Retro flavoured kopitiams and eateries are plenty in Malaysia, where the good ol' days are still served up in good ol' ways, but a new breed of old-school coffeeshops are elevating nostalgia to the realm of designer vintage by turning the pleasure to reminisce into an artform. And paving the way is Ink Brew by JWC with the adjoining Eh He The Classic Accents Art House at Johor Bahru's heritage district of Tan Hiok Nee.
Discovering Ink Brew and Eh He was something of a beautiful serendipity. We were poking our noses into an oddstentatious (odd and ostentatious) shophouse facade at the mouth of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, unsure of what to make of it when an uncle seated in a kopitiam opposite encouraged us to go in. As we stepped through the doors of Eh He, thinking it's a performance arts theatre, we soon realised it is actually an art gallery embalming the Chinese history of Johor Bahru (JB). Beyond the gallery is a door that links to Ink Brew where the founding spirit of the precinct is translated into the cafe's menu and its deco. The result is a kind of retro that exudes effortless authenticity and bespoke artistry to entice not just the palate but hold the senses spellbound.
Getting to Eh He / Ink Brew
Eh He The Accents of Art gallery and Ink Brew by JWC can be accessed by different entrances but they are linked. Eh He's entrance is at the mouth of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee while Ink Brew's entrance faces Jalan Ibrahim. But the 2 are joined by a door on the second level so it doesn't matter which entrance you get in.
For the ease of explaining how to get here, I'll use the Jalan Tan Hiok Nee entrance of Eh He as a point to direct wayfinding. Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is a short historic street in Johor Bahru that's somewhat like Singapore's Haji Lane where pre-war shophouses occupied by avant garde fashion boutiques, restaurants, cafes and heritage businesses congregate to create a blast-from-the-past lifestyle destination within the city.
|Entrance of Eh He The Classic Accents Art House gallery at the mouth of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee heritage street. Opposite Eh He's visage is Kin Wah kopitiam that serves up traditional Hainanese coffee and kampung chicken's soft-boiled eggs.|
If you are unsure of your way, ask for directions to Sri Mariamman Hindu temple or Jalan Trus or Jalan Tan Hiok Nee along the street. Most locals would be able to point you in the right direction. It should take no more than 15 minutes to walk from City Square mall to Jalan Tan Hiok Nee at a leisurely pace.
|Entrance of Ink Brew with the prominent Eh He frontage on Jalan Ibrahim. The shophouse that accommodates Eh He and Ink Brew is sandwiched between Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Ibrahim.|
Eh He is an unconventional name for a gallery but there's a quirky rationale behind it. "Eh He" is derived from Earth Heart, meaning that art is all around us on this earth and also residing within us. If you look at Eh He's logo, you will also notice the words "中间" (middle) and "旁边" (to the side), which allude that art is at the heart of our being while at the same time, surrounding us.
|The second level of Eh He The Classic Accents Arts House. There's an old world charm about this place that's immediately captivating.|
|Surrounded by artistry in the gallery, we attempted to create our own photographic 'art'. Haha.|
|刀马旦。Rekindling the days where I learnt and performed Chinese opera in my late teens. But mostly as a backdrop character. LOL. Behind me is the door that leads to Ink Brew by JWC cafe.|
We almost didn't make it to Ink Brew by JWC which adjoins Eh He gallery through a door at the back of the art space. Initially, we thought the door was an access to the gallery's administrative office or staff quarters. But being nosy, we decided to check out where the door leads and thankfully we did. The door opens out to this...
|... an unconventional sitting area that defies the usual set-up for a cafe. But I didn't think it was a cafe at first, and thought it's the make-up room for performance artistes who may put up shows at Eh He gallery.|
|Another door at the side of the sitting area above leads to a wholly different sitting space of Ink Brew with a stairway leading to the ground floor where the barista, cashier and kitchen reside.|
|Furniture at Ink Brew is also an inconsistent carpentry of tables and benches as they are made from salvaged wood at the original shophouse. What you are sitting on is a piece of Johor Bahru's history while you sip tea or coffee.|