Reposition Jonker Street

I spoke at the :”Driving Economic Growth from Heritage” Forum organized by the Melaka Junior Chamber of Commerce; went around Jonker Street today and took a new set of photos for Geographer Cafe and for Jonker Street.

马六甲:《从老街看经济》-full speech on Nov 15 2013.



Jonker Street is a historic street located in the heritage area of old town Melaka that in the last 13 years has become a “must stop” for visitors and tourists. Back then the Street was earmarked to develop into a kind of “cultural walk,” to offer products and experience with a deeper and richer cultural content.  For strange reason the municipal authorities has announced closure of the street citing unruly traffic situation as the reason for closure.

Since Jonker Street was earmarked to be a “Cultural Walk” 13 years ago, I have visited the street several times. In fact the street was featured in my book “Culture Is Good Business” and Geographer Cafe, one of the landmarks on the street barely got started when I wrote the book; I took the inside cover photograph with the Cafe as a backdrop. At that time, I joked with the Cafe operator Peter Tseng, ” Peter you jolly make sure you succeed because Geographer Cafe must stand testimony to my theory ” Culture Is Good Business.”

Peter did a good job. His dedication paid off. Geographer Cafe became profitable on its 7th year and is now one of the most popular spot along Jonker Street. Geographer Cafe has not only become an interesting backdrop for famous product shots such as shooting the new Toyota or scenes for the Hongkong movie, ” Summer Holidays (夏日抹抹茶),” Peter has painstakingly invited many artists to perform at the Cafe,  this space has also become a gathering place for old friends as well as visitors, young and old to drop by to have a drink.

What has Jonker Street got to do with Geographer Cafe? And why am I concerned about the closure of Jonker Walk?

Geographer Cafe is a fine example of conviction and perseverance. 13 years ago and before Melaka town was declared World Heritage Site, it was difficult to make a business case to run a Cafe in very uncertain economic climate and unreliable stream of visitors. Peter Tseng and his partners persisted; and the Cafe prospered with Melaka resurging as a lesiure spot for richer Singaporeans out for a weekend break and for tourists from abroad.

Initially It was more of the partners believing in creating a wholesome place for them to meet friends and have friends meet their friends, in a relaxed atmosphere with character. They preserved the old shop house, make sure that all the “things” that they grew up with are scattered around; old books, old records, songs, calligraphy; they added the internet but still the place very much retained its character. There is music for most of the evenings; a bit of East and West, Chinese songs, Jazz and kind of easy going western pop; not a rowdy bar where people just click glasses and drown themselves in alcohol.  Geographer Cafe was meant to showcase “culture,” not just come by to have a plate of nasi lemak or a beer; but slow down, relax and reflect a little about life. Peter and company wanted a more “intellectual” place; and at the “Geographer” Cafe, you will hear conversations on world politics, travel, history and art.

Peter put a lot of effort into the food of Geographer. He introduced Tempeh ( snack made with fermented soybeans), a native food from Indonesia – very local, indeed not easy to find in other restaurants around town. The Geographer Cafe Nasi Lemak is one of its kind; served with bean sprouts and unpolished rice, boiled peanuts — following the rules of healthy cooking. The Curry Ramen is an all time favorite; it is vegetarian, they sun-dried the freshly made noodle from organic flour, infusing natural vitamin E in the process. The  Santan-less curry is made from carefully blending walnut, cashew nut and pine seeds — this means that the true essence is in the curry and one must take in every bit of it.

The authorities who planned Jonker Walk must have wished that there are more Geographer Cafes -like  Cultural entrepreneurs who are passionate about innovating and deepening one’s experience; be it food, drinks, music or dance. People who show expressions of higher culture and may be “better taste.”  To realise this, we must also consider the other side of the scene along the walk, what about the visitors–what do they come for and what price are they willing to pay for their experience there?

I supposed when Jonker Street opened; the authorities wanted the street that showcase culture, at that time in the middle of China Town in Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur. At that time,  there is a  Cultural Street of bookshops, art galleries, tea rooms where the young generation of Malaysian Chinese intellectuals wanted and intended as a cultural hub. But when Jonker Street, it quickly became a night market ( Pasar Malam) style pedestrian night hangout. All kinds of petty stuffs, including many made in China products were sold there. A lot of food offering as well. The shop owners complained as the petty traders offered food at cheaper prices than the shops which has to pay higher rental.

