Johor Bahru had always been my second town during my growing years. Every time when the school holidays started, I would pack some clothing and had them stuffed in my bag and not forgetting the toiletries, I would walk to the bus station looking for a taxi to ferry me to Johor Bahru. Taking a bus would be cheaper but it would be time consuming. In those day we had buses that we referred as Bas Sangkut. These buses would stop at every town; from Muar town it would first stop at Parit Bakar, then proceeded to Parit Jawa and then to Semerah and finally at Batu Pahat. However, from Batu Pahat one had to take a boat to Batu Pahat town as the bus would not continue their journey but would return to Muar town instead. From Batu Pahat one had to take another Bas Sangkut stopping at every town like Air Hitam, Simpang Renggam, Kulai and finally to Johor Bahru. It would take you the whole day to reach Johor Bahru town. So normally I would prefer to use the taxi that would cost me $5.00.
My first trip to Johor Bahru was in 1956 when I was 6 years old. It was during this trip that I remember when my uncle brought me to Singapore to watch the movie ‘Hang Tuah”. I was so fascinated with the movie for two reasons; it was a Malay movie that I could understand every word spoken from the beginning till the end and what made it even more fascinating was it was in colour. When I returned home I created many lies to my cousins who had never been away from Muar town. I told them that Singapore was so very far away that it was at the other end of the world. Then I told them that Singapore was such a very big town that one could never find a forest and the buildings were all taller than any coconut tree there was. They would listen to me with their mouths wide open.
In 1959, one of my uncles was posted to Johor Bahru as a Police Inspector and I would spend almost every school holidays with his small family. The house as I remember vividly was situated along Jalan Draper, quite near to the Johor Bahru town center. It was a wooden bungalow belonging to the state government. Uncle Othman was married to a Kelantanese lady whose accent was so thick that I sometime found it difficult to understand what she was talking about. They had a daughter, Faridah, who was a toddler perhaps three or four years old. During one of the school holidays, my male cousin who was a few years my junior followed me to spend the holidays with Uncle Othman. Tamar (Nordin Bin Mohd. Noah) and me slept in one room by ourselves often waking up during the night feeling so scared because we imagined many ghosts were around looking for young boys to eat.
Unlike my hometown of Muar where entertainment outlets were minimal, Johor Bahru town offered varieties of them. In the morning, particularly during the holidays, the Lido Beach would be filled with people from all walks of life bringing along their children. It was a carnival and by the shore young girls would walk gracefully stirring into action the cheeky eyes of young lads followed by their inviting whistling tune. Some families organized picnics having their nasi lemak for breakfast under the swaying coconut tress. They would enjoy the same meal for lunch. Hawkers would be doing brisk sales and the ice cream sellers wished they could bring more. This kind of scenario would last till evening and would be repeated the following morning. Once a while the cars of the Johor Royal families would pass by making all heads turning toward their direction. Johoreans are known to be proud of their Sultan and the royal families.
In the evening the Merdeka Park would be the lime light and many young lovers would stroll along the area of Stulang Laut of the Johor Straits. There wasn’t much entertainment but making your presence felt was compulsory otherwise you would be left out. Light refreshment would be served for a reasonable price and hawkers too took the opportunity to earn extra.
I was the first to get a taxi going to Johor Bahru. It was 1965 and I was 15 years old, eager to set foot in my second hometown. The taxi driver waited for another three passengers before we could proceed our journey. Being the first, I had the privileged to sit in front by the side of the taxi driver. When finally the taxi had four passengers, we began our journey. Along the way I enjoyed gazing at the green scenery while planning how to spend my few days in Johor Bahru. I had many relatives and I could chose any of their homes for my stay. But for this trip I decided to stay at my grandaunt’s house situated along the road of Wadi Hassan. We arrived Johor Bahru town by lunch time and I took a stroll to my favourite Chinese restaurant. The Hwa Mui restaurant served the best and authentic dishes of the Chinese Hailam. The waiters were mostly elderly people who walked slightly faster than a snail. I had a delicious meal of chicken chop oriental style and enjoyed every part of the meat. It was so juicy that its taste could still be felt after a few hours later.
Tonight I would be attending a party at the Railway Community Hall along Jalan Bukit Chagar, the reason for this Johor Bahru trip. JB youths were more advance than the Muar town youths but we always competed and refused to be left behind. The western influence creeping into our society was evidently strong looking at how JB youths were coping with it. Few local bands would be performing and I was so excited to watch them. Back home I belonged to a band known as the Dreamers and tonight I would be enjoying myself watching these JB musicians rocking to their bones.
My grandaunt was extremely surprised to see me at her doorstep. Tok Ani was in her late seventies and lived with her daughter whom I called Abang Gayah. Johoreans referred the eldest woman in a family as “Abang”. Tok Ani was so happy to see me that she asked Abang Gayah to fry for me my favourite jemput-jemput. In those days communication was very poor and we only used letters to communicate and for urgent matters we used the telegram. So every time I went to JB I had to take chances.
