Biker themed Cafe Racer

Once in a while, I come across a café and its cuisine that’s as interesting as its chef.

Chef Gary "Ozzy" Hong presents a serving
of Grandmama lamb pie
I met Chef Gary “Ozzy” Hong back in 2010 to taste his food at the GrillBar Steakhouseh and I’ve been back regularly to enjoy his culinary creations.  Over the years, he earned a reputation as a chef who is committed to consistent food quality and service and garnered many fans.  Then, Hong – a chef with a bike-riding hobby – shared with me his ideas for a second café, its theme and menu which is designed to welcome a wider clientele, in particular people who share his passion for motorbikes.

Last year, Café Racer opened in a double-storey shop with a distinct bikers’ café identity.   In the space of a few months, the décor which features vintage bikes and scooters, expanded with a collection of helmets and biking paraphernalia.  It even has a photo booth upstairs where guests are welcome sit on his bikes to pose for photos!

While there’s a cool hipster vibe about this café, Hong had installed a dumb-waiter, an old-school contraption to transfer food from the kitchen upstairs, to serve guests downstairs.  This I believe, is a throwback to what he’s familiar with because Hong comes from a family with a history in operating traditional coffee-shops in the city and Johor Baru’s first coffee-house.

Rock & Roll Shrimp Burrito [Foreground] with
Taco Salmon Caesar Salad [Background]
Starter Snacks

I’m familiar with his food and observed how Hong is constantly innovating and creating new recipes to please the palates of discerning diners.  As his food became more sophisticated, he still uses quality ingredients in a menu of real food that truly satisfies.  When Hong designed the menu for Café Racer, I’m pleased that the same quality standards were consistently applied.

I meet the affable Hong again in a recent visit to the café while he was busy updating his menu and we share some laughs discussing outrageous names for the new items.  While there are some changes, I’m glad that favourites like the Sloppy Nachos Munchos and Onion Blossoms, are still on the menu.

Sloppy Nachos Munchos
I’m introduced to a starter that Hong named, Rock & Roll Shrimp Burrito (RM15) made with a tasty tortilla rolled with egg and cheese, topped with whole deep-fried prawns, coated with green-pea batter.  It’s a simple but hearty snack.  

Another interesting starter, Taco Salmon Caesar Salad (RM18), is a giant taco filled with peppery tasting salad rocket or arugula and slices of smoked salmon tossed in Caesar salad sauce.  After eating the contents, I can even chew up the taco bowl but I wisely resisted so as to save some space to sample more food.

Iron Butt Cheese Burger made with dragon fruit and
rosemary bagel; [Background] charcoal and blueberry [Left]
and spinach, peas and parsley bagels [Right]
Hong tells me their Route 66 Devil Wings (RM14) are chicken wings that may be served hotter upon request.  Ih reply with, "No thanks,” as I want to try its original taste.  When I see the serving, I’m amused by its hotness tacitly illustrated by the paper which lines the bowl, with edges that appear to be singed by flames!

Big Meals

“We bake our own bagels and you may be served different flavours, depending on the ingredients we have that day,” said Hong about their range of freshly-baked bagels and I can hear the passion in his voice as he talks about providing real food to his loyal clientele.

Racer Beef Stew comes with a slice of toast
There is a daily supply of baked goods like pies and bagels made in their own bakery and pastry kitchen.  So don’t be surprised if diners at the same table may even be served different bagels in flavours like charcoal and blueberry, spinach, peas and parsley, and dragon fruit and rosemary.

Then I meet the juicy theIron Butt Cheese Burger (RM25), made with 240gm ground beef patty, layered with a fried egg, tomato slices, arugula sprigs, caramelized onions and a cheese slice, sandwiched between a freshly baked bagel.  The burger comes with a side of potato wedges and a chillie dip to please the Malaysian taste for this ubiquitous sauce!

