Pre-war shophouse turned heritage museum tells Johor Chinese history

The Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum in Jalan Ibrahim.

THE pre-war building occupied by the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum was once a shophouse for a family’s trading company and their abode.

It is also the birthplace of Johor’s famous son, billionaire Tan Sri Robert Kuok Hock Nien, who was born there on Oct 6,1923.

The No.42 building in Jalan Ibrahim in Johor Baru’s old town was later occupied by the Johor Baru Tiong-Hua Association from 1948.

“It was designated a museum in 2005 when the association moved to Wisma Tionghua in Taman Sri Tebrau in 2005, ’’ said the association’s treasurer and Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum management committee chairman Danny Wong.

The museum was launched by then Johor mentri besar Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman on Oct 3,2009.

Wong said the original building was two storeys but two more floors were added in 1964.

“It cost us about RM1mil to restore the building, which is classified a heritage building, ’’ he said, adding that renovations included replacing old wiring and pipes as well as installing air-conditioners.

“The museum showcases the history of Chinese immigrants in Johor and how they contributed to the state’s development, ’’ said Wong.

It houses a collection of exhibits and artefacts with the aim of preserving the history and heritage of Johor’s Chinese immigrants.

Johor was the world’s largest producer of gambier from the 1830s to 1850s.Johor was the world’s largest producer of gambier from the 1830s to 1850s.

Visitors will also learn how the Chinese played a role in fighting the Japanese during World War II.

On the museum’s first floor are early records of the Chinese arriving in Malaysia for trade and business, dating back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

“There are five main dialect groups namely Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese and Hainanese who came to Johor to make a living, ’’ said Wong.

The museum also shows crops namely gambier and pepper, grown by the Chinese, which had contributed to Johor’s economic growth.

There are also photos and artefacts of Chinese immigrants between the 1800s and 1900s.

The temporary exhibits are on the top floor.

Wong said Johor Sultanate ruler Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim bin Temenggong Daeng Abdul Rahman (1810-1862) played an important role in encouraging cultivation of the crops.

“Chinese planters were encouraged to cultivate gambier and pepper in Johor’s interior areas in 1840.”

He said that according to records, Tan Kee Soon --- one of the leaders of Ngee Heng Kongsi --- obtained a surat sungai (permit) and subsequently brought in clan members to cultivate Sungai Tebrau, and named it Kangar Tebrau or Tan Chu Kang.

“There were about 100 settlements along Johor’s riverbanks at the peak of gambier farming, ’’ he said, adding that the settlement leader was known as kangchu (ketua sungai).

Gambier is an extract derived from the leaves of uncaria gambir, a climbing shrub native to South-East Asia and it was used as a tanning agent, brown dye, food additive and herbal medicine.

“Gambier and pepper were vital to the state’s economy in the 1800s. It put Johor on the world map and brought wealth to the local community, ’’ said Wong.

He said with Europe as a major market, the peak of the gambier trade lasted from the 1830s to 1850s – a period when Johor was the world’s largest producer.

The iconic motif of intertwined sprigs of pepper and gambier plants has been adopted by the state and used consistently on royal regalia, official crests and as part of décor on public buildings as well as on lamp posts along expressways, he pointed out.

“The museum is a famous tourist attraction in Johor Baru, ’’ said Wong, adding that before the movement control order was imposed on March 18,2020, more than 1,000 local and foreign visitors including students and history buffs visited it.

For details, call 07-2249633 (9am to 5pm).

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