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.
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
( fb.com/sandakanfoodfest), 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,
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.