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A living history on Sabah's west coast

  • Like other towns on Sabah's west coast, Kinarut came into existence at the turn of the last century because of the rail line built by the North Borneo Chartered Company and a burgeoning rubber industry. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

By Wong Li Pin

Like Mount Kinabalu and Kinabatangan River, the tiny town of Kinarut on the west coast of Sabah has its name starting with the word “Kina” which means “Chinese”.

It has been said that the town took its name from “China Road” because of the early Chinese settlement there.

However, such an argument is controversial because the name Kinarut had been in existence long before the arrival of the Chinese.

Some others claimed that the place took its name from a Kadazan-Dusun term.

Kinarut used to be a part of the Bruneian Sultanate. It was said that there was a Bruneian fortress in the town built by Sultan Abdul Hakkul Mubin who escaped the war back home in the 17th century.

The Sultan lived there for about ten years before he was assassinated. The fortress was there until early 20th century before it was razed in a forest fire.

Early Chinese settlement

Like other towns on Sabah's west coast, Kinarut came into existence at the turn of the last century because of the rail line built by the North Borneo Chartered Company linking west coast towns to the interiors, coupled with a burgeoning rubber industry.

Most of the local Chinese were living in the town area of Kinarut. Besides the Chinese, there were also other ethnic communities including the Bruneians and Bajaus living in coastal areas, and the Kadazan-Dusuns in the hills.

86-year-old Chua, owner of Chop Seng Huat, has been living in the town for over seven decades and is bearing witness to the town's dramatic changes.

Born in 1933 in China, Chua came to Sabah at the age of 15 in 1947 when paddy fields and rubber estates were everywhere around Kinarut. There were only two rows of attap shops -- a grocery store, coffee shop and herbal medicine shop -- facing each other in town, all owned by the Chinese.

The attap shops were later demolished and replaced by two rows of wooden shops which still exist today.

Chua still can remember the 20 shops built at different times there. The earliest to be build were three shops on the row next to the railway station in 1949, which the locals have called “old shops”, while the second row of shops was called “new shops'. The two rows of shops were fully constructed only around 1960.

Chua's father came to North Borneo in 1945 from a village in China's Anqi county, and settled in the nearby town of Papar. Two years later, Chua and his mother were taken here. They stayed in Papar for about a month before moving to Kinarut.

Chua used to study at Kin Kiau, but later dropped out from school to help the family after his younger brother was born. He took over his uncle's shop in 1970 and later changed its name from Tek Huat to Seng Huat.

Already retired now, he still comes to the shop regularly, greeting his mostly non-Chinese customers. To him, the changes taking place in Kinarut has been too huge.

Bypassed by development

The local train service remained slow after the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. This, coupled with lack of new developments, urban migration and other factors, began to see the town's decline.

With new housing and commercial projects coming on stream in the surrounding areas about 20km from state capital Kota Kinabalu, Kinarut's old wooden shops surprisingly still inherit the historical and cultural legacies from a bygone era.

To a younger Chua born and raised locally, being close to the state capital could be both a good and bad thing for Kinarut. The good thing is the convenience, and the bad thing is severe population outflow.

Despite the phenomenal changes taking place in the vicinity in recent years and possible new changes in near future, the Chinese population of Kinarut is fast dwindling. Take for example the Kin Kiau primary school established in 1930, only about 10% of its enrollment of 400 today are Chinese.

To the younger Chua, the most unique landmarks of Kinarut are the old wooden shops and Tien Nam Shi Temple built on the land donated by his grandfather.

Now taking over as the temple's chairperson, he hopes to modernize the temple's management in order to woo the young people. He also plans to turn the temple into a community center.

Besides serving as a place of worship, the temple also boasts facilities such as a walking trail, activity hall and network service, among others.

Today, the town's economic source is mainly supported by its school and train station, but given the stagnant commercial activities at the local shops, the government has not provided the basic amenities and Chua feels that the town's future cohesiveness will very much come from the temple.

Although he used to think that these old shophouses should be torn town, he now hopes they can be preserved because they epitomize the town's unique characteristics and history.

(Wong Li Pin is Sin Chew Daily Senior Reporter.)

 

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