After having my dinner, I walked to the nearest bus stand and took a bus going to town. From here I walked towards the Railway station and using the back lane of the station, I walked a little bit further to a nearby hill. I ascended using a small lane and as it was dark, I walked slowly until I reached Jalan Bukit Chagar. One or two cars were passing by perhaps going to the same party. From afar I could see the lights of the Community Hall and could hear the sound of music. There were few lads outside puffing their cigarettes and I hope to meet some of my JB friends. As I approached nearer, one of them who noticed me shouted, “Hey our Muar friend Din is here”. We exchanged greetings and words began to circulate that a Muar friend was here tonight. I had always been friendly to most of them so I guess that was the reason I was easily accepted among my JB friends. Apparently quite a number of my Muar friends were also present.
The band performing was one called The Beats; a four piece all sporting the Beatles hair style singing the song ‘House of the Rising Sun’. They were all good looking, tall, and I thought they must be the Johor Arabs from Wadi Hana. They sang all the latest songs swinging and rocking as though we were in Liverpool. The dance floor were filled with dancers exhibiting the latest steps. The next band to perform was The Cossacks whose bass guitarist was my friend Wally (Zainal Jaafar) and another friend Rahman Kassim who later went to Germany. They sang most of the Beatles songs shaking their heads like Paul McCartney and John Lennon. I was introduced to some JB girls but as I was more interested in watching the bands, I could not be bothered with them. Furthermore I was rather shy with girls.
JB bands of the 60s were more advance than the Muar bands. I guess since Singapore was just a few miles away, they could get the best instruments there were. I remember watching a group of Johor Arabs called the Wadi Hana Quintet at the Diamond Jubilee Hall singing an old number ‘Sri Mersing’. It was a great fusion of old and new sound combined. JB produced quite a number of good bands that made the grade. Among them were The Strangers of the Cicin Emas fame, Orkes Nirwana, The Blue Waves whose singer Dino later joined another JB band called the Heavy Machine. Dino and the Heavy Machine are still around in Kuala Lumpur singing in some exclusive outlets.
That night after the party, a good friend offered me a lift home. We stopped at a famous Chinese restaurant operating 24 hours called Three Rings.
Johor Bahru of the 60s during the night was the place for night birds. They had a night club callled the Sky but this place was not suitable for young kids like me and so I never step foot in this place.
Towards the later part of my life in 1973 I moved to Johor Bahru working with an Insurance company. JB of the early 70s had changed slightly and new technology began to emerge. This was the time I began to have many new friends. Most of the nights I would spend my time at the Johor Civil Service Club drinking a glass or two of Anchor beer just to pass the time. By now JB had a new hotel called Orchid Hotel and next to it was the the Tropical Inn. The Tun Razak Complex along Jalan Wong,Ah Fook was almost completed that would soon transform the old road into a bursting shopping complex. New skyline was showing signs of appearing and JB was set to become a city with a class of its own. But until such time that would soon become apparent, JB town was a town many today have miss greatly.
Breakfast was always an exciting agenda and we had plenty to chose. We could enjoy a nice packet of nasi lemak eaten together with the famous otak otak served by a Chinese shop situated along Jalan Tebrau/Bukit Chagar. Or joined the many who would be enjoying their indulgence of lontong, nasi ambeng and the many Malay delicacies inside the wet market of Jalan Wong Ah Fook. For lunch we could always opt for the nasi padang of Yong’s. Or the famous Malay couple who served the best Malay dishes of authentic minang cuisine along Jalan Ibrahim. Of course not forgetting the legendary mee rebus Haji Wahid and the great Wak Logio’s satay. But you could still chose to eat at the famous Hwa Mui restaurant and the newly opened Lady Jade near the Mara building or at Wato Inn, just a walking distance from Lady Jade. The Sentosa nasi ayam was second to none and so was the Indian nasi daun pisang the origins of the JB Indian Keralla. JB town was a food haven for those who wouldn’t mind to add a few more calories.
Surely many of you have heard of a place called Mechinta. It was a night club that could shame the fame of Paris and New York. The owner was a friend of mine named Peter Kuok, who happened to be the half brother of Robert Kuok. A short guy and always pleasant, he mooted the idea of Mechinta, the acronym of Melayu, China and Tamil put together. The world famous singer Dato Shake started his singing career in this famous night club. Of course we did have another night club called Queen Bee situated along Jalan Tun Abdul Razak.
God knows how much I miss my JB town of my growing years. The Wahab Book Store where I could get any book of my choice; Everstrong for my sporting attires; RAT Auto to repair my car; the boutique of “His and Hers” to catch up with the latest fashion trend and many other varieties of everything.
And I will surely remember the many good friends that I have left behind. Johor Bahru of my growing years was a town I will always longed for.