Located in the midst of the city, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee pride itself with building that has been there through Johor Bahru’s decades of growth. It’s not an ordinary street that you could see anywhere– identical buildings, signage, trees, and few people walking, maybe with their dogs. It used to be a bustling street in the 1870s as it is near Sungei Segget, which used to be a very important river to the economy of Johor back in the agricultural society days, but as we don’t really need rivers for economy growth nowadays, it’s quite normal even if someone told you that it’s currently one of the many historic monument or even being abandoned by the society’s pace.
The street was named after the most prominent businessman in the 1870s’- Major Tan Hiok Nee who forged glistening moments of Johor. Using the ownership of his first river, he began the cultivation of pepper and gambier, bringing tremendous wealth to Johor, and this is only a beginning of him becoming the largest holder of kangchu concession, having a vast holding of 9 more rivers. He is instead the wealthiest and most influential Chinese in Johor back then, as he transformed the rural settlements of Johor into an organisation of kapitans. kangchus, and revenue farmers.
Under Major Tan Hiok Nee’s influence, this area was once a thriving metropolis where banks, lawyers, and traders like restaurants, coffee shops, fabric merchants, barbers and other service operated. As time passed, many shops either moved to suburbs or closed down, leaving only a few of the traditional traders. Things started to be better in year 2009, after the Johor Menteri Besar officially declared Jalan Tan Hiok Nee as a heritage walk at the opening of Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum, the street has since gradually transformed into a destination popular among local and foreign visitors.
The old heritage buildings with tiny cracks on walls and paints scrapping off do not only represent history. Young and creative minds have been contributing to the advancement of the area, as they settle with their unconventional business ideas, opening up stores with creative expressions. The streets have seen so many transition, from its rural days, to when it was so vibrant the area is bustling with traders and farmers, to the time when a lot of the shops closed down, leaving the lonely streets left with a few shops. Till now, it is a street with the perfect mixture of nostalgic historical buildings and vibrant graffiti on the walls along the pathways, the heritage and creative minds have somehow found a way to survive together, and better yet, this makes the street a very unique mix of nostalgia and modern creativity.
As a modern cafe that doubles up as an art gallery and frequently holding events such as workshop, local musicians’ performance, and photo contest, the owner of Culture Street Café is very supportive towards local artist. Occupying the upstairs of the art café is a space that homegrown artist can showcase their art piece.
The presence of young entrepreneurs can be seen everywhere, from a doll maker shop to café with the 24 festive drum theme- a national cultural heritage originated from Johor Bahru, to an art gallery which second floor of it is a cafe that claims to be the smallest coffee shop in JB, to unique clothing shops and a café at the same time. These have actually been great additions to the heritage walk, as they contributed to revitalising the area. With all kinds of shops around, the street catered to young and old, and people have been visiting despite the presence of modern shopping centre that is not far away.
Even there was once a time that the street was left with only a few vendors and barely any customers, the old Jalan Tan Hiok Nee that was almost dead found its way to prosper once again. When younger minds bring all these new ideas into Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, they also has been bringing life and shaping the heritage walk to become a spectacular location.
However, there are shops that have been here since the very beginning and have endured the good and the bad times, proving that they are able to sustain through their adherence and devotedness. Hiap Joo bakery, a proof of living history, is one of the oldest in the area. They have been baking using fire wood in their kiln like oven since they started business. Through generations, their commitment in making bread has been resulting in a taste that attract queue of regular customers at their doorsteps daily. Involving three generations of the family in their business, every customer that came in for their bread will not be unfamiliar with the heartwarming scene of members in the family chipping in for the business. As you walk past the shop, it is hard to not notice that they are very famous in the area as the queue is always the longest out of all other shops. One would have to agree that the smell of their baked goods fresh from the oven could make someone that never heard of their shop to stop by and try. Once you get your hands on their spongy fluffy cakes, you’ll understand the queue at their doors, as how could these people even bear the heat and the mugginess at the street as they stand there waiting for the batch of oven fresh breads. Every local and foreigner that visits the heritage walk could never just pass by the shop and not be tempted to buy anything from Hiap Joo.
Kin Hua restaurant that is famous for their breakfast should ring a bell as we speak of old restaurants loved by locals. Being well known among locals, anyone looking for a decent cup of coffee must visit Kin Hua. It has been operating for decades, and their fresh brewed coffee, kaya toast, half boiled egg are must try for every first time visitors. Their menu might seem to be not fancy enough amongst the street that is filled with lavishly decorated cafes that offers extensive choice of coffee and food, however, they did beat the competition and their shop is always crowded. With the perfect balance of sugar and milk in their coffee, people has been loyal customers of Kin Hua restaurant through generations. Aromatic coffee accompanied with their crispy toasted bread with generous spread of kaya, enveloping a slice of cold butter, melting as you hold the warm toast, and the moment that your teeth sinks into the bread, the kaya spread and butter come oozing out of the bread- what’s the better way to kick start your day other than such pleasure?
Pampered with choice of food at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, a lot of the visitor will hope that they have a bigger stomach to fit in all the good stuff at the street, as there’s too much good food and no one can eat everything at once! People coming over for lunch would probably appreciate IT roo that has been famous for its chicken chop, they are even proud enough to claim that they have the best chicken chop in town. During lunch hours, people would crowd the cosy shop adorned with old photographs and newspaper clipping on their walls. Regardless of their extensive menu, people would always opt for their best seller, which is of course their chicken chop. The nostalgic and simple taste of their chicken chops are memories of many locals as well as new discoveries for a lot of the visitors, while their ingredient remain simple, their chicken chops are either grilled or fried to perfection, tender and flavorful, topped with their savoury mushroom sauce as the best accompaniment to bring out the “craftsmanship” of the chicken chop.
It’s not very unusual to see hole-in-the-wall shops hidden amongst lavishly contemporary cafes in the area, at here, you could still find traditional grocery stores that sells biscuit from big tins, old Indian barber shop that has been there for 17 years, rubber stamp shop, and even an Indian bakery selling crispy curry puffs since 1937! The striking red house that used to be only a cultural heritage only attracting tourist is now a café that serves local dishes with nostalgic ambience while showing people a glimpse of Johor Bahru’s former glory, attracting eyes of every people that passes by.
At Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, we were able to see how people could immerse themselves in inheritance of the old times as well as adventurous creativity, families are seen everywhere as elderly and youngster could all appreciate the mixture of their favourite places. Walking into Jalan Tan Hiok Nee could probably the closest experience with Alice who went to Wonderland through falling into a rabbit hole in the midst of the busy city.