Shift­ing San­dakan

Just a 30-minute drive from the famed orang­utans of Sepi­lok, Sabah's sec­ond city of­fers a rich her­itage and di­verse menus. Marco Fer­rarese finds that Bri­tish North Bor­neo's former cap­i­tal is worth the wildlife di­ver­sion.

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS - PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY KIT YENG CHAN

Just a 30-minute drive from the famed pri­mates of Sepi­lok, Sabah’s sec­ond city is rich with both her­itage and cui­sine.

HUNCHED OVER THE BOWL, I slurp long strands of bouncy yel­low noo­dles from a steam­ing seafood soup. A bunch of per­fectly cooked mus­sels and gi­ant prawns float in my “spring noo­dles,” a tra­di­tional San­dakan soup made fra­grant with co­rian­der, salty broth and a splash of soy sauce. It’s so good I cast all eat­ing eti­quette aside— not that my im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings re­quire any. Lo­cated in a shack at the end of a non­de­script jetty, this “restau­rant” has no name—the lo­cal indige­nous groups call this area Kam­pung Pukat in Malay, while the lo­cal Can­tonese re­fer to it as Yu Shun Gai, or “fish­ing boat street,” af­ter the rock­ing dinghies moored in the sea just me­ters from us.

“I told you, we have so much more than orang­utans,” says Anton Ngui, from across the ta­ble. Anton is my guide dur­ing this in­for­mal tour of his home­town of San­dakan, Sabah’s sec­ond largest city af­ter Kota Kin­a­balu. Say “San­dakan” and most as­so­ci­ate the name with the Sepi­lok Orang­utan Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter, the main tourist draw to this re­mote cor­ner of Bor­neo. Even Anton has cap­i­tal­ized on the at­trac­tion by open­ing an eco-friendly re­sort there, Pa­ganakan Dii, which trans­lates to “fam­ily” in the lo­cal Dusun lan­guage.

Al­though San­dakan is just 27 kilo­me­ters east of Sepi­lok, I am not here to meet the apes, but see to an­other side to the re­gion. San­dakan’s tra­di­tional fare is a rich blend of Malay, Chi­nese, In­done­sian and Filipino cul­tures, and is not eas­ily found else­where in Malaysia.

Its cui­sine, ac­com­pa­nied with the town’s multi-faceted colo­nial and deeply mov­ing war his­to­ries, make a wor­thy at­trac­tion be­yond the jun­gle.

THE SUNBAKED, OF­TEN dis­missed port town that is San­dakan to­day is a hard place to love at first sight. Pre­war, the former cap­i­tal of Bri­tish North Bor­neo was once backed by a hill forested with tall co­conut trees. The palms shel­tered a neat grid of wide boule­vards filled with beau­ti­ful wooden homes that faced what, even now, re­mains North Bor­neo’s most strik­ing bay. It all changed in World War II, when San­dakan was oc­cu­pied by the Ja­panese and bombed to its foun­da­tions. The town was grad­u­ally re­built, but re­designed with port prac­ti­cal­i­ties over aes­thet­ics in mind.

From the 1600s, the strate­gic bay was fought over by the Span­ish and the Sul­tans of Sulu, from the nearby south­ern Philip­pines, be­fore North Bor­neo was sold in 1877 to an Aus­troHun­gar­ian con­sul, Gus­tav von Over­beck, who took the ti­tle Ma­haraja of Sabah and Ra­jah of Gaya and San­dakan. He passed the place on to a Bri­tish colo­nial mer­chant, and, by 1879, Elopura—San­dakan’s orig­i­nal name—started pros­per­ing un­der the Bri­tish North Bor­neo Com­pany. The Bri­tish en­cour­aged Hong Kong’s Chi­nese mi­grants to set up busi­nesses, and, soon enough, the first cap­i­tal of North Bor­neo rose as a thriv­ing en­trepôt of cul­tures.

A pre-war look at San­dakan can be seen at the re­con­structed wooden home of Agnes Keith—an Amer­i­can­born writer who penned three books about her fam­ily’s life and plight in San­dakan dur­ing the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion—which stands proud on a hill along Jalan Is­tana. Down a steep stair­case is the City Mu­seum, with a stun­ning col­lec­tion of rare black-and-white pho­to­graphs that tes­tify to San­dakan’s beauty be­fore the war. The ground floor is ded­i­cated to the in­cred­i­ble work of early Bor­neo and Africa ex­plor­ers Martin and Osa John­son. Th­ese two Kansas ad­ven­tur­ers and film­mak­ers

made San­dakan their base as they flew their am­phibi­ous plane over the is­land in 1935, doc­u­ment­ing North Bor­neo’s lost indige­nous tribes and in­cred­i­ble wildlife for the Amer­i­can sil­ver screen. This col­lec­tion of pow­er­ful pho­to­graphs makes me feel nos­tal­gic for the flora, fauna and com­mu­ni­ties of the past, a slice of Bor­neo that is long gone.

Most of the city’s his­tor­i­cal re­mains can be taken in on a self­guided two-hour her­itage walk cu­rated by lo­cal his­to­rian Lai King Hang. I also make sure to visit the San­dakan Memo­rial Park at Mile 8, which com­mem­o­rates the tragic his­tory of the “Death Marches” dur­ing the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion in World War II. In 1945, thou­sands of Al­lied Pris­on­ers of War were forced to walk from here to Ranau, a small town near the lofty Mount Kin­a­balu, more than 200 kilo­me­ters away. Out of the 2,400 pris­on­ers, only six sur­vived. The park hon­ors the mar­tyrs, and re­flects on a time steeped in vi­o­lence and de­struc­tion of life. This re­minder for peace is just as ap­pli­ca­ble to Sabah’s nearby pri­mates, who, de­spite their refuge in Sepi­lok, still suf­fer at the hand of man across the re­gion.

