A deeper look into Johor Bahru (31st July 2017)

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Today is the second aniversary of our life in Johor Bahru! By now my husband and I have discovered a lot more about the place and its history, so it is time to update my blog on the place we now call home. Please check out my first report from August 2015 for background information.

The photo above shows the Sultan Ibrahim Building in Jalan Bukit Timbalan, and this is the starting point for the recent history of Johor Bahru. In the early nineteenth century, the rulers of Johor tended to live elsewhere. So, in 1855 when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim gained sovereignty over the territory of Johor, he decided to move his administrative base from Telok Blangah in Singapore to the fishing village of Tanjung Puteri (now Princess Cove) on the coast of Johor. To mark his presence here, he planted a flag on a hill top for all to see, and this hill was Bukit Timbalan. 

In 1858, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim renamed his capital Iskandar Puteri and encouraged Singaporean-sponsored Chinese labourers to come to Iskandar Puteri to clear the land and cultivate gambier and pepper. In 1866, his son Temenggong Sri Maharaja Abu Bakar (later known as Sultan Abu Bakar) further developed the business side of Iskandar Puteri and renamed the city as Johor Bahru (new Johor). 

The dependence of Johor Bahru on trade in gambier and black pepper is celebrated by the decoration of lamp posts and street furniture with these motifs. Here are some examples:

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The history behind the naming of roads in old Johor Bahru is now given by plaques next to road signs. Not all roads are labelled, but you should look out for these as they are quite informative.

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The road shown above is Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, and according to one such plaque Tan Hiok Nee was a Chinese textile merchant with gambier and pepper plantations along Sungai Johor, from Kota Tinggi to the shores of the Tebrau Straits facing Pulau Ubin.” More importantly for the development of Johor Bahru, Tan Hiok Nee was the head of the Ngee Heng Kongsi from 1863 - 1873. Sultan Abu Bakar had encouraged the immigrant Chinese to administer themselves, and the Ngee Heng Kongsi became an important social, political and administrative organisation for the dominant Teochew clan. As time went by, rival Chinese clans (triads) were known to clash and cause trouble, so Sultan Abu Bakar decreed that membership of the Ngee Heng Kongsi would be open to all Chinese clans, and the most important leader of this society was Tan Hiok Ngee. It was Tan Hiok Ngee who organised the building of the Ancient Chinese Temple in Jalan Trus. Ordinarily, Chinese temples housed just one deity, but Tan Hiok Nee insisted that the temple should house deities representing each of the five clans in Johor Bahru (Teochews, Cantonese, Hokkiens, Hakka and Hainanese). It is these deities which are celebrated in the Chingay Festival each year.

As you walk down the hill from the Sultan Ibrahim Building, you will see some interesting (but unlabelled) buildings, and the usual warning signs that trepassers will be shot!

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In this part of Johor Bahru, you start to see the influence of the Indian settlers with the Indian Mosque and Jalan Dhoby (the laundries were/are run by the Indian community).

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A new discovery to us was Jalan Duke, which was “named after the Duke of Edinburgh, brother to King Edward VII, when the English monarch visited Johor Bahru on 17 February 1907 during the reign of Sultan Ibrahim Johor…. A festival was held to mark this occasion, complete with a bout between a water buffalo and a tiger. This proved to be the first and the last of its kind ever to be held in Johor.”

I have recently been reading a lot about Sir Stamford Raffles and his invasion of Java in 1811. It was not unusual for him to be present at events involving water buffalo and tigers where the former beast invariably won the contest, much to the dismay of the colonials who felt that the tiger represented them!

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From this part of old Johor Bahru, you can walk around the Chinese Heritage area of Jalan Tan Hiok Ngee and Jalan Trus, and look back at Johor Bahru from beneath the Sultan’s coronation celebratory street ornament.

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From here you will find the start/finish of the Chinese Heritage Trail near the OCBC Bank. On the side wall of the bank is a rather faded display of the History of Johor Bahru, but do stop to take a look. And, as you leave this part of town, to get a view of the Causeway traffic and the highrise buildings of Singapore in the distance. 

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The trading relationship between Johor and Singapore has been crucial in the development and growth of Johor Bahru, and Sultan Abu Bakar, who is considered to be the Father of modern Johor, took full advantage of this. To help develop Johor Bahru, he needed building construction managers and a good local supply of building materials. These two facts underly the naming of two important roads in Johor Bahru, Jalan Wong Ah Fook and Jalan Meldrum.

Wong Ah Fook was an immigrant from mainland China who indentured himself to a Singapore carpenter. By virtue of hard work and a measure of good luck, he became the building contractor to royalty, i.e., Sultan Abu Bakar. Wong Ah Fook was responsible for building at least twenty major public works, of which the Istana Besar is the most well know. I have yet to take of photo of the Grand Palace as it is closed off to the public. In addition to his construction business, Wong Ah Fook had gambier and pepper plantations and also held a concession to run gambling and opium dens in an area of Johor Bahru on the eastern side of the Sungai Segget. Singaporeans, prohibited from vice-like activities at home, streamed over the Straits of Johor and landed in Kampong Wong Ah Fook ready to spend their money. You can still see remnants of such activities as you walk around the small streets just off Jalan Wong Ah Fook, opposite the CIC and before City Square Mall. Three of the side roads here are named after Wong Ah Fook’s eldest sons: Jalan Siu Nam, Jalan Siu Koon, and Jalan Siu Chin (shown below next to the red building).

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Jalan Meldrum, which runs through the heart of Kampung Wong Ah Fook, was named after a Scotsman, James Meldrum, who was encouraged by Sultan Abu Bakar to set up a steam sawmill in Johor Bahru, rather than in Singapore. Thus, timber from the jungles of Johor could be transported via Sungai Segget down to Meldrum’s sawmill, and used by Wong Ah Fook. Jalan Meldrum is lined by eateries and seems to be a busy area at all times of the day.

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Parallel to Jalan Meldrum is the main thoroughfare of Jalan Tun Abdul Razak and the Railway Museum (closed). For the first time I even saw a train coming into JB Sentral.

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At the end of Jalan Meldrum are some lovely old buildngs, including the blue and white Police Station backing on to Jalan Sawmill.

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Jalan Wong Ah Fook is currently undergoing a ‘Beautification project’. It certainly looks a lot better than when we arrived two years ago, and now you can see the relative activities on the two sides of the river. The Western side of Sungai Segget belonged to the Teochew community and this is where the markets were. Today, you can also more clearly see the presence of the Indian community, with the Gurdwaha Sahib Sikh Temple and the colourful Sri Rajamariamman Devasthanam Hindu Temple in better view. The Indian shophouses had been hidden behind building works for a long time, so it is good to see them being renovated and providing extra colour and texture to the area.

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On the left side of Jalan Wong Ah Fook were some colourful small buildings which caught my attention; these were part of a site for Chinese worship.

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Here are two photos from a new bridge across the Sungai Segget, looking north (left side photo) and looking south (right side photo).

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And here we have the covered part of the river near City Square Mall. Unless they can get more movement in the waters of the Sungai Segget, they may wish in future that they had covered more of this river!

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So, if you have not done so before, I would highly recommend that you take a stroll around Old Town Johor Bahru and think about how the history of this city has been governed by location, location, location!


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