Chunks of real meat stuffed in Grand-mama's pies!
Fans of chicken pies thhey once enjoyed at Wato Snack Bar, JB’s first air-conditioned coffee-house, can have a taste of nostalgia here.  This is because Café Racer also makes a range of Grand-mama’s pies that are stuffed with quality chunks of chicken (RM22), beef or lamb (RM24).  Hong serves these popular pies topped with potato and green pea mash, with a side of sautéed mushrooms.

For a taste of juicy meat, it must be the famous Racer Beef Stew (RM35), made with sous vide prepared tender chunks of meat, mushroom and carrots swimming in delicious gravy.  It comes with a slice of toast but I shamelessly ask for more bread to wipe up all the gravy!

Hong tries to give diners a better dining experience by serving his Good ‘Ole Fish & Chips (RM23) made with fillet of Pacific Dory.  When I see the fish fillet presented in a strange green colour and a cheeky upward curl, I’m intrigued.  I gingerly taste it and am delighted to discover that the fish is coated in a tasty green pea batter!

Sweet Treats

Just as I thought I may not have any space for dessert, Hong insists that I must have an experience of his Sizzling Brownie (RM18).  A brownie slice topped with a scoop of ice-cream is served in a heated cast iron pan and at the table, is drizzled with chocolate sauce for a sizzling effect.  I begin suspect this sweet treat is strangely addictive as I spoon one mouthful after another.

Drizzling sauce into a heated cast iron pan for
the sizzle in the Sizzling Brownie
The Chocolate Lava (RM18) remains a firm favourite probably because diners favour the contrasting flavours of hot Lava with a side of cool ice-cream.  I remember years ago when Hong showed me how to split open the lava cake to allow its warm chocolate filling to ooze out before spooning it to twirl around some melting ice-cream and then savour its delightful flavours.

When I sink my teeth into the Raisin & Banana Waffle (RM16) with a side of nutty ice-cream, I made a mental note to come back to savour this again on an empty stomach.  The wedges of warm and fluffy waffles filled with raisins and ripe bananas, eaten with a dollop of textured ice-cream, is an entire meal by itself.  It’s a smart twist to a comfort food that I can enjoy with a warm drink of fruit and flower tea or fragrant coffee.

Café Racer may not have an extensive menu but a great deal of thought and attention to detail has gone into the pleasing selection.  From the constant flow of diners into the café, it’s clear that Hong’s interesting menu is drawing a regular clientele who not only enjoys his cuisine but also the unique experience of dining in a biker themed café.

Café Racer by Grillbar (Halal-sourced ingredients)
72 Jalan Pingai
Taman Pelangi
80400 Johor Baru, Johor
Tel: +607 – 335 0000

Daily 12pm to 12am

Easy access to Jalan Pingai, an adjacent road that links Jalan Sri Pelangi and Jalan Kuning in Taman Pelangi.  The café faces the side of Giant Hypermarket in Taman Pelangi.

Good café fare

Freshly baked pies, interesting starters, tender beef stew, burgers and desserts

No service charge but GST charges apply

Café with a biker theme

Child’s high chair
Smoking Area
No Pets
Credit card facilities

Check out the photos (gasp!) that adorn their toilets!

English-speaking staff

Go give it a try

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 27 April 2016

Visionary Johor entrepreneurs

Do you know that Johor Baru was once a recreational destination for pleasure-seekers?

Entrance to Rowan & Parsley food atelier at Kota Putri
The city landscape is so different now that not many may recall that there was once a gambling farm – a casino built on stilts over the water – at the Johor Straits.  And there were so many casinos, restaurants, hotels and hedonistic attractions in Kampong Wong Ah Fook that it was dubbed the “Monte Carlo of the East.”  At that time, gambling was prohibited in Singapore so pleasure-seekers braved the long journey, first by horse carriage to Kranji before crossing the straits by boat, to enjoy the bright lights here.

This was decades ago when Sultan Abu Bakar granted two special land concessions to Wong Ah Fook and Lim Ah Siang to develop these areas by building roads and houses and inviting people to live here.  The concessions gave them the right to sell opium and spirits, and operate gaming and pawnshops.  In 1892 these were legitimate businesses, an integral part of revenue farming under the kangchu system and an important source of government revenue.

