Reminiscing the old Gaya Street

gaya street

by: Chai Moi Len

Gaya Street, the oldest main street in Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu) was originally the Bond Street with buildings made of attap roofs and wooden structures.

The fragile buildings were frequently razed to ground by fire, which most probably has given rise to the local name of Api Api to the town of Jesselton.

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Interestingly to note, even today the destination name for Kota Kinabalu is displayed as ‘Ya Pi” (Chinese name for Api Api) in the departure gate of the Hong Kong International Airport.

The then Governor of British North Borneo (now known as Sabah), His Excellency General Sir Ralph Hone spear-headed in the building of Jesselton by encouraging Hong Kong Chinese businessmen to invest in Jesselton town.

This resulted in an influx of Hong Kong architects, contractors, and builders to construct the new town. On September 10, 1950, Sir Ralph Hone laid the Foundation Stone to commemorate the new town plan of Jesselton with the first concrete block of 2-storey shophouses of red tiles roofs with chimneys.

Eventually, there were six blocks of 3-storey shop-houses intersected by smaller side streets. Throughout the day, people of all ages could be seen relaxing under the flowering Flame of the Forest trees on the traffic islands.

On the Foundation Site, a Memorial Obelisk Stone was erected in honor of the fallen heroes during the First World War. Till the early 60s, memorial services were being held there annually.

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However, the Stone has been moved to another part of Kota Kinabalu and the annual memorial service is now being held in Petagas War Memorial.

As a child of the 50s and 60s, Gaya Street held fond memories of a small congenial growing town.

Vividly I remembered the well know establishments trading in the different business of that era such as Teck Guan Trading Company, Boon Siew Company, Jesselton Electrical Company, Bata Shoes Store and Kang Lok Pharmacy.

Not forgetting Ngen Ngen Auctioneer dealing and wheeling in properties and Dentist Chew clinic where most children would rather have a toothache than sit on the dentist’s chair.

Sundry shops like Teo Seng, Seong, Ching Ann could trace their roots back to the 50s. These family-owned ‘old faithful’ shops maintained their characteristics of cluster good and even their wooden signboards in Chinese characters ‘supported’ by the lion’s paws.

Today a handful of the children and grandchildren continued the business of their fathers and grandfathers while others might have converted to contemporary business venture.

These ‘old faithful” shops also served as temporary shelters for relatives and friends from Hong Kong and China in search of fortunes from North Borneo (Sabah) also known as ‘The Land Below The Wind’.

The shop owners provided a full board to the new arrivals until they had found jobs or able to stand on their own feet. Not surprisingly the children of the migrants are now patronizing the shops to repay the kindness given by their forefathers’’ friends.

The pioneers of the supermarkets were Fah Hin Cold Storage and Tong Hing Supermarket. Due to the presence of a large expatriate community, the food items were mostly from imported from England, Australia, and other countries.  Locals seldom patronized these outlets as the food items sold were mostly alien to them and the prices were above their means. Today Tong Hing Supermarket, the sole survivor of the 50s & 60s supermarkets is still operating from its original location. However, it has added a café to provide better service to their customers.

Chan Kee Chuan Medical Hall and Shu Yee Kong Chinese Medical shops had a wide variety of Chinese herbs, medicines imported from Hong Kong and China catering for the health of the locals. On a daily, there were many patients waiting to see the Sinseh (Chinese doctors) to cure their ailments with herbal medicines.

Sin Hin,  Sin Sin Fatt, Lok Loi, Sin Chung Hwa were the typical kopitiam (coffee shop) with marble top tables, ceiling fans, mirrors embossed with Chinese fortune characters and painting, cigarettes and beer posters hanging on the wall.

All bread and pau including the delicious moon cakes were baked and steamed in the shop premises.  The smell of freshly baked bread was just heavenly.

In no time, a long queue of customers would be waiting patiently to buy the freshly baked and steamed bakery items. Coffee beans were roasted in a big wok over a charcoal fire, which was usually carried out at the back of the coffee shop. The aroma was nothing like today!

A standard feature in the kopitiam was the multi-functional copper water boiler fuelled by the burning charcoals. The water boiler was kept boiling and constantly topped up with water for making the hot beverages and the eggs, half cooked to perfection.

Based on the preference of the customers, one could have the toasted bread done over the burning charcoal fire or bread steamed over the boiling water.

