Monday, September 24, 2018

Down Memory Lane Sandakan for Cousin George


Cousin George was born in Sandakan in late 1940's. In December 1957, he and his family migrated to Singapore. We (my father and another brother) also boarded the same Straits Steamship vessel and went with them from Sandakan to Labuan. There, we disembarked  while  George and his family continued on their journey across the South China Sea to Singapore. (We stayed a few days in Labuan with another aunt's family before returning to Sandakan by air via Jesselton.)

(Some early photographs)

An early pix (left) shows George (in white) riding "pillion" on a tricycle ridden by his childhood friend Yee Kar in the vicinity of the timber house his family shared with the Kwan Family at the end of the Singapore Road in Sandakan.
(c. early 1950's)

In another photo (below) from one of my albums George, myself and two other siblings are having a skinny dip in Sandakan.

 George (2nd left) taking a dip in the sea near Kg. Bokara, Sandakan
during the Chinese Festival of Duan Wu a few months
before he and his family left for Singapore in 1957.

The next time I saw George was in August 1960 when I went there to attend a scouting event -- a Jamboree marking the Golden Jubilee of scouting in Singapore. The activities took place in Jurong Park, Singapore.

After a few days at sea, we woke up excitedly to the sight of a lighted Singapore Waterfront. As soon as the lighting conditions permitted, I took this view from the deck of the MV Kunak.

Scouts of NB and Sarawak Contingents posed for a group photo aboard ship

In those days, practically everyone in Singapore conversed in the Hokkien dialect. My only contact with my aunt and George then was via a telephone owned by a neighboring 'workshop'. Since I could not speak Hokkien, I had to get the help of another scout (from Sarawak) who was well versed in Hokkien to request the owner of the phone to get the Ang family next door to receive the call.  It worked, and I managed to see George and his family and attend a few outings with them for lunches, cinema shows and other activities.

In February 1965, I had the opportunity to meet up with him again in Singapore as I stopped over there, en route to New Zealand. I did not manage to make it; time (or the shortage of it) was against me. I arrived there late at night, and had to get to the Singapore Airport the next day for the Qantas flight to Sydney where we changed plane for the last leg across the Tasman Sea to Auckland, NZ.

I had another stop-over opportunity in November 1967, when I passed through Singapore on my scheduled home break for Colombo Plan Scholarship students. After checking in at the hotel at about 9 p.m., I decided to call a cab and tried to get to my aunt's house at 338, Changi Road. Unfortunately, the taxi driver was very uncooperative. He seemed take me round in circles, even though I have given the location to him. He failed to get me there, and an argument ensued. Finally, for safety considerations, I decided to abort the trip and return to the hotel.

Before leaving NZ for good after my 4-year engineering course in Auckland, I made a few stops in Australia (viz. Sydney, Melbourne and Perth) before arriving at my penultimate destination (Singapore). I spent a few days in Singapore, staying with the family of one of my Auckland University mates in Tiong Baru.


As soon as I could, I went to building housing the Singapore Stock Market. I had learnt earlier that George was working there. Having got inside the huge, congested trading room, I found that everyone there seemed to chain-smoke, and the acrid atmosphere was simply unbearable. Amidst the noisy shouting of the buyers and sellers, I managed to pose some questions to a few people and found out that George was that kid writing (posting) those share values on that big board on the wall. A few years had lapsed since the last time I saw him, and I did have difficulty recognizing him as a young man. As soon as his work session ended, I approached him. I was sure he was surprised to see me there.


 We went over to a hawker stall along the bank of the Singapore River for refreshments and chatted for a while. Before we parted we walked past one of those coin-operated roadside booths which took instant passport-size portraits for the convenience of travellers, very similar to this modern version at the Singapore Plaza. George went in and took that 'selfie' below.

This is the only other photo of George during this encounter, a colour slide taken on my Braun Paxette camera.

From then on we both went on our business of making a living and building up our families. From time to time I would drop by Singapore on business or on holiday and would call on Aunt Chai Bee and George. On many occasions, George expressed his intention to make a return visit to Sandakan, his home town. In those early days, there was that "citizenship" issue which prevented him from getting a Singapore passport. When this was resolved, the stumbling block shifted to his busy work demands.

At least a preliminary attempt was made by George to set foot in Sabah.  He and his wife Lilian  made the 2.5-hour hop from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu to attend the wedding of my daughter Alice in 2004.

Group Photo taken at 56, Taman Golden City, Kota Kinabalu
Arrival in Sandakan.

