Saturday, 8 June 2013

Day Trip to Johor Bahru Town in Jun 1965 (Inspiring People I Met on a Trip Back in Time)

Photo Credit: Johor Bahru Hainanese Association

Johor Bahru, 2 Jun 1965. Today is my birthday - I am 5 years old :) To celebrate my birthday, Dad brought mum, my brother and sisters to Johor Bahru to eat and to buy our favourite cakes. We had a wonderful day :)

We boarded the bus at Queens Street (Singapore). We didn't have to pay for our bus ride as dad is a bus driver with the Singapore - Johor bus company. As we were getting up the bus, dad told the driver in Hokkien "人" or "my people".

Rubber Tapper
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

It was a long bus ride, passing quiet rubber plantations with endless rows of neatly planted rubber trees in Nee Soon. I saw rubber tappers working hard and silently in the plantations, early in the morning. The rubber tappers inspire me with their discipline and hardworking nature.

Day-Trip-Johor-Bahru-TownPhoto Credit: Construction site hoarding (source unknown)

After passing the lush forests of Woodlands, we arrived at the Causeway. I love crossing the Causeway. I was excited to see the sea to my left and right as our bus drove across it. A smoking train rumbled pass us on our right side as our bus was crossing.
When we arrived in JB, our first stop is always Sang Heng kway teow soup stall at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee. Dad is a regular customer and friend of Uncle Seng. Uncle Seng has many customers. They say his Teochew kway teow soup has that captivating "prawny" flavour. I like Uncle Seng's soup too.


Dad ordered a bowl for everyone. I had mee pok dry which is my favourite. I am inspired by Uncle Seng's quiet pride and by his steadiness. Uncle Seng will carefully make each bowl of kway teow noodles one by one. Uncle Seng steadfastly wants to make the best kway teow soup, no matter how many customers are waiting. They all learnt to accept Uncle Seng's style and never complain :) I like the "musical" pinging notes Uncle Seng's ladle makes when it hits the porcelain bowls.


As we were eating, I spotted this customer leaving the coffee shop on his big Norton motorbike, making that loud throaty exhaust sound. I wish I could ride a bike like this when I grow up.

After our breakfast at Uncle Seng's place, dad took us for a short walk to Hua Mui coffee shop along Jalan Trus.


Dad likes the thick Hainanese coffee here. He would pour the coffee into the shallow saucer to let the coffee cool down quickly and he would hold up the saucer to sniff the coffee aroma before sipping it loudly. "好香" ("very aromatic") my dad would say in Cantonese. Mum would always remind dad to enjoy his kopi without making that slurping noise but it would fall on deaf ears as usual :P As for me, I like the sweet French toast here - white bread toasted with Planta margarine and sprinkled with sugar.


While daddy enjoyed his kopi (coffee), I watched the workers send food up and down stairs using a rope, a big tray and basket. Mum says this is a "dumb waiter". I wondered why she said that - I think this is a very clever idea :P  With this, the workers don't need to climb up and down the steep stairs anymore. I am inspired that sometimes, problems can be solved with simple solutions.


After coffee, we always walk up slope along Jalan Trus to stop by at the 50 year old Kok Yow Yong herbal tea shop. On our way to the old herbal tea shop, we passed by a red coloured arch on our left along Jalan Trus. Dad told us that Jalan Trus was the boundary separating the Hakka and Cantonese people of Johor Bahru during the old days. That red coloured arch leads to the houses where only Hakka people lived.


Kok Yow Yong is a hole in the wall type of herbal tea shop. People from all walks of life and all races stop by for quick relief from the blistering heat with a "cooling tea".


Sister was having a cough and cold, so mum asked the auntie at the herbal stall for an extra strong herbal tea. Fortunately, I didn't have to drink this very bitter and thick, grainy, gooey tea today :P

Photo Credit: Johor Tourist Information Centre

We then walked along Jalan Dhoby towards our next stop, Salahuddin Bakery - on the way we passed several laundry shops.

Dad stopped to chat with his friends Gopi and Muthu who work in one of the laundry shops along Jalan Dhoby. Gopi and Muthu are always cheerful, no matter how busy they were. Gopi always amazes me by how he is able to effortlessly straighten and flatten out wrinkly shirts and trousers with his hot iron in a matter of seconds. Gopi inspires me with his orderliness and systematic way of doing his work. I like the smell of freshly washed, starched and ironed clothes at Uncle Gopi's shop.


I love Salahuddin bakery - when we arrived we were greeted by a shop filled with the aroma and colours of freshly baked breads and cakes.


Enche Salahuddin uses this old wood fired oven to bake his popular breads and cakes.


Mum always buys bread from Enche Salahuddin whenever we come to Johor Bahru.


As for me, I always look forward to Enche Salahuddin's Bengali karipap (curry puff). Spicy mutton and potato with super crispy flaky crust that keeps falling off all over my clothes with every crunchy bite.