The toasted or steamed bread was then spread with a thick layer of butter and home-made kata (coconut jam) and served with a steaming hot cup of Kopi-O (black coffee), Kopi-C (white coffee) or Teh-C (tea with condensed milk) drunk from the saucer! What an uproar this would have created today!

For those who would like to have tapau (take-away) from the Kopitiam, an empty condensed milk tin with a string tied on top used for hot beverages, cigarettes cartons for packing cakes and pastries and white newsprint for wrapping the bread loaf.

United Trading Company, Kim Teck Cheong, Eng Leong and, Kwong Hing were the shops with the most fashionable fabrics plus a whole range of cosmetics, clothing and household linens.

Off-the-rack clothing was hard to come by, which had not affected the families as most of the clothing were home-sewn. Anyway, most of our clothing was home-sewn!

Tung Nam Bookstore, Ming Kiang Bookstore and Hock Seng Bookstore were stocked with stationery, and books, magazines in both English and Chinese. These were places that we spent our afternoon browsing through the books and comics.

Happy to say that most of the bookstore owners were very accommodating to let us and would not harass us, when we overstayed their hospitality.

However, we rarely ventured to Tim & Ed Bookstore as our presence were frowned upon. They considered themselves to be a class above other bookstores. Needless to say, we could not afford the prices of their imported books and magazines.

Hairdressing for the more affluent locals was handled by the two most popular salons in town – Poh Chan and Hoover. There provided both men and women basic hairdressing services, which included ear wax removal, nostril hairs, and mustache trimming, shaving for men and haircut, hair wash, hair setting (blow dry in today’s term) and hair perm for the ladies. Often the hair perm was not to our expectation but what choice do we have had at that time!

Along the Gaya Street, there was only one hotel – Jesselton Hotel well patronized by dignitaries, celebrities like the world boxer, Mohammad Ali and many others from far and wide. Today, it proudly stands in its original location and retains its charm and coziness.

It was in this hotel that Indonesian Buffet was served in the 60s for only seven Malaysian ringgits per person. Initially, children ate for free but soon the operator realized that children have a much bigger appetite than the adult.

One of the pioneer staff, Chai Yu Sin at the age of 15 started as a waiter at the Gardenia grill room, which was famous for its sizzling steak. He was a ‘celebrity’ in his own right and well-liked by his customers.

Daily Express and Sabah Times were the forerunners of the local newspapers. The population literacy rate and price factor deterred many locals from buying the newspapers. Nevertheless, the next best source of information was by words of mouth, which was the most updated news.

The telephone was then a rare item and restricted mostly to business premises due to its exorbitant cost for even a local call. We relied on letters and telegrams for urgent matters on the business transaction.

As there were no postmen, we had to rent postal boxes located at the back of the Central Post Office for a yearly fee of ten Malaysian ringgit. Daily there would be people collecting letters from their postal boxes. Today, my family continues using the same postal box number. The Central Post Office, which currently housed the Sabah Tourism Board was one of the two remaining buildings left standing after the 2nd world war and had added a touch of history to the otherwise modern city of Kota Kinabalu.

My first banking experience was with Chung Khiaw Bank. With a deposit of Malaysian ringgit fifty, which was a big sum at that time, animal saving boxes such as rabbit, rhinoceros were given to the children to encourage them to save their spare pocket money. The saving box was more of an attraction to me. Nevertheless, it started my saving habit of putting away the spare coins for the rainy days. However one of the earliest banks to be established in Jesselton was the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. Down the years, more banks started their operation along Gaya Street.

Since 1984, Gaya Street has the added feature of a street fair based on the concept of a tamu (market day) on every Sunday, whereby the street is closed from 6.00am to 1.00 pm

Colorful canopies shelter the vendors and the range of goods of costume jewelry, clothes, household products, vegetables, plants, pets, handicraft, where you browse and bargain in this fascinating setup. A scenario of a tamu minus the buffaloes!

Today, Gaya Street has changed its business scenario with the disappearing of the many old-style shops replaced by the contemporary restaurants, budgets hotels, backpacker, betting outlets, internet café and other personalized business such as law firms.

Checker block with vehicles randomly parked even on the 5-foot walkway and shop fronts. In the evening, one may be showered with bird droppings and deafening by the noise of the birds.

This is a far cry from what it was in the 60s.

Most of all I missed the hourly strike of the Atkinson Clock Tower and the 8.00am siren from the Jesselton Police Station. No watch or clock was needed to tell us “Time to work and time for lunch and time to go home”!


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