Facade of Sprout at Kim Teng Park
Kampong Wong Ah Fook, occupied mainly by the Cantonese, was on the left bank of Sungai Segget while the mainly Teochew occupied Kampong Lim Ah Siang, was located east of the railway track from the coast to Jalan Lumba Kuda.  The glitz and glamour of this bygone era is no longer evident in these early Chinese settlements but JB held onto the image of a border town where visitors could pop over for illicit fun and recreation.

For many years, “The Gateway to Peninsular Malaysia” was the tourism tagline for JB but it hinted that travelers only passed through this gate to go to other destinations.  Arrivals from the South still use JB as the gateway to the North but at that time, there was virtually nothing much here to attract tourists to visit or stay over.

Progressive economies in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur were magnets for many locals who sought better job prospects and entertainment choices across the causeway and in the capital city.  These cities offered professional opportunities to climb the corporate ladder and provided a quality lifestyle with a range of art and culture as well as food and entertainment options.  Next to cosmopolitan Singapore and the hip and happening scene in KL, JB was still a backwater town.

Regulars dining at Lemon Tree in Taman Melodies
On top of this sad image, visitors were staying away because JB was also perceived as an unsafe place.  It was not unusual for any developing town to have its share of crime but newspaper reports in a neighbouring nation, gave good coverage to such incidents and created a sense of paranoia about JB as a notorious, crime-riddled town!

As the Iskandar Malaysia project started to attract foreign investors and expatriate residents, JB gradually purged its lawless image through the concerted effort of the Police and its citizens.  It was a long and gradual process but JB was like the proverbial ugly duckling that was slowly shedding its feathers to grow into a graceful swan.

As the city became more live-able, JB started to look attractive for locals who went away to study or develop their careers.  The time was ripe to return to their hometown and apply their training and experience garnered from living and working in other cities.  So since 2000, JB experienced a phenomenon described as the return of Anak Johor or Johor-born locals, who wish to be part of the progress in Iskandar Malaysia.

Facade of Art52Gallery at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
These enterprising Johoreans share the vision of developing a vibrant city and want to contribute a balance of art and culture as well as food and entertainment to complement the physical development happening here.  Aware of the need of lifestyle products that meet with the urbane tastes of well-travelled locals and foreigners, visionary entrepreneurs started businesses in art galleries, handicrafts and fashion, and are achieving much success, especially in cafes and restaurants.

Now JB can boast of several chef-owned restaurants where the entrepreneurs are successfully applying their culinary and kitchen management skills to operate their businesses.  Discerning diners can pick their choice of food from a range of restaurants and cafes created in a variety of venues for their own dining pleasure or to entertain their guests with pride.  These outlets are thriving alongside international brand restaurants, established as easily recognised local brands with their own loyal clientele.

At first, it was a period of adjustment to establish themselves afresh in their hometown but through sheer determination and confidence in their skills and products, these entrepreneurs not only stayed in business but have even opened second and third outlets!

Night view of the facade of Cafe Racer
Lemon Tree restaurant, opened more than 12 years ago in Taman Melodies, proved their resilience and popularity as a neighbourhood cafe, and recently expanded with two more outlets in Indahpura and Permas Jaya.  When Grillbar Steakhouse started in 2010, it took some time before diners were convinced that this restaurant was not a bar for alcoholic drinks but a place for grilled quality steaks.  Buoyed up by its success, the affable Chef Gary “Ozzy” Hong opened his next outlet, Cafe Racer, designed with a cool hipster vibe and a menu that pleases a wider spectrum of diners.

JB even has restaurants that promote the concept of sustainable eating and sophisticated meals created from plant-to-plate, wild-caught fish and locally farmed meat and fresh vegetables. Sprout at Kim Teng Park and Rowan & Parsley food atelier at Kota Putri, are among the places where refined international flavours are served.  Private dining of tailor-made menus with modern European cuisine, can also be savoured by appointment only, at By Grace Sweet Treats.