Photo Credit: Johor Bahru Hainanese Association

After buying our triangle shaped Bengali karipaps and bread, we crossed Jalan Dhoby towards IT Roo Cafe. I am inspired by the strength and toughness of the two small boys at IT Roo who were happily helping out at their parent's cafe after school. One of the boys was my age and another was slightly older.


IT Roo's chicken chop is our family's favourite. All of us love IT Roo's thick and chunky chicken chop in heavy crunchy batter. Since the chops were huge, we always just order 3 chops for all 6 of us to share. I also love IT Roo's potato wedges.

As we ate and chatted, I love the music they play in the background at IT Roo. The Righteous Brothers were crooning "Unchained Melody" - I think I will love this song for years to come.
As we walked down Jalan Pahang after IT Roo's chicken chops, we walked pass this huge house dressed in loud red paint - the largest house along these streets. Dad said that a rich Indian family lives in this towering mansion. I had to really crank and tilt my head till my neck aches to try and catch a glimpse of the people living inside. Mum would pull me along and tells me not to be such a busy body.

By the time we finished our chicken chops at IT Roo, it was already nearly 2pm. Dad hurried us up so that we could get to Hiap Joo bakery in time for their freshly baked banana cakes and coconut buns.

Like Salahuddin, Hiap Joo bakery also makes their breads and cakes using a large wood fired oven. I love to watch the frenzy inside the bakery. Sparks flew as the freshly baked bread and hot cakes were taken out of the oven.
Auntie May cuts the freshly baked banana cakes. I am always amazed by how Auntie May is able to cut the slabs of banana cake into 10 pieces of exactly the same size. Auntie May inspires me to focus on whatever I am doing and to do it with pride, in order to get the best results.


I love Hiap Joo's fluffy and soft banana cake. Real bananas are used to make this spongy cake, so it is not overly sweet. The skin is slightly charred from the wood fire while the inside is still moist.

Photo credit: Construction site hoarding (source unknown)

Our stomachs full and our hands carrying bagfuls of bread, karipap and cakes, we make our way happily back to Singapore by bus.

It was a very memorable fifth birthday trip for me :)

Epilogue - Hiap Joo's banana cakes never ever made it home with us - me and my siblings pinched it one piece at a time and finished it on the bus on the way home.

The 1960s were tumultuous yet inspiring times. As a 5 year old in 1965, obviously I could not understand what was happening around me. Yet, I could sense and feel that the earth was moving and great shifts were taking place in many spheres. The wounds of the horrific Second World War were still raw. Former colonies, newly independent, faced uncertain futures. The life and death struggle between Communism and the West was still unsettled and it was not at all clear who will turn out the winner.

With this backdrop, the common folks of whom I am one, got on with our lives. Tomorrow will be better - this simple, simplistic thought kept us going. The people's hardy spirit and society's ruggedness inspired unconsciously. Music, fashion, science and other creative endeavours flourished in this crucible. It's only years later that I become conscious of their influence in my own life.

Some of this heritage survived to this day. Our food and food ways among the treasures that survived, thanks to our hawkers - I am so glad that we made it through more or less intact, together.

In conclusion, the people who inspire me are not always rich, powerful or famous. Many people who leave a mark in my life and influence me are "ordinary" "everyday" folks we meet every day. Since I was small, I have a special fascination for hawkers. I spent many hours watching hawkers prepare and cook food. In the process, the traits and values of the best hawkers inspired and enriched me.

This post, indeed this entire blog, though focused on Johor is dedicated to street hawkers everywhere.

Note: This "1960s" trip is fictional because my family couldn't have afforded this. A trip like this in the lean 1960s would be considered a luxury, a "dream trip" few families could afford. Nonetheless, all the shops and food mentioned are real, and they are still here in JB today, at and around Jalan Tan Hiok Nee 陈旭年街. And, hawkers are the real inspiration for me and for this blog.

Click to view post on heritage food trail 2013

Click on the picture above to take a tour of these heritage shops as they are today (2013).

This 60s themed post is submitted for the Singapore Blog Awards 2013.


  1. wowowow! you have all those old pics..nostalgic and so memorable! and you got free bus ride to Singapore at that time! cool!

    The Deserts of Arab

    1. The trip is an imaginary one but it is based on what I know of the 1960s as I grew up in Singapore then. During those laissez-faire days, bus drivers were given free trips and it is common for them to "extend" this previlege to their entire family :P Some of the photos are given B & W filters to give it the 60s feel for the purpose of this post :)


I firmly believe that taste is subjective and so, warmly welcome differing viewpoints :-D But, I disapprove negative comments that are anonymous or hide behind fake identities. I feel that that is the same as speaking ill of others behind their backs. I look forward to all your comments :-D Thank you. (Date: 18 Dec 2015)

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