Friday, March 13, 2009

SANDAKAN: UNFORGETTABLE "LITTLE HONG KONG"





I like Sandakan after my transfer to Morisem Estate in December 1988. The out-going Manager, Saw See Hong, picked me up from Sandakan airport on 8 December 1988. That was my first trip to Sabah, the Land Below The Wind, in East Malaysia. I was surprised when I was told that Sandakan was once nick-named “Little Hong Kong”. The common Chinese dialect in this town is Hakka and not Cantonese and it seems that over 98% of the Chinese Malaysians in Sabah speak Hakka dialect. Later, my Sandakan friends explained to me that many of the earlier Chinese settlers actually came to Sandakan from Guangdong Province via Hong Kong. Anyway, I felt at home in Sandakan and it was easy for me to make new friends since I am also a Hakka. My late father came from Da Bu in Guangdong Province and settled down in Kuala Lipis, Pahang, West Malaysia.

To get into Morisem Estate, we had to travel to Sukau, a small village by the bank of Kinabatangan River. Then we had to cross the river on a barge towed by the company’s tugboat, powered by a 200HP Yanmar engine. We called it "Morisem Ferry". In the late 1980s, the road conditions from Sandakan to Sukau after the Mile 32 Check Point used to be very bad after rains, being muddy, soggy and very slippery for vehicles to travel even after engaging the 4WD (four wheels drive). Most stretches along the main trunk road were not tarred but only surfaced with round river pebbles. That’s why we preferred to stay back in the estate most weekends during the monsoon seasons.

Travelling along the Kinabatangan River on "Morisem Ferry" particularly in the very late afternoons was always full of anticipation and eagerness as well as excitement when we were lucky to see the long- nosed Proboscis monkeys on trees of the mangroves near the river banks. With a big dangling bulbous nose and its pot-belly and sitting on a branch with its long tail (about the same length as its body) hanging down, from far it was previously mistaken as a “Dutchman”, thus it was called ‘monyet Blenda’ in Bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia. Nevertheless, the official Indonesian name for “Dutch monkey” is Bakantan.

It was David Soo who took me to Labuk Bay Proboscis Sanctuary located at the center of the mangrove forest along the coastal land near Kampong Samawang within an oil palm estate to have a close watch of the Proboscis monkeys swinging and leaping from tree to tree during the feeding time. I was in Sandakan to visit his workshop installing HIAB crane to farm tractor. My 2nd trip to the sanctuary was accompanied by Mr. Lee Min Khin when we travelled to Sandakan one early Sunday morning after completed my visit to the plantation he managed.

We were so amazed when one local staff told us that there were at least 3 groups of Proboscis monkeys in the sanctuary. “That’s Romeo,” he pointed to a big adult male accompanied by a bunch of females and the young ones having small upturned noses. “Caesar’s there,” he showed us another adult male among other group of females and juveniles. Then he told us that the latecomers were all males forming the bachelor group before acquiring their own harems. He carried on telling us that a ‘challenger’ would emerge from the bachelors to fight the adult male. If it lost the fight, it would go back to the bachelor group but if it won the fight, it would replace the loser as ‘alpha male’. The poor loser had to leave to somewhere secluded and isolate itself and would never show up again.

One day Simon, our trainee Assistant in Morisem Estate, found a strayed young orangutan in his division at the jungle edge boundary. After nourishing it for few days, I told him to surrender it to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre located within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, about 25 kilometers west of Sandakan. When my family visited me during the school holidays in 1990, I brought them to the orangutan sanctuary in Sepilok. My wife and my young children were overjoyed with lot of laughter seeing the playful orangutans swing in from the jungle trees on to the feed platform during the feeding time. In this rehabilitation centre the young orangutans, mainly orphaned, are raised and trained for survival in the wild environment and will be eventually released back to the jungle when ready. It has become one of Sabah's top tourist attractions.

There was on occasion I saw an elephant crossing the logging track in front of us. At that time I was travelling in the vehicle of another planter, Chin Teng Nam. He quickly stopped his vehicle and turned off the engine. Since it was still quite a distance away, he did not want the running engine sound to disturb it or draw its attention. The big mammal flapping its ears and swiveling its trunk from side to side, turned its head towards the direction of the vehicle, hesitated for awhile, then walked slowly across the road into the jungle. However, I had never seen the elephants swimming across the Kinabatangan River, as told to us by Orang Sungai friends in Sukau. Nevertheless, there was a newspaper write up in Daily Express published on January 26, 2006, “Due to barriers formed by large rivers, large water channels, oil palm plantations and villages, the forests downstream of the Sandakan-Lahad Datu highway are divided into 15 fragmented patches. Borneo Pygmy elephants can only move between these patches by swimming across rivers, and walking through plantations and villages.” As a matter of interest to all, I have downloaded a photo of the ‘swimming elephants’ from the internet.