EightLido is a popular destination at Jalan Skudai
Brazzo-By the Bay, EightLido and Sea & Saw are popular chill-out destinations at Jalan Skudai where diners can dine and enjoy “live” music entertainment.  Each charming destination is designed within a lush garden, as an idyllic tropical oasis of refreshment that compares favourably with vintage themed, award-winning restaurants opened in colonial bungalows in Penang, Kuching, Singapore and Bangkok.

The list goes on but suffice to say that dining and entertaining in JB is taken to new heights by visionary entrepreneurs who are investing their time, talents and passion to complement the city’s rapid development.  It’s exciting to see ordinary Anak Johor doing extraordinary things to make a difference in their hometown and helping to mould our city into that graceful swan – a vibrant and live-able city in the South.

A version of this was published in on 26 April 2016

Next exciting episode:  More than just a restaurant

Happy Birthday, Tunku Shahariah!

I’ve admired Her Royal Highness Tunku Shahariah Tuanku Abdul Rahman from afar since schooldays and when I was invited to join her 84th birthday celebration, I quickly accepted.

Friends with Tunku Shahariah, celebrating 84 years young!
In recent years, when I covered events happening in the city, I had the privilege to meet Tunku Shahariah quite often.  And when we were introduced, the first thing she said to me was how she enjoyed reading My Johor Stories!

Since then, we have been meeting frequently at annual events as well as at private celebrations hosted by the Johor Baru Speakers Club and the JB chapter of Ikebana International (IIJB). 

Tunku, as she is fondly called, is a gracious lady who clearly appreciates the friendship that developed with these club members over the years.  And it was very special that she chose to celebrate her birthday with these friends on the exact date of her birthday.

[L to R] Juliette Lai, Soraya Alkaff Gilmour and Tunku 
Tunku is Life President of the JB Speakers Club, a small group of ladies keen on cultivating the art of public speaking, formed on 18 August 1976 and is also Charter President of IIJB, the club’s first president from 1990 to 1992.

The all-ladies gathering, made up of club members and her friends, enjoyed taking photos with Tunku, clicking what is now known as “we-fies” and sharing them around.  Tunku was also armed with her own smart phone and she showed me the phone cover – a specially designed piece with a flower motif – that was presented to her by IIJB members.

Selfie time!
It was a joy to see how Tunku was such a good sport, ready to learn new techniques from apps that she just discovered from the other ladies.  Someone taught her how to snap a selfie and it was good to see Tunku trying to take her own shot!

Needless to say, photos was a big part of the event, besides the barbecue dinner and a lovely birthday cake.  At the start of the celebration, we toasted Tunku by raising our glasses and wishing her Happy Birthday with many more birthdays to come!

The poolside gathering at Tosca in DoubleTree by Hilton JB, was an informal and leisurely affair with a buffet spread where staff helped to barbecue our meat and seafood choices at a live cooking station.

Outlet Manager, Jai, serving salads to Tunku
I first heard Tunku’s name when I was a school-going kid, then staying with our grandparents at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng.  Her name was mentioned at home because Aunty Sylvia used to play with Tunku’s badminton club, Kelab Badminton Tunku Shahariah (KBTS) whenever she could.  Imagine, we used to live just down this road!

I had a sudden flashback of Tunku as she looked when she graced our school events and here we were, chatting.  In the course of our conversation, Tunku divulged that KBTS was founded on the same day as her birthday, April 8, in 1976.  This club is clearly very close to her heart because she searched in her phone and found an old photo of herself with KBTS club members to show me – and she looked just as I remembered her.

It was uncanny that we were sitting together talking about badminton in a building opposite our grandfather’s house, where I grew up playing on the badminton court next to our house.  We talked about how Aunty used to occasionally play with her and the club members.  At that time, Aunty was still actively involved with the sport and often went away for centralized training or to participate in tournaments.

