Chic cafés, boutiques and a DIY ethos propel Johor Bahru’s surge
A swell of activity is helping Malaysia’s southernmost city of Johor Bahru shake off its border town image and take on a new shine. Large-scale developments are changing the city and its environs, complemented by a different revival down on the ground. Young entrepreneurs are injecting shots of coolness into their city by opening hip cafés and boutiques, while some organise festivals and spearhead new brands that could rival Kuala Lumpur’s offerings.
Much of the energy is concentrated downtown along Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Dhoby. Once a sleepy enclave of pre-war buildings, this is now the home of long-standing businesses and their new neighbours that include edgy establishments.
1. Bev C
Meanwhile, Beverly Bee opened her boutique, Bev C with partner Cally Chin in December 2013. An established hairstylist and trendsetter, Bee says her decision to create her own designs stemmed from a lifelong dream to be a designer. “I like to question the fundamentals of design and do something different with it,” she says of her creations, which have limited runs of 12 pieces per item. The industrial-chic shop also houses a café on the second floor.
Born and bred in Johor Bahru, Bee is proud of her roots and the revitalisation of her city. “The rhythm here is slower, but there are lots of talented people in JB. We need to stay here and have a shop like this to showcase local JB designers and encourage others to come back,” she says.
3. Miss Ireen Handmade
The spurt of talent runs through other independent shops in the neighbourhood. Ireen Tan makes jewellery by hand and sells clothing that she picks up on her travels in India, Thailand and Borneo. “I try not to follow the mainstream as it is available everywhere. What I offer is 100% handmade and fair-trade clothing,” she says. Her quaint shop, Miss Ireen Handmade (missireen.blogspot.com), is painted a vibrant turquoise and red.
4. My Little Corner
Not far off is My Little Corner (57, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee), where the utterly original Elvis Long offers haircuts in a hobbit-sized salon decked out in vintage finds and assorted memorabilia. A few doors down is an equally tiny bakery called Pot’s Kitchen (pots.my), renowned for their cupcakes.
5. “W” Refined
On the gastronomic front, food choices are growing by leaps and bounds. In Danga Bay, the mammoth up-and-coming development by the sea, “W” Refined (divisionby-m.com) has delicacies like truffle porcini mushroom soup, grilled chicken with hunter’s sauce and unagi aglio-olio angel hair pasta, prepared by a chef who spent four years at Singapore’s Fullerton Hotel. “W” is part of a burgeoning design-led business that includes the “M” Espresso Sporting Club coffee roasters.
6. The Brew Orchestra
Similar to many cities, Johor Bahru’s café culture is also thriving. The Brew Orchestra (facebook.com/thebreworchestra) in Taman Molek ups the ante for café culture with its décor (courtesy of Singaporean interior designers who won an award for it) and obsession with coffee. Isaac Loh, a tax consultant by trade and café owner by passion, is one of Malaysia’s handful of Q Graders, or professionally certified coffee experts.
“I wanted a more objective and systematic way of determining good-quality coffee beans. I think it is essential as a café owner to acquire really good-quality beans,” says the Melbourne-educated Loh. He acquires only grade-85-and-above beans (out of a grade system of 100) and concocts his own seasonal house blends. Loh admits that introducing speciality coffee has its challenges, but he is sticking to his guns. “We are very hard on ourselves. Our standards and quality are very high.”
7. Faculty of Caffeine
Loh’s friends have opened another café downtown called Faculty of Caffeine (facebook.com/facultyofcaffeine). Run by Edward Ng and Vince Pow, a medical student and a recently graduated interior designer respectively, this intimate café is a nod to a young, fresh aesthetic, with a good full English breakfast to boot.
8. Chaiwalla & Co
It’s not just coffee that’s creating a buzz. Chaiwalla & Co. (facebook.com/chaiwalla.co) sells various kinds of tea and milk tea from its base: A container made of recycled pinewood. The late founder of Chaiwalla & Co. Nazrul Hakim Putra was a self-described tea person who gave up his stint as a ship’s captain in favour of his beverage business.
For all these entrepreneurs and the believers in Johor Bahru’s potential, the labour of love is paying off handsomely.