The Sea Rises

02 May 2016

Sea Wong’s vintage aesthetic and passion for upcycling singlehandedly revived two streets in Johor Bahru marked for disrepair and decay. We find out his story and what drives him to continue pursuing his work.

Unassuming is probably the best word to describe Sea Wong. He’s sitting in his latest cafe, Flowers in the Window (it has actual fresh ferns and dried flowers in the window), carefully counting out dried branches and leaves before moving on to speak with his colleagues. Here in Johor Bahru, Sea Wong needs no introduction. Heralded by friends and fans as a breath of fresh air through JB’s “cultural” revival, Sea Wong has been part of the now indie (or as some would say either dismissively or with real admiration, “hipster” scene) that is burgeoning down on what is now JB’s coolest streets: Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Dhoby. Speaking to other JB natives like Kenny and Kevin of DJ collective KBnL, they had nothing but praise for their fellow “JB kia.” Yi laughs and exclaims, “It’s a bit weird to say this, but yeah, I think Sea Wong is the seed of the hipster/indie movement in JB. He is really.” Kevin agrees and adds, “He’s one of the coolest cats in this town la, and he’s brought a breath of fresh air to JB with his cafés.”

In order to understand the aesthetic and the movement on these two streets that is growing and revitalising a former red-light district, it’s important to take into context how much the street has grown over the last decade. “Basically, JB is a big town masquerading as a city. Or I guess you could say a city on the cusp, taking its first few steps toward ‘something.’ And Sea Wong has contributed to making JB bearable!”

“Well if you ask me what I love about JB, I would say this street. It’s a place where I have my work, and a place where new and old can co-exist, side by side,” says Sea. People are divided on the benefits of gentrification under most circumstances, not just here, but the world over. Young people often love it, choosing formerly abandoned or unloved storefronts and structures to convert into a vessel for their creativity. The old lament that this new wave of people bring about business, but raise rents and eliminate old rituals and businesses. Indeed, according to Sea, rent on these streets, including for his café, will increase. But that is the cost of the area improving. Sea says his neighbours or the old-timers on Tan Hiok Nee are happy, as there’s more of a crowd these days, and more young people visiting and lending an air of buoyancy and ease, but of course the rent is not getting any cheaper. “When I started in 2005, it was around RM800, but it’s headed up to RM2200 these days,” he says wryly.

According to KBnL, it all began with Sea having regular junk sales back in 2005 to 2009. “Sea would organise this with Eva T and all these cool kids with their families would come and it was interesting stuff, not commonplace. It was more like random clothes and stuff, and then he would organise parties and KBnL would provide the soundtrack to these street sales. It really rejuvenated the area and resulted in people seeing what could be done here,” says Yi.

The 36-year-old JB born Sea started this journey in Kuala Lumpur, doing graphic design. Somewhere along the way he decided it wasn’t for him, and took off to Australia. He traveled and got inspired by the café culture and aesthetics he was seeing for the first time. With this inspiration, he made his way home in 2005 and began work for the first Roost Juice Bar (currently redone as Flowers in the Window).

Sea doesn’t really have a background in starting a business for cafés. “My family owned a shop here. An optical and watch shop, around the late ‘70s. I tried to get interested in it, but it wasn’t for me, I guess.” Rightly so, or JB would be missing and integral part of its new character. “When I was young and I came around here, Tan Hiok Nee was so unimpressive. By the ‘90s most of the shops were shut. Many moved to the surrounding housing areas or just closed down, and since it was vacant, the prostitutes and drugs moved in. It used to be dangerous and very ugly. I chose Tan Hiok Nee later, I guess, because this street has historical value, with the way the shops and the architecture of the buildings are. And I wanted a vintage café, so it made sense. I enjoy the vintage aesthetic.”

Friends like Yi and Kevin, chimed in with incredulity. “When he told us he wanted to make a café in this area, we were like, why? Why Jalan Dhobi? It’s full of prostitutes and crime! Do you want your customers to get mugged?” But Sea persevered, despite all the questions and even naysayers, to continue to do what he wanted to do. “He’s very passionate. He basically has an idea, and then executes it,” explains Kevin. Sea explains that the constant belief that he was making a huge mistake was sometimes detracting. “Yes, especially the traditional business people, they were telling me these artistic things have no money in them. And telling me to do something more commercial. Which I refused, of course,” he says with a slight smile.

Long time friend, and indie-clothing store owner of Crossover Concept Store, Jem says, “Sea brings culture to this area, I think. I started Crossover around the same time as well, so I understand how hard the struggle can be. Ten years have passed since and Sea has been doing things his own way, despite all the challenges. The identity of that street has changed from a place with a bad reputation and not much to offer, to what it is today.”

Sea started small back in 2005 by asking relatives and strangers for “junk” or furniture from a different time, that people didn’t want as it was not new or fully functional. Restoring these pieces or rehabilitating them began as a DIY project. “I didn’t have any formal training, I guess I would just Google and watch tutorials on carpentry or restoration, and then do it on my own. Or I would watch some other carpenters do it first.” The first piece Sea restored sits upstairs in a sun-filled loft at Flowers in the Window. “It’s a teak sofa that my aunt didn’t want anymore,” he laughs. Also a proponent of up-cycling, or the movement of reusing discarded or unwanted objects into a product that is of value and good quality, Sea enjoys doing these projects by himself. By his own admission, Roost Cafe as it is now is almost all DIY, while restaurant and beer garden Sea & Saw is also DIY or given some work by steel specialists, as some pieces involve metal work. Flowers in the Window is about 80% repurposed from the first Roost of 2005. “This is why my renovation work takes so long, sometimes up to six months, because I build everything that you see in the café from the ground up.”

Despite speaking with more ease now, the business of DIY and setting up his ventures have not gone without a challenge. “It takes a lot of time to do these pieces you see, and some equipment I use is not available in Malaysia.” Its apparent of course, by the clothes Sea wears on a daily basis. Much of his wardrobe is sourced from secondhand clothing stores or bundle shops. “I started collecting all these things since I was 17. I mean, I grew up liking normal branded goods, but then realised that I liked vintage stuff more as I grew older. Now, when I create these spaces, I like adding these elements of secondhand items, and using wood or greenery to create the aesthetic that I want, mainly because I don’t like wastage,” he explains. Old wood shouldn’t have to be given away or thrashed according to Sea. “Most of these items can always be repurposed, but people don’t want to take the time to do it.” He goes to Penang, Bukit Mertajam specifically, and often finds a great selection of seasoned wood. “They have really nice wood there, taken from old buildings that have been torn down and sometimes even wood from old railway tracks.”

The reception in the past decade has been good. Sea’s been asked to consult on a number of other ventures in the area, which goes to show that demand for his vintage and DIY aesthetic is slowly expanding. Droves of bloggers and Instagram users regularly write and showcase his work on social media, resulting in quite a big following. For the future, Sea expressed interest to work on something in Kuala Lumpur. KL-ites should be so lucky.

By Michelle Gunaselan
Photos by Vincent Paul Yong

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