Singing the Birthday Song to Tunku
A section of the birthday dinner at Tosca, DoubleTree by Hilton JB
Happy faces gathered to wish Tunku a Happy Birthday!
More happy faces to wish Tunku a Happy Birthday!
One more photo together before it was time to leave
While there was much conversation and photo-taking around us throughout the evening, it was a pleasure for me to chat with Tunku, an elegant lady who speaks with wit and grace.

When her birthday cake was bought out, we sang the Birthday Song to Tunku – repeatedly and somewhat tunelessly – in English, Malay and Chinese, and some ladies even tried to sing it in Tamil and Punjabi!  Happy Birthday, Tunku – and many more to come!

Preserving the soul of our city

1 May 2014 was a sad day in Johor Baru because we woke up to the horrific news that what was known as the Wong Ah Fook mansion on Bukit Meldrum, had been demolished.

A sketch of the demolished old building known as the
Wong Ah Fook mansion by artist, Taib Aur
Days prior to this, comments on social media expressed much concern over the rumours about the impending demolition of the old mansion.  One comment referred to an Iskandar development report on JB Transformation Day dated July 11, 2013 where Johor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin said, and I quote: “Old and new elements would co-exist in the city centre under this transformation project.  Conserving old buildings with significant historical and architectural elements is important in addition to the new developments.”

With this in mind, we hoped that the developers of that project at Bukit Meldrum would apply their architectural expertise to design a development that could preserve the old mansion and turn it into a unique centerpiece.  This was how the owners of Hardwicke House in Georgetown creatively preserved it by building a 31-storey L-shaped skyscraper around this heritage building.  But in JB, all this came to naught, when the Wong Ah Fook mansion was suddenly reduced to rubble!

A bungalow from the colonial era refurbished and used
as a private school at Jalan Straits View
Details surrounding the demolition were sketchy but it’s sad that a building of considerable historic significance was allowed to fall into ruin and then destroyed.  Perhaps it was too expensive to restore or the new owners could not relate to its heritage value but whatever it is, the loss of this old mansion is a hard lesson to learn.

If JB aims to develop into an international city, we must preserve our heritage buildings which forms the very heart and soul of our city.  The historical value and ancient architecture of old buildings is priceless as it is a portal into the rich and unique history of JB.  While new developments are rapidly changing the landscape in Iskandar Malaysia, it is essential to preserve our city’s soul and character. 

Another beautiful bungalow from the colonial era
is put to good use as a private school for preschoolers
We often travel to foreign destinations as tourists to visit historical sites with castles, churches, cemeteries, palaces and ancient buildings to soak in their culture and heritage and come away enriched by their history and folklore.  In the same way, visitors and expatriates in our city are also keen to see and enjoy our historical sites and heritage buildings.

Tourists do not come here .just to shop in our modern malls.  They are more interested in our museums, palaces, places of worship, pre-war shops and search for local food, products and handicrafts to buy as gifts and souvenirs.  

The regular throng of visitors browsing around JB’s heritage quarter is proof that tourists, both young and old, are seeking a unique blend of nostalgia-with-a-cool-hipster experience.  Chic boutiques and cafes in restored and repurposed pre-war shops next to traditional businesses exudes a special charm which is attracting visitors who want a taste of nostalgia with a touch of modernity.

The Red House, a landmark in the rows of pre-war shops on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, is now a café for Nyonya cuisine and a popular subject for photographers and sketch artists.  This 19th Century building was originally owned by an Indian family and changed hands several times before it was restored to its former glory in 2011.

The Red House is a corner unit of a double-storey
pre-war shop at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
When this road was declared a heritage walk in 2009, the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk committee held regular cultural events here with the façade of the Red House as an impressive backdrop.  Twice, the Red House was showcased to a nationwide audience when it was featured among other locations in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Malacca and Kuching in the Astro AEC channel “live” TV countdowns for the lunar new year for two consecutive years, 2012 (Dragon) and 2013 (Snake).