Finally, it happened. On 26 August, 2018, George finally landed in Sandakan, almost 60 years and 8 months after he left.  In a way it was a Diamond Jubilee return for him.  Accompanying him was wife Lilian and daughter Audrey. His nephew Jimmy and Cathie (Jimmy's wife) made up the rest of the entourage.

Boarding the AA plane at Kota Kinabalu

Lilian waving to us before exiting from the Sandakan Terminal
The party exited from the terminal, led by Jimmy

(Checking into Hotel)

The entourage checked into the Sheraton 4-Point Hotel which was located at the water's edge right in the CBD of Sandakan. It was at the time the newest hotel in Sandakan. The rooms commanded a good view of the Sandakan Harbour and the whole landscape surrounding the hotel.

The hotel is located on reclaimed a stone's throw from the Praya, where great-grandfather's flagship company of Kim Eng Watt stood from 1890 to 1933.

The Sheraton 4-Point Hotel, Sandakan

Looking towards Buli Sim-sim and Berhala Island
Boats delivery catches to the Fish Market

View of part of the CDB, with the old wharf at left edge

From the Sheraton 4-Point Hotel, George could actually see the location of the house his family stayed in at the time of his birth. A block of high-rise apartments (indicated by the yellow arrow) is now sitting on the site along Singapore Road. 

(Down Memory Walk -- 28 August 2018)

It was a bright and sunny morning on the day that we made this walk from the hotel. The intention of taking George and his entourage down this memory-lane walk was to enable George to experience a re-connection with his past as a kid in Sandakan. These were the places which he and his family in the 1950s would have a close attachment to.

The Map of the DML-Route to be taken on 28 Aug 2018
(Point A in Map-Sheraton 4-Point Hotel)

(L-R) Cathie, William, George, Jimmy, Lilian, Audrey and Stella
On the above 1960s map of the Sandakan CDB, the site of the Sheraton Hotel was still somewhere in the Sandakan Harbour. The  "I Love Sandakan" icon just next to the Hotel offered a good location for a group photo to mark the start of this 'Down Memory Lane" walk for the participants.

 This location would be somewhere at the back of the old fish market shown in the 1961 picture at left. This little fish market was the main source of all the fishy products for the small population in Sandakan then. Most people subsisted on a diet of cheap sea products and vegetables in those days. Meat (pork, beef, chicken) were comparatively expensive.

(Point B)

We were now posing at the corner of of the old vegetables market, along Pryer Road (or current Jalan Satu).

In the background, the Sandakan Central Bus Station could be seen. The Lai Piang Kee Building, for many years the tallest building in Sandakan, could be seen in the background (right corner of photograph).

On this 1961 photograph of the Central (Vegetables) Market viewed from the Bus Station, the location where we posed above would be at the corner of the market near those parked bicycles.

Next to the site of the old vegetables market, the Sandakan Bus Station still stood proudly. The main original structure was intact, though various add-on components had been incorporated over times for various good or bad reasons.

Upon its completion in the late 50s, it was a very simple and clean station for use mainly by the two main bus companies, then, viz. the Leila Road Bus Co. and the North & Labuk Road Bus Co. It was appropriately located next to the fish/vegetable markets to serve the citizens. 

(Point C)

Customs House, Sandakan (2018)

Next to the Bus Station was the Customs House, located at the ends of the Pryer Road and Humphrey Street. This building was among the first few to be rebuilt of permanent materials after the 2nd World War in Sandakan.

Bus Station, Sandakan Wharf and Customs House
In the 50s, George's step-father, a "Chin Chew" (Hokkian dialect) or comprador on board one of the ships of the Straits Steamship Co.(SSC), would pass this building very regularly as he carried out his routine duties, running between his vessel and the Harrisons & Crossfield Co. (H&C), the agent for the SSC. 

The above photograph is an old image of the Customs House at the end of the Humphrey Street. It was taken at night, from near the H&C Building. The Chartered Bank (left) and HK & Shanghai Bank were visible in the foreground. It was on such a night that George and his family boarded the ship for Singapore.

A current shot of the above view from about the same angle would look like this today.

(Point D)

This is the location of Harrisons Sabah Sdn Bhd, formerly Harrisons Crosfield (B) Ltd.  The post-war permanent and pre-war timber buildings of H & C were sited in the same location, as can be seen in the following photographs.

