PEGGY LOH takes a guided walk through Johor Baru’s colourful history“TOMORROW, 2.30pm at Laman Tun Sri Lanang,” reads the text message from Jimmy Leong, confirming our appointment to meet for a guided walk through the heart of old Johor Baru.
Based on historical records, Johor was once known as Hujung Medini, Ujung Tanah (Land’s End) or Wurawari, a Javanese word that means clear water.Johor Baru had various names but Leong points out that the Chinese name for the city is Sin Sua (Teochew) or Sun San (Cantonese) which means New Hill. He suggests that when the kangchu, who had been farming on a hill in Singapore, arrived in Johor, they sighted a hill — probably Bukit Timbalan — and named this place New Hill. To this day, the Chinese still refers to Johor Baru as New Hill!
In 1855, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim gained sovereignty over the territory of Johor and founded the new capital, Iskandar Puteri. When Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, the Chinese in the Riau Islands and Singapore were already cultivating gambier successfully.
From Laman Tun Sri Lanang, we cross the road to the corner of Jalan Wong Ah Fook and Jalan Sawmill, and stop in front of a sculpture, a Jawi rendition of the word, Jauhar which is Arabic for gem and believed to be the word from which Johor derived its name.
Leong says this is just one of the many heritage trails, like the Palace Trail that takes visitors to the nine palaces built during the reign of Sultan Abu Bakar.
The strong influence of European culture and the Sultan’s close relationship with Queen Victoria had inspired him to build grand palaces for hosting royalty, aristocrats, high-level European governors and important literary figures.
To learn more about the local Chinese heritage, the Museum Trail that leads to the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum and Johor Baru Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery is recommended.
The Temple Trail is another interesting walk where you can see how the multiracial people of Johor Baru live together in harmony despite different religious beliefs. This trail starts from the top of Jalan Trus, the site of the Church of Immaculate Conception (built 1883) and Holy Light Church (original chapel 1886) to the Johor Baru Ancient Chinese Temple (1870) and the Sikh Gurdwara Sahid (circa 1921) across the road down to the Arulmigu Rajamariamman Devasthanam Temple (1911) at Jalan Ungku Puan and then to the recently renovated Mosque at Jalan Duke.
The Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple (original shrine 1922) on the other hand is listed in the Malaysian Book of Records as the first and only glass temple in the nation. It is a short trek away at Jalan Tebrau and worth a visit.
Standing at the point where Jalan Meldrum and Jalan Sawmill meet, I learn that these roads were laid more than 150 years ago and from the number of vehicles and pedestrians, they remain heavily in use.
Jalan Meldrum is named after a Scotsman, James Alexander Meldrum, who built a sawmill on the left bank of Sungai Segget in 1860, close to the river mouth.
This sawmill was then the biggest steam sawmill in Asia, the first major structure to be built as well as the first industry to be established in Iskandar Puteri.
It produced sawn timber as one of Johor’s main exports and ensured that there was enough timber for the construction of a light railway between Johor Baru and Gunung Pulai.
Sultan Abu Bakar had made Meldrum the engineer of the Johor Wooden Railway or Keretapi Kayu Johor. Meldrum also helped in the establishment of the Holy Light Church in 1886.
From this, my thoughts are drawn to the carpenter-turned-builder Wong Ah Fook. He was credited for building the magnificent Istana Besar or Grand Palace, Istana Zahariah, Balai Zahariah and the Johor Baru Prison.
For his services to the state, Wong was in 1892, granted a land concession in an area bordered by present day Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Jalan Station and Jalan Tun Abdul Razak. Known as Kampong Wong Ah Fook, the main road is named after him while the side roads are named after his three oldest sons Siu Koon, Siu Nam and Siu Chin.
Vivid scenes from period movies flash through my mind as Leong describes that as Chinese immigrants prospered, Kampong Wong Ah Fook became a place for leisure and the location for clubs, restaurants, gambling houses, opium dens and brothels and, inevitably, secret society activities.
He says that such vices followed immigrants wherever they settled and it was no different in 19th Century Johor Baru.
As merchants on both sides of the street are still doing brisk business, stretches of pavement along Jalan Meldrum are cluttered with parked cars and coffee tables. For a moment my imagination runs wild with flashbacks of Suzie Wong-type femme fatales in tight cheongsams plying their trade from open doorways and the upstairs balconies.
At the corner of Jalan Meldrum and Jalan Siu Nam, Ching Ching Optical catches my eye.
I recognise this old establishment that has developed into a chain of outlets.
Leong hurries us on but I pause to read several information plaques embedded on the pavement.
After crossing Jalan Wong Ah Fook at Johor Baru City Square, I join the group in front of Thye Onn Pawn Shop, another of the city’s established merchants.
Back in the days when a large family had a sole breadwinner, this service helped families stretch their money for food and new clothes, especially during festive seasons. When the family had saved sufficient money, they would redeem their valuables from the pawnshop.
Before gas and electric appliances were common, every home kept a stock of charcoal because it was a basic necessity in homes, and for businesses like laundries, hawkers and restaurants.
Yong Heng, a quaint shop on Jalan Trus, still stocks bags of charcoal for sale.
In the sparsely furnished shop, an order book lies open on the desk and when I take a peek, I feel a pang of nostalgia seeing the pages, yellowed with age, printed with six-digit telephone numbers.
The quickest way to Jalan Trus from Jalan Wong Ah Fook is through a shortcut that links the two streets. This old footpath is still in use but many prefer the new route at the side of the Public Bank building.
Mid-way up this new path, Leong takes us to a grassy knoll by the stairs and points to a nearby row of shops which he says once housed a coffee bean roasting business. At that time, there was also a spice grinding mill nearby so passersby would certainly have their nostrils tickled by these scrumptious smells!
The facade of Kwong Lee Soon Kee Goldsmith and Mun On Tailor on Jalan Trus have signs created from mosaic tiles.
Looking closer, I marvel at how the coloured mosaic tiles are meticulously arranged to form the shops’ signboards and on the side pillars. This is certainly a durable method because the pillars at No. 26 Jalan Meldrum still has “Fashion Tailor” on the pillars even though the building is now occupied by another business.
Another interesting feature to look out for is arches built between Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Dohby, and one each along Jalan Trus and Jalan Segget. The town is divided into various enclaves and the archway marks the entry into another section of town. While walking along a small lane, Leong points to uneven patches low on the walls that appear to be holes that are now sealed. It was helpful to learn that these apertures were for night-soil collectors to remove and replace buckets when Johor Baru had a bucket toilet system!
The best thing about these heritage walks is that they are free and you can do them on your own time and at your own pace. However, the trails are best appreciated with a guide who can enhance your experience with historical references and interesting anecdotes. For enquires on guided tours, call Jimmy Leong at 012-7040 183.