JB still has about 20 heritage buildings, the oldest being the old public library (Perbadanan Perpustakaan Awam Johor) at Jalan Dato Menteri 1/1 among others like the Johor Military Force building at Bukit Timbalan, the Dato Jaafar building on Bukit Senyum and the JB jail, built in 1882 at Jalan Ayer Molek.

The oldest building in JB, is sadly left to decay...
We can learn from Georgetown where heritage buildings are preserved and successfully put to adaptive use.  The Cheong Fat Tze Mansion, better known as the Blue Mansion, was restored into a unique destination for heritage homestays, guided tours and venue for special events.  The Suffolk House, former residence of Sir Francis Light, the founder of the British settlement on Penang Island, was rebuilt in 1805 and later neglected but restored to its former glory as a stunning example of an Anglo-Indian garden house.  

Suffolk House is now an elegant venue for social and corporate events, offers guided tours and has a classy restaurant, open to the public to enjoy its charms during lunch, afternoon tea and dinner.  In Penang, Singapore and Bangkok, vintage cafes and restaurants – some of them award-winning – have established a reputation for themselves as destinations for fine dining and elegant entertaining. 

The elegant porch of No. 8 Jalan Skudai, a Spanish casa
refurbished as a restaurant and cool event venue,
EightLido or Eight on Lido Hill
JB too has our share of magnificent old houses, colonial bungalows along Jalan Straits View and the stylish Spanish casas at Jalan Skudai.  Many properties here are still residential while many lie vacant as owners no longer wish to maintain them as homes.

These old bungalows with sprawling gardens have been successfully adapted for use as private schools while the Japan Club of Johor was at No. 10 Jalan Skudai before it moved to new premises in Bandar Seri Alam.  The Korean Garden Club restaurant was among the first to open in a stately mansion before nearby bungalows were creatively adapted for use as elegant restaurants and event venues like Maio the Italian restaurant in M-Suites Hotel, EightLido, Brazzo by the Bay, Pot’s Industries and Sea & Saw.

Now the city has some impressive venues with unique settings that offer guests an oasis of refreshment for dining and entertaining.  Opened by Johor entrepreneurs with a vision to create spaces where diners can chill-out, host events and entertain their guests, the heart-warming tales from each of these establishments will follow.  

A version of this was published in on 22 April 2016

Next exciting episode:         Visionary Johor entrepreneursthat vs an oasis of refreshment afspaces where guests in our city may chill-out vek

Transforming Jalan Tan Hiok Nee

In the Nheart of old Johor Baru, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee runs parallel to Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Dhoby.

Visitors capture a photo memento of the arch at the
OCBC end of the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
The OCBC Bank – the bank for Johor’s pioneer overseas Chinese – marks one end of the road while its opposite end faces HSBC – a bank with its roots in Hong Kong and Shanghai.  Linked with a network of roads like Jalan Trus and Jalan Pahang, this area was once a thriving metropolis with banks, lawyers, offices and traders like coffee-shops, provision stores, fabric merchants, electrical appliance suppliers, dry-cleaners, stationers, barbers, hairdressers and other services.

This road was named after Teochew kangchu, Tan Hiok Nee (1827 – 1902), the leader of the Ngee Heng Kongsi of Johor.  He was responsible for transforming this kongsi or society, from a quasi-military revolutionary brotherhood into an organisation of kangchu or river lords and revenue farmers for pepper and gambier, the first economic crops in Johor.  Tan, a trusted friend of Sultan Abu Bakar, was appointed Major China of Johor, a governmental position created for him, as well as a member to the Council of State and was the first Chinese to receive the title of Dato’ Seri Paduka Mahkota Johor.

Road signs with brief info on historic
personality, Tan Hiok Nee
Over the years, many businesses on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee closed or moved to the suburbs and only a handful of traditional traders remain.  When the Johor Baru Tiong-Hua Association vacated their premises here and moved to their new building in Taman Sri Tebrau, their property was refurbished and opened as the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum.  At its official opening in 2009, the then Johor Menteri Besar declared Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, a Heritage Walk.

