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Published: January 23rd 2016
My main reason for sandwiching a few days in Johor Bahru in between visiting Singapore and returning to the US was to look at potential places to live. Malaysia has a very attractive program for expats where you can get a multiple-entry visa good for ten years. This is geared towards Singaporeans looking to escape the high cost of real estate in Singapore, but I figured it can’t hurt to look.
My initial attraction to Johor Bahru (JB from now on) was its proximity to Singapore. That was before I found out first-hand what a pain in the ass it was to travel overland between the two countries. Once in JB, I found that most of the lovely condos were merely pretty renderings and small scale models of the buildings that a developer is planning to build. Yes, some of them are already built, but the people living in them will be living in the middle of a construction zone for years to come.
No matter. I’ve never been in JB before, so I might as well look around.
JB is currently in the middle of a construction boom. In addition to the residential projects – already over
336,000 new housing units are planned or under construction – there are any number of bright, shiny new shopping malls. In fact, if you take the bus from Singapore to JB Sentral, you can go right from the terminal to the mall without stepping foot in the street.
But there is more to the city than shopping and a glut of new condos. And Johor Bahru is small enough that most of the historic sites are within easy walking distance.
The Old Chinese Temple on Jalan Trus is easy to miss. Look for the red Chinese gate in a white wall, tucked between a shopping mall and a hotel attached to the convention center. This is one of the oldest buildings in JB, and while no one knows exactly when it was built, well, at least no one who is still alive, a date on an old sign suggests it was in operation in 1870. It is a common point of worship for the five language groups found in the area – Hokkien, Teochow, Hakka, Cantonese, and Hainan, and it is the only house of worship to survive the bombings of World War II.
The caretaker inside
doesn’t speak much English, but he will let you take pictures, and try to help you. One of the five deities here is Guan Yin, my personal favorite. If you want to know more about the people who built this temple, take a walk down Jalan Tan Hiok Nee Cultural Street, where there is a small museum put together by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. There is no sign, but look for the giant red lantern hanging over the door.
I could tell that the museum didn’t get many visitors when the guard asked me to wait downstairs. I eventually realized he had gone to turn on the lights in the museum proper.
Tan Hiok Nee, the trader the street is named for, was a pretty interesting guy. Born in China, he started out as a textile trader, and then leased land on the banks of the river where he grew pepper and gambier. He soon became the largest leaseholder in Johor Buhru. This led him to become a dealer in the two spices, which lead him to become a major player in the pepper and gambier business in Johor and Singapore.
However, as he became more
successful, he also picked up the concessions for Johor’s opium and spirit farms – opium being a legal crop – as well as increased political clout. In 1870 he joined with two other important Chinese figures in Johor to start the Great Opium Syndicate. The syndicate had farms not only in Johor, but also Melaka, Riau, and Singapore. Opium was an immensely profitable crop, and you can still see plaques thanking major donors to schools that include the names of opium farms.
Around this time he was appointed Major China, and was the highest ranking Chinese in the Sultan’s government. He was responsible for maintain order in the Chinese community, and served as an intermediary between the British and Malay authorities.
Needless to say, there were those who were jealous of his wealth and power. In 1875 he sold off his concessions and left Johor completely to settle in Singapore. Some people say he retired while he was at the pinnacle of his career, some people speculate that he was removed by his political rivals.
He built a grand mansion in Singapore, which still stands. At various times it has served as the residence of the stationmaster
of Singapore’s railroad, a school for Eurasian girls, the headquarters of the Salvation Army, and a satellite campus of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. In 1974 the mansion was deemed a National Monument.
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