Hipsters might no longer be fashionable, but it’s undeniable how their culture (indie, creative, liberal) helped transform Brooklyn – once a backward, dangerous borough that nobody wanted to visit – into Manhattan’s cooler neighbour. Also a bridge away (albeit one that requires a passport to cross), Johor Bahru – or JB as most of us like to call it – seems to be undergoing a similar, if not more charming, cultural resurgence.
Areas like Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, which sit right by the Woodlands Causeway, are now hotbeds of independent boutiques, hip cafes and vintage furniture stores. The crowds they draw are equally experimental – and increasingly includes our own creative set.
“The people here have a positive attitude towards making (things) work,” says Linda Hao, the Singapore-based multi-hyphenate who has come to call JB her “creative hideout”, visiting for as long as 10 days at a time. “When they have a dream, they’ll try to make it happen and aren’t afraid of failure. They create something because they feel like doing it.”
At the centre of this burgeoning bohemian paradise are young, arty locals and transplants, drawn by the city’s affordable cost of living and creative potential. “A lot of young locals are coming back to JB. There’s a lot of investment coming in and they see it as (a viable place to start a business),” says Mercy Sue Cherian, a 26-year-old Johorean who’s the administrator and experience curator for Johor Bahru: International Festival City (JB: IFC).
Started in 2015 and an evolution of what was formerly the JB Arts Festival, JB: IFC functions as a platform to push the city’s arts and culture scene. Initiatives span disciplines such as film, fashion, design and music – think movie screenings or showcases for local electronic musicians. Next month, expect pop-up events across various cafes.
An outsider who’s taken root and changing the scene is Holly Withers, 27, a British national and former restaurant consultant. “We were only intending to stay for a year, but there are (exciting) things going on such as JB: IFC, or more speakeasies opening up,” she says, referring to herself and her husband, fashion photographer and Johor native Weishen Tan.
Together, they’ve set up Can Studio on the second floor of an old shophouse. While Tan works on campaigns for brands such as the Singapore-based label Source Collection, Withers churns out rustic-looking buttercream cakes decorated with sunflowers, roses, orchids, and even eucalyptus leaves. “I wasn’t planning to be a full-time baker, but business has been really good. I’m at the point now where I need extra help,” she says.
Another name-to-watch is Vanessa Toolseram, a Johorean who moved back from Kuala Lumpur three years ago to help with her family’s waste management business. After designing clothes for herself as a hobby, the 24-year-old founded the Instagram-based eco-friendly womenswear brand Dona Plant Base (@donaplantbase) last year, offering everything from high-cut swimsuits to off-shoulder tops and patchwork denim jackets made with leftover pieces of batik.
Even more radical is her plan to convert an abandoned 11-room bungalow behind the Johor Art Gallery – a half hour drive from Woodlands Checkpoint – into an artist enclave. Opened in August, its first floor houses a dining and event space; the second, her workshop and gallery where sewing or macrame classes are held. Other rooms are listed on Airbnb or have been turned into music jamming rooms for hire, while the backyard houses an edible garden.
“I find this energy that I’m sensing – from the young people who are starting their own thing in JB – so inspiring,” says Hao. So who better to help us spotlight the scene’s coolest and most colourful tastemakers?