History of Kota Kinabalu

Mother Earth Travel > Malaysia > Kota Kinabalu > History

It only takes a visitor one look at present-day Kota Kinabalu, or KK for short, to surmise that this is a fairly new city. The only colonial remnants of an almost century-long British control are the old post office building and the Atkinson Clock Tower in the older part of the capital. With many of its office buildings and commercial edifices sporting today's fa├žades'some still with that fresh-paint look?and with constructions going on at almost every major intersection, one could even be forgiven to think KK was built just yesterday.

Indeed, KK received its city status only recently on 2 February 2000, but its history dates more than a century back to the days when the British North Borneo Chartered Company discovered it by accident, after a fire burnt down its former administration centre on Gaya Island. KK was then a small fishing village, sited on a narrow strip of land with hills on one side and sea on the other. It was named Api-Api, loosely translated as 'Fire-Fire?, to denote the blaze that destroyed the former administration centre. It was later renamed Jesselton, after Sir Charles Jessel, then Deputy Manager of the British North Borneo Company.

Under the Chartered Company's control, Jesselton became a trading hub for local produce such as rubber, rattan, wild honey and wax. A railway line was built to transport goods from the deep interiors to the harbour. (The railway has undergone refurbishment and now runs heritage trips inland). While the Chartered Company did bring about tremendous change to the land and its people by quelling piracy, planting tobacco, developing rubber estates and importing Indonesian and Chinese labourers to work. There were some local tribes who were displeased with them and staged a few upheavals.

It was, however, during the Japanese Occupation of the Second World War that Jesselton encountered its worse attack. Only three buildings were left standing from the Allied bombings, which forced the Japanese to surrender. Unable to finance the enormous cost of reconstruction, the Chartered Company bowed out and North Borneo was handed over to the British Crown and made a colony.

Jesselton became the capital in 1946. Then in 1963, when North Borneo joined the Federation of Malaysia and became known as Sabah, the colonial name Jesselton gave way to Kota Kinabalu. Jesselton now is but a name of an established hotel.

Since then, KK has grown into a reputable financial, economic and tourism centre in the region. It has certainly moved on with the times, with numerous deluxe hotels, roads stretching to the west and east coast towns, and modern structures like the imposing Sabah Foundation Building standing as symbols of advancement.

Yet, despite all the progress and power changing hands from the British to the Japanese, to the British, and back to the people of the land, the rich cultural diversity and stronghold to traditions and customs remain intact.

Nowhere is this diversity more visible than in cosmopolitan KK, where the natives, comprising the Malays, Chinese and some 32 ethnic groups, have assimilated well with the immigrants who flock the state in pursuit of better opportunities. This multi-cultural trait is well represented in the wide variety of cuisines available in and around town. To catch a glimpse of the traditional dance and costume of each ethnic group, come in May for the Sabah Fest and Kaamatan. For a quick run through the city's history, visit the State Museum, or simply explore KK on foot, make day trips inland and see for yourself the land's alluring culture and natural treasures, much of which remains unscathed by rapid development.