The city that gambier built

Explore the rich history of Johor Bahru, a once-thriving business port, which today plays host to a variety of cultures and tourists.

June 19, 2015 05:16 pm | Updated 05:16 pm IST

All I had wanted to do was catch up with a bit of forgotten history that was once part of my youthful fascination. Back in the day, I’d follow the progress of World War II each day. And one of those days was when the Japanese streamed across, on foot and on bicycle, the Johor Causeway after its engineers had quickly repaired it after the retreating British had blown it up. That purely mental image of an ‘army of ants’ scurrying across the causeway to take over an ‘impregnable fortress’ never left my mind. And a recent visit to Singapore offered me the opportunity of seeing that causeway ‘live’.

But ‘live’ today on a weekend, was a cyclist or two, a few more bikers; but hundreds of cars of all shapes and sizes choking it as Singaporeans poured across to enjoy the delights of Johor Bahru  (J.B.), where the Singapore dollar goes like the Indian rupee in Sri Lanka these days. A 1,000-metre crossing now takes over an hour to navigate on weekends and during rush hours, including time spent at Singapore and Malaysian check posts that are manned by gun- and baton-toting security, who look anything but friendly in their blue-black uniforms. In fact, there’s almost a menacing air about them, with not a smile to be seen, leave alone a welcoming ‘Good morning’ or ‘Evening’ at customs and immigration counters. And to think there are a hundred thousand – “it’ll be a million in the next ten years,” said a J.B. hotelier – who suffer this crossing  every day; both ‘Johorians’ and the increasing number of Singaporeans, who are making the fast-growing Malaysian city their home and commute to Singapore to work.

But when the causeway opened in 1923, built at a cost of 17 million Straits dollars, it was not for commuters that it was built; it was for the natural riches of Malaya that needed a portal to reach the world. And two of the products shipped out were gambier and pepper; the former virtually responsible for the early development of J.B. and the State of Johor, of which it is capital.  I had never heard of gambier till I visited J.B.’s Chinese Heritage Museum. And if you want to know how a whole community’s 170-year history can be showcased in a limited space, this narrow, four-storied shop-house is the place to go. It’s a fascinating museum which has been able to draw from the over 1,000 historical pictures in the Southern University collection (where can we find anything like that in Madras?) and put on display in friezes and AV shows. Among its displays is a corner devoted to gambier and pepper.

It was from the 1840s that the Chinese Ngee Heng clan led by Tan Kee Soon began planting gambier and pepper, whose vine seemed to have a symbiotic relationship with the gambier plant. In 1845, plantation-scale planting, as well as the arrival of thousands of Ngee Heng needed for this work, was reported in the press. And then, amidst these plantation, was born Johor Bahru in 1855, founded as Iskandar Puteri.

The gambier leaves, processed into hard black blocks, have a high tannin content, and so, gambier was long used for tanning leather and dyeing textiles. Johor was, at one time, the world’s largest exporter of gambier, but modern chemicals sounded the death knell of the natural product. But by then, even before pineapple and rubber and, still later, oil palm, Johor Bahru had begun developing as the second largest city of Malaya. In tribute to gambier and pepper are the city’s lamp-posts incorporating in their design the greenery of gambier and pepper. These motifs are found as decorative embellishments in buildings and public furniture, as well as in the City Council’s crest. Few in J.B. today know what gambier is, but it seems to still be remembered in the world of architecture, design and decoration.

How much of this recall will be there in what J.B. proclaims loudly as the city of 2020 is a moot question. But that the city is coming there is no doubt. Parts of J.B. might look like a rural Tamil Nadu town, but scores of hotels from the most luxurious to comfortable home-stays are crying welcome, restaurants and shops are proliferating, and tourist attractions (like Legoland) are fast coming up to attract the Singapore dollar. The huge, moderately-priced buffet spreads thrice a day at the up-market hotels – one was spread over three halls! – and the sumptuous on-the-house high teas with wine and beer for resident-guests are certain crowd pullers. A sight to see, from a high-rise window, are other high-rises of modern architectural splendour towering over many a red-tiled settlement of yesteryear. Look from another window across the way, and there’s Singapore, its high-rises now being challenged.

That challenging is being driven not just by food and accommodation, but by over a dozen golf courses in J.B. alone, numerous beaches and several islands with resorts offering sun ’n’ sand ’n’ sea. None of these are my thing. For me, apart from the causeway experience and the Chinese Heritage Museum, there were two other places to spend time in.

Jalan Trus is the road where the Johor Old Chinese Temple is. But to me it was another “street of perfect harmony”. On a stretch of around 200 yards are a gurdwara, an Indian mosque, a Hindu temple, and across from them the Chinese temple. I have no doubt I would have found a church and a Buddhist temple in the vicinity if I hadn’t got caught up with the Chinese shrine. Believed to have been built approximately 125 years ago by another gambier ‘king’, Tan Hoik Nee, it was once the chief voice of Johor’s Chinese community, now nearly 40 per cent of the city’s l.4 million population, till the Overseas Chinese Association was formed in 1922.

Uniquely, the temple hosts not the Gods of five clans, but a God for each of the five Chinese dialects spoken in J.B. Many a worshipper stops at all five alcoves and seeks blessings with joss sticks and rose-shaped and coloured candles that just nestle in your palm. And ‘I’ll be back’ is sounded on a bronze bell dating back to 1875 as the worshipper leaves.

The Persekutuan Tiong Hua, which replaced the Overseas Chinese Association in 1945, not only renovated the temple in 1994-95, but added a small L-shaped museum in one corner of the square premises. Once in, there is a demonstration again here that space is not required to make a museum interesting; presentation is what matters. And drawing special attention is the depiction of the temple’s main festival celebrated with a three-day procession that has the locals almost swamped by tourists.

More museums, green spaces, and Islamic and Colonial architecture are not in short supply, but a little gem that is not promoted like the rest is a place we’ll visit next week.

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