Not far from Sukau are the Gomantong Caves famous for bird’s nests. There are two caves, the Black Cave known as Simud Hitam Cave producing black bird’s nests and the White Cave known as Simud Puteh Cave producing the more valuable white bird’s nests. Besides swiftlets, bats are also among the resident creatures of the caves. Other birds such as serpent eagles, bat hawks and kingfishers can be seen outside the caves. One day I and Wong Tan Ho, our provision shop operator in Morisem Estate, went to have a look inside the Black Cave accompanied by our Sukau police chief. As we stepped into the cave, it was dark and smelly inside, and the entire floor of the cave was covered with guano of 3 – 4 meters deep. What amazed us was the erected long rattan ladders with poles and hanging ropes to collect the bird’s nests built by swiftlets right on top of the cave. We could imagine that the licensed harvesters of bird’s nests were highly skilled climbers and well rewarded for their hard earned take home pay.

Traditionally, Sandakan’s economy was heavily dependent on export of tropical timber. However, the once dominant timber industry is currently relatively small with increasing depletion of the natural forests and ecological efforts to save remaining natural rainforest areas. I used to see tugboats towing hundreds of timber logs tied to one and other floating above the water surface and also tugboats towing huge stockpile of timber logs on large barges along the Kinabatangan River going downstream towards the direction to Sandakan port.

Apparently Sandakan has become the top palm oil producer in Sabah and I am proud that I was one of the many planters working in the Kinabatangan areas in the late 80s. I also went back as a Planting Controller for plantation visits every now and then in 1995/2003. Over the years the well developed oil palm plantations and the palm oil mills belonged to IOI, IJM, PPB, and others big plantation companies have played the important role in bringing good revenues and enormous development to Sandakan. Those days the road condition was very bad and used to become soggy, wet and very slippery during the rainy seasons. Due to the frequent of vehicles bogged down on soft muddy road, the lorries carrying FFB (Fresh Fruit Bunches of oil palm) to palm oil mills left early in the mornings and returned to the plantations late in the evenings. That’s why we used to complain, “It’s not the distance that counts but the time of travelling that matters because of the very bad road condition.” I remember the road to Sukau was only surfaced with river pebbles and full of potholes and even sink holes here and there along the way. In those days CPO was also transported by specially fabricated barges along the Kinabatangan River.

I love the seafood in Sandakan and I remember there were so many eating places in this town. Most seafood restaurants were built on stilts and extend out to the sea. For seafood steamboat, we preferred Trig Hill Restaurant built on hill top, overlooking Sandakan town. We were able to have night view of Sandakan harbour and felt the cool air while eating the steamy seafood and drinking cold beer in the open air. To me, the best place to eat seafood Dim Sum(点心) was in Palm Garden, Hotel Sandakan. For breakfast, we could find many varieties of hawker’s foods in the old Fat Cat ‘makan’ shop located in Bandar Nam Tung, particularly the seafood noodles in preference of either, mee (麵),beehun (米粉) or hor fun (河粉)served with large tiger prawns, squid and shellfish. I also liked the Penang Char Kuey Teow (炒粿条)with fresh prawns. I even told the hawker why not change the name to Sandakan Char Kuey Teow? We also had buk kut teh(肉骨茶) in Bandar Nam Tung. There was one restaurant in Bandar Ramai Ramai specially cooked yellow wine chicken(黄酒鸡) for us on special request. The English Tea House (near the Rotary's Observation Pavilion) built on hill high above Sandakan should be the right place for afternoon tea, having time to relax and chatting with friends while looking over Sandakan town and the ocean.

My only regret was missing the chance to visit the Turtle Island, famously known as Pulau Siligan, to watch turtles lay eggs. I shall visit Sandakan again and this time will surely make a trip there.

Click on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJEdjmIJ7yQ to watch and listen to this Sabah Hakka song. You'll like it.

10 comments:

Ho Kah Lin said...

Very nice to read your article of UNFORGOTTABLE "LITTLE HONG KONG" SANDAKAN

I started my planting career back 1980 ,the first Estate I joined is in Batu Puteh near the Kinabatangan River Sekong River Kemayan Group THE first day when I went to the estate there was no current supply we used to use the pressure lamp '' TAI KONG TAN ".
Guys you just imagine a youngster come back from the modern urban such as TAIPEI,really we almost want to abscond from the estate.

