Focus on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee


Every now and then, I may receive messages from students and university undergraduates with enquiries about certain topics they read from My Johor Stories.


At Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk with Bettina
[Far Right] during our Heritage Walk

I always reply to the best of my ability or I will direct them to relevant sources that may provide them with the information they required.


Recently, I received a message from an Interior Design student with Raffles University who introduced herself as Magadia Bettina Dielle, and told me she was working on her thesis titled:


The Exploration of Adaptive Reuse Application in Heritage Buildings:

Case Study of Shophouses at Jalan Tian Hok Nee


While doing research about Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, she stumbled upon my blog which has a collection of stories on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and asked to have an interview with me about this heritage street.


Road sign at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee

When I replied with a request to tell me more about her project, Bettina’s prompt reply said: “I am glad you responded.”


When Bettina confirmed that she was based in Johor Baru to attend classes with Raffles University at their campus in Medini 7, Iskandar Puteri, I remembered passing by that precinct on my way to Sunway Big Box and the Citrine Hub.


She may have explored my blog and discovered some stories I shared about Jalan Tan Hiok Nee so in reply, I shared with her a piece I wrote simply titled, Old buildings, new lives, published in The Iskandarian in June 2014 – some 10 years ago – to give her an idea of my thoughts about giving old buildings new lives.


By now, almost all of the businesses opened in these old buildings may have ceased, save one which is still operating as a private school in Johor Baru.


[The Iskandarian, the official newspapers of Iskandar Malaysia, had a page dedicated to My Johor Stories when it then published a print version.]


Bettina went on to further explain:


“Adaptive Reuse is a common practice to use for heritage buildings, which is good as it promotes sustainability. It uses a different function than what it was intended for but at least it is being repurposed.


Compared to conserving a building it will be more costly. By having this research, it will aware people of adaptive reuse and as well as the history/evolution of the heritage buildings in Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.”


Bettina [Left] recording the interview with me

She was currently doing data collection and planned to have interviews with people in Think City Johor Baru on the heritage buildings in Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, with a lady who was in the field of heritage buildings in Melaka and with me, as I had written about Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.


I was glad that she provided such relevant information to let me digest and decide on how I may participate (or not!) and contribute to her thesis.


She did not hesitate to send a list of questions for me to prepare my replies and asked if we should meet at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee for the interview or we could just do it in a video call.


Facade of the Johor Baru
Chinese Heritage Museum 

I sensed her urgency to complete these interviews but at that time, I was preparing for my Heritage Walk, arranged with a group on Sunday morning.


It occurred to me that I could ask Bettina if she was keen to join this Walk because an experience in our city’s heritage quarter should reap some useful knowledge and insights about Johor culture and heritage.


From her name, I could tell that she was not Malaysian and from her telephone number, I saw that it was registered in Qatar. I am familiar with foreign students here so I quickly asked if she wished to join my Heritage Walk on Sunday.


“Oh yes, I read about it from your blog,” she replied and agreed to join.


When we met for the Heritage Walk that morning, Bettina clarified that she is Filipino but was brought up in Qatar where her parents live and work.


There was much to share with Bettina
about Jalan Tan Hiok Nee

While we enjoyed our time together in the Walk, we had yet to fix an appointment for that interview. Soon after the Walk, I studied her list of questions to prepare my replies and fixed an appointment to meet on a weekday after her classes.


Bettina said that this interview will be voice recorded for her review later so when we were comfortably seated, she set up various devices to take notes and to record the interview.


I gave a brief introduction to My Johor Stories and told Bettina that many pieces on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and the heritage quarter in downtown Johor Baru were first published in The Iskandarian, and Travel Times (rebranded Life & Times) and Johor Buzz (rebranded Johor Streets), pull-out sections of The New Straits Times newspapers as well as online newspaper, The Malaysian Insider.


Carelessly parked cars in front of No Parking
signs in downtown Johor Baru

In reply to her query, “Why Jalan Tan Hiok Nee?” I did a rewind back to that time when the state administrative offices in the Sultan Ibrahim building gradually shifted to Kota Iskandar, the new state administrative centre in Iskandar Puteri.  


This contributed to a marked reduction of customers in city businesses. Over the years, many businesses on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee closed or moved to the suburbs and only a handful of traditional traders remained. 


When the Johor Baru Tiong-Hua Association vacated their premises at No. 42 Jalan Ibrahim and moved to their new building in Taman Sri Tebrau, this property was refurbished and opened as the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum with its rear entrance on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee. 


Big car parked across tiled pavement...

At the official opening of this Museum in 2009, the then Johor Menteri Besar declared Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, a Heritage Walk.


Between 2009 and 2014, the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk committee worked hard to organise a series of cultural events for the public, on this road on Saturday nights.


The heritage walk was closed to vehicular traffic in the evenings to encourage more people to come into the city to enjoy the street carnival activities.


