several people and prepared them by sharing briefly about Indian traditions like presenting garlands, showing respect by prostrating and touching the feet of the elders.

 

The event kicked off with a welcome address from Ajith. After expressing his thanks to mentors, loyal patrons and parents who have consistently supported Suvarna in the past 30 years, they were each invited on stage to be appreciated the traditional way with a garland presentation.

 

When he was invited to say a few words, Guest-of-Honour, Tourism, Environment, Heritage & Culture Committee chairman, YB Raven Kumar Krishnasamy, agreed with Ajith that the art of Indian classical dance can only be sustained for future generations through the support of parents who entrusted their children to Suvarna to train in the discipline of dance.

 

With all the acknowledgements done, the recital started in a non-stop series of dance performances presented by Suvarna students from the various branches in Johor.

 

One for the album with the
young men from JB Drums at the recital

A voice-over narration in English introduced each performance that showcased the various manifestations of Krishna through different stages of his life. [I recognised the voice which distinctly belonged to Ajith.]

 

The dancers’ colourful costumes, adorned by glittering jewels, topped with neatly coiffured hair, decorated by flowers, graceful dance moves along with expressive hands and fingers, eyes and faces, kept all of us in the audience mesmerized to the very end of the show.

 

Congratulations Suvarna Fine Arts on celebrating 30 years of artistic excellence. Wishing you all the best for the next exciting 30 years and beyond!

 

Suvarna Fine Arts is located at Nong Chik Riverside, No. 17, Level 2, Jalan Kolam Ayer 2, Kampung Mohd Amin, 80200 Johor Baru, Johor.

Holiday Inn JBCC Appreciation 2023

 

It was good to be back at the Holiday Inn Johor Bahru City Centre again, particularly when it was for an evening dedicated to the appreciation of corporate and media partners.

 

Christmas themed decorations on cakes and
pastries this festive season at Dine@Eight

Our invitation was to arrive at the Lobby Lounge to enjoy pre-dinner drinks and light snacks before going to Level Nine where the Appreciation gathering was arranged in the Sapphire event halls.

 

I am familiar with the Sapphire event halls because almost exactly 12 months ago, I had the pleasure to partner with Holiday Inn Johor Bahru City Centre to hold the book launch event for My Johor Stories 3: Proudly Johor, Then and Now, here.

 

As I sipped my drink, I could not help having flashbacks to that event last year and felt deeply grateful for a healthy working relationship with the hotel.

 

Gingerbread house with gingerbread
man and a reindeer on the roof!

With more arrivals, the crowd in the Lounge soon swelled and we were then ushered to the elevators to make our way to the event halls upstairs.

 

The moment I stepped out of the elevator, the sight of the space ahead seemed very familiar and when I walked towards the entrance of the event halls, it felt like it was just “yesterday” when I was here for my own event.

 

When I spied the creatively arranged dessert section in the dinner buffet, it was a bright distraction that drew me closer to admire the array of delightful desserts with gingerbread houses and traditional Swiss Roll Yule Logs adorned with Christmas figurines and decorations.

 

The evening kicked off with Christmas carols presented bilingual in English and Mandarin, by a choir from the Holy Family Church.

 

Christmas carols presented by choir from
the Holy Family Church

In her speech, hotel General Manager, Emelyn Rosales, expressed her appreciation to corporate clients and media partners as well as her hotel team.

 

She took time to introduce the Heads of Department and the latest addition to the team, Executive Chef Khairil Anwar Ahmad, who comes with more than 25 years of culinary experience.

 

Then the Director of Sales & Marketing, Nirubah Karalasingam, presented an outline of the whirlwind of festive activities planned at Dine@Eight on Level Eight. They include:

 

Holiday Eve Dinner Buffet

On 24 December from 6:30pm to 10:00pm, for diners to indulge in an opulent spread featuring Beef Wellington, Seafood on Ice, Whole Roasted Chicken, Al Saffron Rice, Baked Pasta with Mushroom and Spinach Au Gratin, Duck Ala Orange, Seabass Florentine, Irish Summer Lamb Stew, Moules Mariniere, and Shepherd's Pie, and a medley of other mouth-watering delights.

 

Guests can also revel in live band entertainment, Santa Claus & Santa Rina appearances, and a Gingerbread man Cookie Decoration activity.

 

Holiday Hi-Tea Buffet

On 25 December from 12:00pm to 3:00pm, a sumptuous Hi-Tea Buffet awaits with a showcase of Stuffed Roasted Beef Tenderloin, Lasagna, Grilled Seabass with Lemon Butter Sauce, Lamb Navarin, and an array of other delectable treats.

 

The event will feature Santa Claus & Santa Rina appearances, ‘Guess The Candy’ Contest, and more.

 

Holiday Dinner Buffet

Continuing the celebrations on the 25 December from 6:30pm to 10:00pm, diners can savour the flavours of Roasted Chicken, Salted Baked Salmon, Jambalaya Rice, Penne Arrabiatta, Criollo Duck Breast, Sea Bass Cream Lemon Butter Sauce, Lamb Ragout, and other culinary delights. Santa Claus & Santa Rina will also grace the evening with their presence.

 

Festive Delights

Spread joy and giving from 1 - 31 December between 11:00am and 10:00pm. For every purchase of Festive Delights, a donation of RM5 will be made to a selected charity home.

 

Free-flow of wine and beer on Appreciation Night

Then it was time for the Lucky Draw because an Appreciation Night will not be complete without an opportunity to reward guests with prizes like vouchers for hotel stays in Holiday Inn properties and meals in the hotel restaurant.

 

No, I did not win any vouchers but I was pleasantly surprised to be among the three picked from the guests to say a few words about my experience with the hotel.

 


My token of appreciation to the GM
included a kopitiam cup and saucer
 
I was pleased with the privilege to express my appreciation to the hotel for their partnership with My Johor Stories and shared briefly about my book launch event for the third and final instalment to complete the trilogy of My Johor Stories, hosted in these very same event halls last December.

 

I did not mention it but at my book launch event, I presented the hotel with the trilogy of My Johor Stories made up of my 2017 MPH Non-Fiction Bestseller, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage, its sequel My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, and the final instalment, My Johor Stories 3: Proudly Johor, Then and Now.

 

I also presented the hotel’s then General Manager with an autographed copy of Book Three with a traditional kopitiam cup and saucer, which he said reminded him of his childhood when he saw his father pour the hot drink onto the saucer to cool before drinking it from the saucer.

 

MPH Bestsellers List in July 2017

Due to time constraints, I also did not mention about the My Johor Stories in Downtown Johor Baru project early this year, where I hosted my Book Reading session in the hotel after the morning’s Heritage Walk.

 

[By the way, the GM and his family joined the group for my Heritage Walk and Book Reading session in the theme, Downtown Johor Bahru: Heritage Traders.]

 

Wow! This Appreciation Night at the hotel inadvertently turned out to be a special evening of meaningful reflections for me and My Johor Stories.

 

So thank you, Holiday Inn Johor Bahru City Centre, the appreciation is mutual.

 

Dine@Eight is on Level Eight, the lobby level of Holiday Inn Johor Bahru City Centre, located in Johor Bahru City Centre Mall, Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, 80000 Johor Baru, Johor.

 

For more information, visit the Holiday Inn Johor Bahru City Centre official Facebook and Instagram pages for holidayinnjbcc or website: holidayinn.com/johorbahru