At that time, the state administrative offices in the Sultan Ibrahim building was gradually shifting to Kota Iskandar and this contributed to a marked reduction of customers in city businesses.  Between 2009 and 2014, the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk committee worked hard to organise a series of public cultural events on Saturday nights at the heritage walk.  The road was also closed to vehicular traffic in the evenings to encourage more people to come into the city to enjoy the street carnival activities.

Facade of the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
viewed from Jalan Ibrahim
When the Red House at No. 56 was restored to its former glory, this landmark building became a focal point on the heritage walk and a stage was set up in front to host a range of open-air shows.  Saturday night “live” shows included cultural performances in music and dance, theatre, martial and visual arts as well as events like a Teochew food festival.  With a weekly programme of activities, Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk gradually transformed into a popular destination in the city for local and foreign visitors.
For two consecutive years, 2012 (Dragon) and 2013 (Snake), Astro AEC channel picked Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk among other locations in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Malacca and Kuching to be featured in “live” TV countdowns for the lunar new year.  These TV broadcasts inevitably brought JB’s vibrant night scene to a nationwide audience.

Archway at the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
In 2013, the Johor Baru City Council endorsed the plan to construct two arches at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.  Built on both ends of the road, these arches designated this area with an identity as the city’s heritage quarter.  The rising popularity of this area for tourists in search of a vintage and retro experience was a boon to established businesses here and they stepped up to match the interest in this heritage walk.

Visitors simply fell in love with the charm of Hiap Joo Bakery & Biscuit Factory, a family of traditional bakers established since 1919, and the taste of local brewed coffee and kaya toast at Kim Wah kopitiam as well as old-school Teochew noodles at Sang Heng kopitiam.  There is a unique charm about old businesses like traditional kopitiam and bakery, noodle shops, a Shanghai laundry and clock repair services that continue to operate alongside cool new enterprises.

Chaiwalla & Co is a popular container cafe here
While chic salons like “Birth” and “My Little Corner” provide professional hairstyling, a container café was set up by Chaiwalla & Co at the edge of a parking lot.  Beverly Bee Ang of “The Girl Next Door” fame, partnered with Cally Chin to open “Bev C,” a stylish boutique with a café upstairs.  

Not long after that, Maco Vintage Café opened to serve meals, coffee and cakes.  And then Eric Tan and his artist wife, Grace Lim, turned No. 52 into Art52Gallery.  As trendy hairdressers, boutiques and chic cafes opened here, a new vitality slowly seeped into Jalan Tan Hiok Nee. 

The family who runs this Shanghai is still serving a host
of loyal customers
Since 2014, the cool vibe of JB’s heritage quarter was featured, not just in social media but in main-stream media as well as several airline in-fight magazines.  This marked an exciting milestone for JB as the city shed its old image of just a border town and developed a fresh identity as a city with a vibrant attitude that visitors appreciate and are coming back for more.

Interesting new businesses that recently opened here include collectible doll-maker Evangelione, Eh He Art Cafe, a trendy coffeeshop with an art gallery and “Pockets,” a lifestyle concept store with meeting facilities.  A café for Nyonya cuisine is on the ground level of the charming Red House while there’s coffee, pastries and wine at “Pace” and the Drum Café, as its name describes, is designed in the drum theme in honour of the 24 Festive Drums, a uniquely Johor art of drumming.

In 2015, the popularity of this area was further boosted when Petronas picked several sites for local artists to display their street art in their #tanahairku project.  Thanks to young Johor entrepreneurs with the vision to start new businesses in repurposed old buildings, JB’s captivating heritage quarter is now among the most photographed and Instagram-med hipster destinations in the region.  From what is happening here, the transformation of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is far from over.

A version of this was published in on 21 April 2016

Next exciting episode:         Preserving the soul of our city

Discovering Jalan Dhoby

The Jalan Dhoby of today, bears no resemblance to what it was originally named for.

