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?
Who: The head honcho of four-year-old cafe-cum-boutique Bev C’afe (54 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee); vintage store The Girl Next Door (8A Jalan Dhoby); and unisex clothing line Bev C.
Why know her: Hao dubs her “JB’s original fashionista”, and it’s easy to see why. Her personal IG account (@beverlyb) is peppered with snaps of the 34-year-old in a sophisticated, minimalist staples worn with arty aplomb. She picked up skills like sketching and cutting from her mother and aunts, and churns out two collections a year for Bev C, specialising in convertible designs such as shirts that can also be worn as skirts. And while the second floor cafe in her shophouse space started out as a spot for customers to rest while shopping, it’s since become a trendy full-service joint offering acai bowls and Insta-worthy confections.
Weishen Tan & Holly Withers (Not Pictured)
Who: Founders of the 2,300 sq ft Can Studio (84A Jalan Kemunting), which comprises Tan’s photography studio, Withers’ artisanal bakery, and a fun yet cosy lounge area that the couple uses to host dinner parties. A Johorean who’s previously lived in Los Angeles, Vietnam, the UK and Singapore, Tan says he’s happy to be home because “it’s more relaxing to work here”.
Why know them: Tan’s modern-meets-romantic images make him a name-to-watch in the region, while Withers’ flower-strewn confections (yes, they’re decorated with real plants and blooms) are some of the prettiest we’ve seen. Formerly from the F&B business, the latter is also planning to launch an F&B consulting company to provide services such as crafting restaurant menus and training kitchen staff
Who: The man who turned some of JB’s sleepiest streets into places to see and be seen at with his popular dining establishments that include Roost Repurposed & Recycled (14A Jalan Trus), and Flowers In The Window (9 Jalan Dhoby).
Why know him: Wong’s laid-back, retro-tinged cafes marry F&B with lifestyle and design. Most of the furniture are his own works – all handmade using recycled wood and cardboard. (He even sells them, along with planters, at Roost). By year end, expect the return of his now-defunct cafe Sea & Saw as a “cafe by day, bar by night” 5km away from Jalan Dhoby. At 3,000 sq ft, the new joint will include an indoor park, where customers can dine in, taking up half the space; while the menu will highlight the use of local ingredients and herbs.
Who: The artisan with a penchant for colourful, tribal-inflected accessories and wall hangings, all sold on her Etsy store (www.etsy.com/market/missireenhandmade). Everything is handcrafted by Tan herself: A simple accessory takes five hours to complete, while a decorative hanging calls for two weeks.
Why know her: The 37-year-old is a modern-day Earth Mother/hippie who picked up her elaborate and unexpectedly stylish yarn-weaving skills from visiting the ethnic Hmong tribe in Chiang Mai, as well as the Rabari, Meghwal and Jat tribes in India. So fascinated is she with such ethnic cultures and design that she embarks on solo trips to visit new tribes at least twice a year. “I just follow my spirit (wherever it leads),” she says.
Mercy Sue Cherian
Who: The 26-year-old Johorean/Ngee Ann Polytechnic accounting graduate who’s helping to shape the identity of her home city through the arts.
Why know her: As part of the five-person team behind the Johor Bahru: International Festival City (JB: IFC) initiative, Cherian has not only helped promote local talents, but also opened JB up to more diverse international acts, including Japanese saxophone player Sadao Watanabe and the UK indie band Prep. The team also runs Eightysix, a cosy bungalow (86 Jalan Wijaya; right) that functions as their office; a space to host screenings, workshops, gigs and the odd art market; as well as Airbnb lodging, with four rooms available for rent. Her efforts seem to be paying off. She says: “A lot of kids here have grown up with JB: IFC, and they’ve shared with us that they’ve become more interested to learn about theatre or other forms of art (after attending our events).”
Who: The 33-year-old hairstylist behind the charming hole-in-the-wall salon, My Little Corner (57 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee), which only seats two at a time.
Why know him: Walking into Long’s nine-year-old salon is like entering a curio store from the ’60s, what with its peeling walls and odd memorabilia adorning the walls, but it’s not just the decor that keeps people coming back. Long, who hails from Perak, only accepts “customers-turned-friends”, explaining that it allows him to provide a more “personal touch”. In short, you’d be dead lucky to score an appointment.
Who: The one-woman show behind womenswear brand Dona Plant Base, which champions the use of biodegradable materials such as linen and bamboo. It’s only available via Instagram (@donaplantbase) for now, but an online store is in the works.
Why know her: A fan of the great outdoors and environmentally conscious (even her home/studio reflects this with ample earthy, raw tones), the 24-year-old designs pieces perfect for that beachside R&R – all relaxed and easy to slip into, with no buttons or zippers. They’re also painstakingly created by hand and only on demand, with a top taking one to two hours to complete. So far, orders have come from Singapore, Australia, Spain, and as far as the US.
This story first appeared in Female’s October 2017 issue.
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