After listened to our uncle's advice, "any tall and big building every thing must have a good foundation then only can go higher and further", so I stayed back and started learning the management through people. Up to now I NEVER FORGET MY DEAR FRIEND AND MY SENIOR LOH KONG PENG ,WHEN I MET YOU IN TAWAU BACK 1989 OR 1988 IN OUR TAIWAN ALLUMINI ANNIVESARY CARNIVAL IN TAWAU.

Time passing very fast almost 20 years we did not meet I think ONE DAY we should visit you .

FYI My late father also come from DA PU Kwangtong Province and I had visited China DA PU. IS good to know where is our roots.

Kelana Sukardi said...

Thank you for this short article which had reminded me of the good old days at Morisem. I do miss some of the names and places you mentioned and again thank you for these recollections and photos of Sandakan/Sukau.

jmtan2007.blogspot.com said...

Very interesting to read of the adventures of a xifu planter, my old friend Ah Peng (your late parents used to call u) aka Pak Loh (in Indonesia.) Do write some more for people like me (a former teacher)who has never even seen a real rubber tapping activity or the harvesting of the golden crop. By reading your blog, I learnt a lot on the life of a planter and the hardships u have gone thru. Your experiences and adventures should be complied into a book for young planters to read b4 they venture into the world of trees and more trees. Maybe your old buddy(me) can make a docu film out of it. Planters have a lot of stories to tell. A non planter like me like to read stories from planters (the Sunday Times used to carry stories of retired planters, usually by Mat Sallehs of yesteryears). So u had encountered many wild animals in Sabah. Did u get to meet Tarzan and Jane who were the masters of the orangutans in the jungles of Sabah?
Sorry, I got carry away, they are only found in the jungle studios of Hollywood. Been watching too much old movies lately.
I got a chance to visit Sabah in 1998 when the Hainan Association Malaysia had its AGM there, but regretabilly I didn't go. I went to Kuching, S'wak in 1990 for the HAM AGM as a representative from the Lipis Sukee Ass. I missed many opportunties of visiting a lot of places which I now regret. So make hay while the sun shines.I'm telling this to myself and those who fall into the category of prograstinationists. Not u, KP, u are already a seasoned world traveller and an adventurous planter who has eaten more salt than rice, so to speak.

Albert Teh said...

Congrats for a well written and informative article on your experiences in Sandakan.

May I suggest if you could put in some nice photos of the animals you've encountered at the right paragraphs of your article, it would greatly enhance any readers' enjoyment.

Stephany Chan said...

Nice writeups. anyway i would like to correct some remarks.
actually sandakan hav more cantonese than hakka. reason being because of they migrated from hongkong to sandakan due to british occupation and order. i met one hongkong friend whom already migrated to sandakan since 1950 explain this.

KP LOH said...

You are absolutely right. They are Hakka speaking Cantonese and I presume they speak Hakka more often then speaking Cantonese nowaday in Sandakan. Correct me if I am wrong. That's why Sandakan has been well known as "Little Hong Kong."

Anonymous said...

2 hakka sisters later married 2 male tenants when their hakka father wanted them out of his house in Sandakan ASAP so he could remarry again. The 2 tenants were orphans abandoned by Chinese laborers who ditched their mothers from Sarawak primitive tribe. Looking for contacts.

lee min khin said...

pak Loh, Pls do come to visit sandakan again, there are few new additional tourist attraction spot available in sandakan now. this time i will make sure to disclose the secretive ingredient of the pancake which for feeding the probocis monkeys :)))))

ah lee cai, sandakan

lee min khin said...

pak Loh, pls do come again to sandakan, there are few new additional tourist attraction spots in sandakan, this time I will make sure to disclose to you the special ingredient of the pancake for feeding the proboscis monkey :)))))

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this. I find this article very interesting. I am a Hakka Sabahan and I am very glad to know that you seem to feel at home in Sabah. I just would like to comment a bit. I think 50 years back, Sandakan was the only place in Sabah where Cantonese was more commonly spoken. That is why it has the nicked name the Little Hong Kong. I think there are more Cantonese origin people there. But today, whether you are a Cantonese or Hakka or any origin in Sandakan, Hakka language has taken over Cantonese. This makes the whole of Sabah's common Chinese language being Hakka. Just to let you that this is one of the most unique thing in the whole world. Sabah is the only place in the world where Hakka is the dominant language among the Chinese, that people of other dialects often end up speaking Hakka than their own dialects. Please come back to Sabah!