A section of Jalan Dhoby as it looks now, with a
refreshed new look in chic cafes and ice-cream parlours
Dhoby, a Hindi word which means laundryman, was once the main occupation of residents on this road.  Just try to imagine Jalan Dhoby in old Johor Baru which was once the domain of professional laundry services.  Picture how washed laundry was hung out to dry in their building air-wells and the hillock behind Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Trus.  This dhoby business here, however, gradually ceased as the business was shared with Shanghai laundry shops that were opened in various parts of town.

Since some 20 years ago, most of the businesses along Jalan Dhoby were no longer laundry related.  This area inadvertently earned a sad reputation for illicit activities because by night, it was the main hangout for transgender people.  Any mention of this road was linked to a nasty connotation of a notorious red light district for drugs, prostitutes and perverts.

Facade of the popular It Roo Cafe 
Thankfully, this ugly era is over.  Now a Google search will turn up lists of cool cafes and boutiques in the hip and happening Jalan Dhoby.  A social media check will also confirm that the new enterprises here are among the most photographed and discussed destinations among both local and foreign hipster travellers.  But this transformation of pre-war shops into a hip destination did not happen overnight.

The reputation of tihe landmark Hua Mui restaurant at the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Dhoby for its traditional kopitiam fare, was drawing regulars as well as diners in search of a taste of nostalgia.  It Roo Café, opened in 1961 at the corner of Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Pahang, earned the enviable reputation for the Best Chicken Chop in Town in 2003 and inevitably became a “must-go” dining destination here.

Opposite It Roo Café, the generations of bakers at Salahuddin Bakery who have been baking their breads, cakes and pastries using a traditional charcoal oven, was an interesting attraction to visitors who have never seen such a unique oven.  Visitors hardly leave this bakery without buying freshly baked curry-filled giant samosa, loaves and buns.  And many cannot resist the temptation to start eating the piping hot items – even while standing at their doorstep!

Customers at Salahuddin Bakery
In 2005, a young Johor entrepreneur took the brave step to make his dream of opening a retro-themed café into reality.  For a long time, Wong Hong Hai, better known as Sea Wong, had dreams about turning his combined passion for furniture, food and beverage, gardening, art and music, into a business.

Looking back now, it appears that Wong’s Roost Juice Bar kicked off the transformation process of Jalan Dhoby and nearby streets as more young entrepreneurs followed in his footsteps to start interesting new businesses in repurposed old buildings.

Facade of the first Roost Juice Bar
Wong designed a café menu with light meals, cold-pressed juices and signature chilled fruity yogurt drinks.  The décor in Roost can simply be described as eclectic.  Wong used his collection of old furniture and creatively combined mismatched pieces into comfortable sitting room clusters.  His mother's recipe of Hainanese beef noodles and chicken chop were popular menu choices while refreshing yogurt drinks were served in pretty plastic pails!

Wong offered a talented young lady an upstairs section of Roost to start a tiny boutique named, “The Girl Next Door” (TGND).  She was none other than fashionista, Beverly Bee Ang, and this was the humble beginning of her highly successful Bev C clothing line. Later she set up her own Bev C clothing store and café at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.

Then, Wong recreated Roost’s laidback attitude in his next outlet opened at the corner of Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Trus in Roost Repurposed & Recycled Salad Bar.  

The door at Right opens to "The Girl Next Door" on the
upper level of the original Roost Juice Bar
As its name described, the furnishing in this double-storey café was handmade by Wong from recycled materials.  From lampshades, shelves, tables, chairs to benches, each item was creatively repurposed into attractive and useful furnishings here.

Roost Salad Bar became a popular chill-out destination where art & craft events were often held but space was limited.  Wong’s search for a building with a garden to showcase his interesting furniture and host bigger art events ended in finding a sprawling old bungalow at Jalan Skudai.  

When his vision in creating “Sea & Saw” within a beautiful garden became a reality, Wong brought the garden concept into Roost Juice Bar.  It has since been rebranded as “Flowers in the Window,” adding yet another cool destination to the exciting range of happening places at the all new Jalan Dhoby!

A version of this was published in on 20 April 2016

Next exciting episode: Transforming Jalan Tan Hiok Nee