The happenings of the bygone days are treasured in a cluster known as Iskandar Puteri Heritage Trail in coalescing the old and new tides in the metropolis. Starting from Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Jessy Wong rediscover the culture and food in town that persist through a lapse of time.
Travel south to the tranquil and yet modern town at Johor Bahru and you’ll be amazed by the capital of Johor that sets itself in the chase of urban development. As the second largest city in Malaysia, the unequalled pulse of Johor Bahru lies alongside the Segget River where cultural diversity flows through the bank down to Straits of Johor.
When one talks about cultural heritage sites in Malaysia, popular destinations remain to be Georgetown, Penang and the city of Malacca. However, as a traveller that has been to every state in the Peninsula, I find that the stretch along Jalan Trus and its connecting streets represent a definitive portrayal of Malaysia – a country that celebrates a mishmash of tradition in harmony and unity.
What was previously a quaint old lane is awarded heritage street by the Johor State Government in 2009 turning Jalan Tan Hiok Nee into a trendy historical venue with traditional houses and activities. My discovery of Johor’s gems starts from a walk through the heritage street to Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Trus.
The southern state plays a major role for maritime silk trade in the 14th century and subsequently became a settlement for Malay fishermen and Chinese immigrants at the coast. Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is named after a Chinese cloth peddler in 19th century who grew into an influential figure, making good ties with the royalty and is known as the wealthiest man in Johor. Back then, Tan Hiok Nee built his shops and houses by the west bank of Segget River and leads Ngee Heng Kongsi, a powerful gang in the city.
The stories of Tan Hiok Nee’s history are mounted along the walls of OCBC Bank on the street today. To hear more of its juicy stories, visit Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee. Most of the relics from Ngee Heng Kongsi and details on Chinese immigrants are documented by the association.
Along the road, trendy establishments like eateries and boutiques are lined in the row of shops. Art52 Gallery has paintings and artwork by local artists and the street also acts as a hub for nighttime entertainment. Besides, the cultural place has become a vibrant attraction for murals, especially one with AirAsia’s painting by Johor’s local artist-Tuanmulo-by the walls of the classically iconic 19th century cornershop, now occupied by Let’s Eat restaurant.
Prior to the neighbourhood’s cultural renewal, this side of town is a holy gathering for devotees of different beliefs. Walking south along Jalan Trus, you can enter the Old Temple of Johor Bahru where Taoist worships the 5 main deities at the shrine. Right across, Gurdwara Sahib has weekly programs and prayers for the Sikh community. This religious hub includes Arulmigu Rajamariamman, the oldest Hindu temple in Johor in the vicinity. The pyramid deity tower gleam in colourful soft pastel under the bright sun.
A stroll at nightfall can bring new excitements especially with the monthly festive activities and performances held out in the open air. One might find handmade souvenirs or trinkets in Pasar Karat, the daily night bazaar held along Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and the surrounding streets.
Blast from the Past
Things change in the current of time but here, generations of businesses dominate the neighbourhood. On a regular morning, locals would make a quick stop at Jalan Dhoby’s Salahuddin Bakery for their Bengali bread and buns. The bakery has been around since 1937 and is loved for their homemade kaya (pandan coconut jam) that goes along with soft aromatic buns baked over woodfire.
On the other side of the street, IT Roo Cafe is lively with diners during lunchtime with similar plates of chicken chop served on every table. Priding themselves as the best chicken chop in town, the secret recipe to the deliciously sinful fare is founded since 1961.
You can also taste delicacies that are almost a century old at Hiap Joo Bakery. The place still draws crowd over to Jalan Tan Hiok Nee to queue under the sun for their butter and banana cakes. They too, prefer the traditional wood fire oven method to encapsulate the fragrance in cakes.
All things good from the past are made better with the visits of Johor royals to the local area. The 71 years old Restoran Hua Mui at Jalan Trus is a popular joint among the locals and tourists as affirmed by Johor royals who frequented the kopitiam (traditional coffee shop) regularly. Two doors down, a jewellery venture, Kwong Lee Soon Kee Goldsmith, has also been serving royal needs for 3 generations, making repairs and purchases for the Sultan of Johor. To appease your curiosity, head in to the shop and you will see photos of the royals’ visit to the store.
Getting Around Johor Bahru:
You can ensure time and mobility efficiency with personal transport. Mayflower car rental services has a good range of car hires, a variety of pick-up points and most importantly, they have the best rental rate in town. It is advisable to make an early reservation with Mayflower to have a smooth-sailing journey ahead. Find Mayflower booth upon arrival at Senai International Airport.
Contact: +607-224 1357
Words and photos by Jessy Wong