During JUICE’s sojourn in Johor’s capital last year, we felt a sort of architectural déjà vu when we visited the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk. There was that melding of heritage and modernity that permeates the atmosphere of the island up north – turns out Penang ain’t the only Malaysian state with enough foresight to renovate their heritage buildings into hipster joints. While Kuala Lumpur is busy demolishing antiquated buildings – or doing nothing with them at all – Johor Bahru is turning theirs into venues people would actually visit. There’s a burgeoning youthful scene underneath all the development – we’ve seen fashionable peeps not unlike Lah Lah Land and DJs playing music akin to what you would hear at Twilight Actiongirl or Deer Society nights. Acknowledging how ripe JB is as the capital of cool, we got an anonymous member of the state’s equivalent of KL’s stalwarts of indie nights to contextualise Johor’s blooming subcultures.
Text + Images Anonymous
In 2009, the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk of Johor Bahru helped put an area once forgotten and neglected on the local tourist map. However the reemergence of this street and its surrounding area as being relevant to the youth of today began when Birth opened its doors in 2005, a quaint salon located in the heart of old JB, in an area then known as the pondan central of JB. Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and the parallel Jalan Dhoby were infamous haunts for transvestites and the street sex trade. “Hah? Why that area?”, “Are you sure?”, and “Safe of not, ah?!” were the most common questions faced by Serence Teo when she first decided with her partner in crime Chin Vi Yoong to set up shop there. “It just felt right,” she told us simply and matter-of-factly. With Vi Yoong’s stylish sensibilities as an interior designer ,they managed to put together an ensemble of young quirky vintage cool lot, nothing like JB has seen before then.
Later that year, their friend, Sea Wong, held the official launch party of Roost Cafe on Jalan Dhoby with the help of his DJ friends, KBnL, a first of many to come (which would fester their common interests in music later on). Like his friends, Wong too had a strong sense of design and fashion. Not contented with merely serving up excellent beef noodles, he did it in a setting unlike any other back then. When you think beef noodles you’d think a hawker restaurant sort of thing.
Not so much with Roost.
Most, if not all furniture were collected or picked and accumulated over a period of years. Beautiful vintage chairs, swing doors salvaged off some kampong house, and old window grilles picked from their regular sojourns to various bundle and second hand shops were the types of furnishings/fittings adorning their shops. So well-appointed are these shops that they have been regularly used for photo shoots. This formula was repeated at That’s Cafe operated by another one of their friends whom started business the year after, which even had a salon upstairs run by yet more friends.
As Roost expanded, it also spawned a little fashion boutique-cum-salon in the shape of The Girl Next Door. Owner, Beverly Bee, once was ‘squatting’ in a small section of Roost under the guise of the Little Red House. But with both their businesses expanding, she rented out the top floor of the lot next door. This group of fashionable and young entrepreneurs held countless themed parties and junk sales at malls, rooftops, car parks, etcetera, all to the soundtrack provided by KBnL – a bunch of guerrilla DJs championing indie music, copying their Twilight Actiongirl cousins in KL. Once, they put together a junk sale-cum-indie battle of the bands showcase and club night, then featuring a band called Novelea with Wandi Saat (currently of They Will Kill Us All) on keys. Stalwart KL DJs like Goldfish, Xu, Chaseylain, and Bunga have all been down south to be part of this burgeoning scene. Even Jee Hoe had cut his teeth in JB before helming regular nights in KL. Prior to this, nightlife in JB was rather seedy, if not very bland like KL in the early ‘90s, playing only Top 40s. DJs back then didn’t even advertise what music they played unlike today, these days even punters in JB know of genres.
It was through these parties that a group of creative youths, Zak and Yusri amongst others (later calling their collective JOHO in 2009), started collaborating with Roost, The Girl Next Door, and KBnL – organising events around JB. They had also participated in the JB Arts Festival and coorganised its Youth Day (which had a mini-Urbanscapes feel to it) to much success. They bring their road trip of events and gigs all over Johor (even as far as Kluang and Batu Pahat) with the singular purpose of uniting the likeminded new generation of Johoreans to have a collective identity and voice. They now have a store selling their own line of apparel as well as a creative agency, which had designed an unofficial Harimau Selatan logo, now appropriated by the hundreds of ‘unofficial’ merchandise stalls surrounding Larkin Stadium.