JUST LIKE ITS STO­RIED PAST, San­dakan’s cui­sine is also di­verse. “San­dakan’s strength has al­ways been its mix of na­tive Saba­hans, and Chi­nese and Hong Kong mi­grants, who, like my fa­ther, set­tled here be­tween the 1950s and 1970s,” says Calvin Yin, who re­turned from his sec­ond home in Perth to help his ag­ing par­ents run Heng Loong, a long­stand­ing Chi­nese-style seafood restau­rant. “The lo­cal cui­sine mixes Chi­nese-in­flu­enced recipes with lo­cal jun­gle in­gre­di­ents [trop­i­cal plants, ferns and wild meats] and, of course, plenty of fresh seafood,” Calvin says.

Last year, both Calvin and

Anton, along with a group of other lo­cal restau­ra­teurs, hote­liers and food pro­duc­ers, launched the in­au­gu­ral San­dakan Food Fes­ti­val

(­dakan­food­fest), putting the town’s dis­tinct culi­nary her­itage on the map. The group packed a sam­pler of San­dakan’s best food and chefs into Mile 4, the town’s gritty yet pop­u­lar mar­ket and street food area. With fun eat­ing and cook­ing com­pe­ti­tions held in the af­ter­noons, and cook­ing demon­stra­tions and a pop-up food mar­ket tak­ing place in the evenings, vis­i­tors got a taste of the plethora of lo­cal bites on of­fer.

I try the best at Sim Sim Seafood Restau­rant H90, whose chef Yong Yin Kit won first prize at the seafood cook­ing com­pe­ti­tion at last year’s fes­ti­val. H90 is tucked at the back of Pier 8 in Sim Sim, San­dakan’s rick­ety yet charm­ing fish­ing vil­lage on stilts. While it seems like noth­ing more than a sim­ple wooden ter­race over the sea, my plate of siz­zling yel­low mee comes gar­nished with fresh tiger prawns the size of my hands; they are juicy, scrump­tious and un­for­get­table.

LIKE CALVIN, ANTON LEFT his sleepy home­town to chase big-city dreams

and a white-col­lar ca­reer in Sin­ga­pore. But in 2006, a phone call from home en­trusted him with a new life mis­sion: re­vive Nak Ho­tel, San­dakan’s first, opened by his grand­fa­ther in 1966, but left ne­glected af­ter his pass­ing. “I started ap­ply­ing the lessons learnt liv­ing abroad, and tried some­thing new to spice things up,” Anton says.

Next door, he and his Jo­hor-born wife, Linn, opened San Da Gen in Au­gust 2016—the town’s first retrochic café. It con­jures and cel­e­brates San­dakan’s old-world at­mos­phere with crack­ling vinyls of 1960s pop yeh-yeh—the Malaysian ver­sion of 60s-era, Bea­tles-in­spired rock and roll—lo­cal cof­fee brews and tra­di­tional pas­tries, such as the UFO tarts: vanilla but­ter bis­cuits topped with egg cus­tard and meringue. It orig­i­nated in 1955, when Fu Ah On, a mi­grant baker from Hainan Is­land in south­ern China, over-baked his tarts. To his clients’ de­light, they ac­tu­ally tasted bet­ter, and the UFO tart went on to be­come one of San­dakan’s iconic del­i­ca­cies.

Oddly enough, an­other of the town’s icons might just be its bat­tered sky­line. Anton and Linn trans­formed the Nak Ho­tel rooftop ter­race into Balin Roof­gar­den, the town’s first Western-style bistro, which serves a mod­ern menu of thin-crust piz­zas, fresh sal­ads and in­ter­na­tional cock­tails. Sunset from here is just as glo­ri­ous as the one I had ex­pe­ri­enced in San­dakan’s more fa­mous si­b­ling port town,

Kota Kin­a­balu.

As I lounge with a sun­downer in hand, groups of lo­cals share their con­ver­sa­tions and con­tem­po­rary dishes all around me. From our van­tage point, it’s easy to con­sider San­dakan’s mod­est view ac­tu­ally beau­ti­ful, bathed as it is in such an ethe­real glow. The sun slowly sinks be­yond the hori­zon, cast­ing a shade of metal­lic black all over the slow waves that crum­ple the sea. While my first glimpse of San­dakan saw a dusty port town razed by war, by scratch­ing the sur­face I’ve found that time has ac­tu­ally made San­dakan’s story richer, that diver­sity has made it stronger, and ideas from a new gen­er­a­tion are mak­ing it as rel­e­vant as ever.

FROM LEFT:A baby pro­boscis mon­key clings to its mother—the in­fant ape will grow its long nose as it gets older; San­dakan's fa­mous UFO tarts at hip retro café San Da Gen.

FROM LEFT: Fu­sion din­ing, mod­ern cock­tails and ocean views at Balin Roof­gar­den on top of Nak Ho­tel; the Labuk Bay Pro­boscis Mon­key Sanc­tu­ary is also home to Bornean horn­bills; retro in­te­ri­ors at San Da Gen café.

FROM TOP: Sim Sim Seafood Restau­rant H90's prawn mee; St. Michael's church, founded in 1888.

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