Peter was then concerned and asked me to comment. I shrugged my shoulders; “well, pasar malam is also culture, it is the local style of life. ” I did’t meant to be sarcastic;  it is hard to force things down peoples’ throat; people go for things they are familiar; and if their vision can only see the ordinary, objects of higher cultural standing would have no appeal to them, and therefore no market.  If the street attracts the locals and locals want cheap ordinary day stuffs; well and good. Can there be an alternative site to keep the night market, yet to reposition and refine Joker Street?

Was it a mistake to allow traders of pasar malam ware? Did the night market traders drove away the more upmarket cultural traders?  Estimates put business volume of the 200 traders at the night market at around RM5m a year;  this amount of local GDP generates some RM3.5m in net revenue to the traders.  If the market is relocated to a more conducive location; and Joker Walk begin to regain the valuable weekends to do business,  perhaps more GDP can be created. The presence of these petty retail traders have been contentious with the shop owners who have found it difficult to conduct business during the weekends. Temporary closure may put the street to a test; how would the traffic over the weekend to Jonker Walk change?  The current rethinking involving the street may be an opportunity to reposition.

A Cultural Walk must be sustainable; the shops and traders must do well. The traders and their ware provide the backdrop to the cultural scene, and nobody pays them to make a scenery for the visitors; the show must be paid for by the business they can made. The key about a Cultural Walk is the experience; and it shouldn’t be a choice of “either or.” With proper guidance, we can persuade traders to go about their trade in a more aesthetic way; you can still sell ordinary ware but in an interesting manner, look at the shops along the streets of Paris, it is such a visual delight !

At one time, the planners of a Cultural District in Shanghai asked me, how to change the “content” of their neighbourhood; I said the only way to do is to “change blood’ i.e if you want the place to display a different character, you must have a different group of people populated there. The character of the place is about its people, and the shops, restaurants, bars and the things and styles of things they sell matches with the population. We see that in many of the world’s streets known for their character. And it takes time; sometimes this is done organically, sometimes with a bit of planning and incentive; and often times, both approaches working together can help to bring about a new appearance.

Now we look at Jonker Walk 13 years after, I believe it must have become a more vibrant pasar malam, and traffic jam must have become unbearable for the local municipal to want to close the night market.  The questions one can  ask:

1. If the night market has become popular, and locals and visitors love them, and traders are making business, why not? People may be coming to enjoy the relaxed and free night market atmosphere? If the hygiene standard and display can be further improved, the authorities can come up with competition and other ways to incentivise to bring about a more visually pleasing scene.

2. If it has to stay as a “Malaysian-style night market,” can we build upon it? How can we make it more interesting and have a richer variety and depth with incentives from the authorities? Can there be more music, more street performances, add more activities to the night scene in additional to the abundance of food and snacks on offer? Can we have anything else besides food and souvenirs?

3. Can we upgrade? Can we do fine dining with Nasi lemak and Chicken rice. I supposed in Taipei’s Shilin Night Market (士林夜市; pinyinShìlín Yèshì), you can have seafood served on Wedgewood in a street stall/shop decorated with crystal chandeliers; can we infuse more “culture” into the products and/or the experience. Can we see more thematic spaces, be there bars, shops and restaurants; and more young energy in innovation and entrepreneurship?

Culture is for the locals, and by and large organic. Visitors come to see what the locals look like and what they do; in other words, their lifestyle. What we see is what we get; it is not up to the authorities to like what they see, it is what the market ( i.e. the people) like that will sustain the energy of the place. The authorities can help by nurturing and upgrading in a gradual way…….it does look like 13th years later, much more work lies ahead; the story is not about Jonker Walk alone; it is about the larger Malaysian Cultural Scene and this has to do with the entire socio-cultural eco-system of the nation.

The popularity of the night market perhaps creates an opportunity to reposition Jonker Walk; open a new district for the existing market and allow it to continue to flourish. In the meantime, more thoughts go to nurturing a truly “cultural street” in a very expensive Heritage Street that should showcase more of history, culture and the arts. There is more “value”in this than what a low priced retail market can generate.

( Jonker Walk was written as an example of an intended local culture street in the book ” Culture Is Good Business.” published in 2003).

Published by Global Hanyu

The leading provider of Mandarin and Study China programs

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