Co-founder of the art of 24 Festive Drums, Tan Chai Puan, a cultural activist who was then a Heritage Walk committee member, would brief me in advance and helped me with English translation, so I often joined in the fun at Chinese festivals and cultural events.


City Council tow truck towing away a car
parked along double Yellow lines

I had the privilege to write about these exciting events and published them with good photos in Johor Streets, a section of The New Straits Times that (unfortunately!) ceased its publication in 2015.


At that time, young entrepreneurs moved into old buildings and refurbished them for new businesses and revitalized this area into a hip and happening heritage destination which became popular to both local and foreign visitors in search of nostalgia and a retro charm.


This area gradually transformed into a charming destination where traditional businesses continue to operate among trendy cafes, coffee places, art galleries, boutiques and specialty shops.


The favourable currency exchange rate is another factor which keeps foreign visitors coming here for a day trip or weekend destination, to explore, eat and shop.


Looking back, many of the new businesses then opened in the old shops, have already closed but after the recent pandemic years, many new and popular brands have started their businesses here.


It was a pleasure to share my experiences
with Bettina to let her have a better view of
heritage buildings in the city

I shared with Bettina that my earliest memory of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee was buying bread from Hiap Joo, a traditional bakery. I remember being seated in the backseat of dad’s VW Beetle as he drove downtown to stop in front of the bakery.


Dad would call out his order, “Ngiau kai!” (Hainanese for “small one”) and the baker would pass a loaf to us through the open car window. Then we would drive off with the fragrance of freshly baked bread inside our car.


And when my sisters and I were sick, mum would take us to consult a lady doctor, Dr Alice Low, who had a private practice at Low’s Clinic, opened at the block of shops close to the OCBC Bank.


At that time, we could just drive through Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and return home with ease because traffic flow was smooth and there were no obstructions along the downtown network of roads.


Now drivers carelessly park along both sides of the roads, even on tiled pavements – destroying the tiles and obstructing pedestrians – which created a narrow path for vehicles to pass.


This presents grave danger because in case of medical or other emergencies like fire in the heritage quarter, it would be very difficult for emergency vehicles to pass through and reach the affected areas.


I have highlighted this issue of indiscriminate parking in the media but the effort by the City Council to remove carelessly parked vehicles seems to be temporary and in the long-term, the recalcitrant drivers seem to be getting away with their bad behaviour.


I was also pleased to share with Bettina about other roads in the city that are part of Old 

Johor because these roads were named after Royalty, Malay leaders, Chinese pioneers and 

British expatriates who worked with the Johor State Administration, and people who have 

contributed significantly to the early development of the state.


Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is linked to a network of roads like Jalan Dhoby, Jalan Trus and Jalan Pahang, once a thriving metropolis where banks, lawyers, offices and traders like coffee-shops, restaurants, provision stores, fabric merchants, electrical suppliers, dry-cleaners, stationers, barbers, hairdressers and other services operated.  


Two churches at Jalan Gereja and Jalan Gertak
Merah, mark the start of Johor's Street of Harmony

I explained that Jalan Trus was linked to Jalan Ngee Heng and the adjacent road was Jalan Gereja or Church Road, so named because two churches marked the top of the road we fondly call, Johor Baru’s Street of Harmony.


This was because the places of worship of the early community here were situated literally on the same road, built on land gifted by the Johor Ruler.


Bettina has a copy of My Johor Stories 3: Proudly Johor, Then and Now, the third and final 

instalment that completed the trilogy of My Johor Stories, so I encouraged her to read more 

info about roads in Johor Baru documented in, Rich Heritage in Road Names.


Road sign for Jalan Ngee Heng

While she was pleased with the progress in her project, Bettina told me about her attempts at reaching the bakers at Hiap Joo Bakery for an interview – not about their products or business – but about their building, its age, structure, components, materials and floor plans, any modifications and other details on its interior spaces.


Hiap Joo, traditional bakers, was among the Heritage Traders featured in My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, so I helped to connect Bettina with my baker friend, James Lim Toh Shian.


By now, James was familiar with being interviewed about their family’s business but because Bettina’s queries were specifically about the heritage building that housed this ancient bakery, I shared her questions for him to prepare his replies.


Row of shops adjacent to Broadway cinema
refurbished by Think City Johor Baru

I encouraged Bettina to get in touch with James for an appointment and she assured me that she will bring her course mate, who could speak Mandarin, to help with language translation.


This morning, I was delighted to receive a message from Bettina who said, “I just had my meeting with Mr James.” And went on to say, “Yes, I got my answers about the building.”


I understand that she will also meet with the people at Think City Johor Baru so I reminded her to ask them about their project with No. 52 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee as well as the refurbishment of that row of shops adjacent to the old Broadway cinema.


Best wishes Bettina, for every success in your Bachelor of Interior Design degree with Raffles University, and for your internship placement next year.


Raffles University Medini Campus is located at G-05, Medini 7, Jalan Medini Sentral 5, Bandar Medini Iskandar Malaysia, 79250 Iskandar Puteri, Johor, Malaysia.


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