Harrisons And Crosfield  (Pre WWII)


Harrisons and Crosfield (Post War)

However, for more than 10 years after the war, H&C operated from a 2-storey timber building a stone throw away at, at the junction of Humphrey Street and Jalan 4 (now Jalan 3).

Harrison Sabah Sdn Bhd (2018)

Harrisons Sabah Sdn Bhd (2018)

Our family had had a lengthy interaction with H&C. Our old family trading firm of Kim Eng Watt (KEW), established by great-grandfather Koh Kim Hin (KKH) in 1872 had many business deals with H&C. This business relationship continued after the death of KKH when KEW morphed into Kim Eng Watt Brothers (KEWB).

Eldest great aunt's husband Ah Kwong (Lee Kong Kan) worked for H&C, holding the the most senior clerical post for Chinese staff

KKH's 3rd daughter (Maternal Grandma Geok Lan) was a very close family friend of Mr. Stephen Efford, the accounting manager of H&C. Mr. Efford later married Catherine Wee, the daughter of Grandma Geok Lan. 

5th Great aunt Veronica Koh's husband Martin Funk worked for H&C Sandakan as a comprador. He was transferred to Jesselton later. His son Vincent and grandson Martin also in turn joined H&C in Jesselton.

Auntie Chai Kiew's husband Lau Soona worked for H&C's account section. After the war, he was transferred to the H&C branch in Labuan. 

My father also ended up as an accounting officer in H&C. 

This giant "Heritage Trail" display board next to the H&C was another apt point for a group photograph.


Another group photo outside the H&C building (above), with the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank at the start of the Leila Road. Rewind back half a century, the scene of the background would be similar to that in this parading scouts photo (below), with the view of the Flower Photographic Studio and the Sunshine Wood Printing.

(Point E)

From H&C, traversing across the old Darby Road and the Padang Road (now built over by road extension), the Town Padang came into view. This was a focal point for George in this down-memory lane trip. His family was occupying a small unit of a timber housing complex across the Elopura Channel when he was born some 70 years ago.

The old timber buildings along Singapore Road in the far background were mainly replaced by high rise apartments. Regretably, the beautiful, bilian-timber grandstand erected for the occasion of the Coronation of QE2 in 1952 was also replaced by an insignificant parade viewing stand. (See the 1960 view below taken during a Walkathon event in 1960.)

Grandstand, Sandakan Recreation Club and Chinese Temple (Background)
 Only the Sandakan Recreation Club and the century-old Sam Seng Kong Chinese Temple were still there. 

In this picture (left) George (in red) and I were looking towards the direction of the Sandakan Recreation Club and the Chinese Temple. The approximate position would be at the red-circled area behind the goal post in the photo below, taken in 1990.

Sandakan Town Padang (1990)
(A=Room occupied by George's family, B=Our rented house . C=Grandstand. D=Elopura Channel)

The timber housing complex along Singapore Road in the 50s and 60s was owned by the Funk family and it was a very prominent building because of its size. It had 6 units, 3 on the top floor and 3 on the ground.  As with housing conditions then, it housed more than 6 families. It was not unusual for each unit to accommodate up to 3 families or more. Unfortunately, only 3 units of single-storey kitchen/bathroom was constructed behind the main building to serve all the tenants. Thus with up to 5 or more families sharing a single kitchen, the amount of human conflicts was enormous. Quarreling amongst families occurred very frequently. It was before long that George's family moved to a better quarter near the end of the Singapore Road. 

(The Funk's building complexes before the war and after the war)

(The DML walk participants posing for a group photo with the same background as the above 2 historical photos. The timber houses are all replaced by multi-storey concrete blocks. The Elopura Channel has since been topped over with a concrete slab, turning it into a car parking facility.)

(Point F)

Ending the main walking portion of this activity, we drove to Point F, which marked the end of the Singapore Road in the 50s and 60s. Beyond this point was a lengthy uphill climb on masonry steps to Happy Valley and the old Sandakan Hospital. Standing at this point (F) in the 1950s and looking towards the road leading to Happy Valley, one should see remnants of a concrete gateway. On the left, one would see the small footpath rising steadily to the old Philip Funk's mansion, the St. Michael's Church(Anglican)/School and the St. Mary's Church (Catholic)/School.

 This is the approximate location of the entrance to the house that George's family shared with the Kwan family in the 50s. The entrance-way with the partly demolished concrete archway mentioned in the previous paragraph was the access to the prewar mansion of Lim Man Ching (LMC), the 4th and last Kapitan China of Sandakan. My 5th great uncle's wife, Lim Nyuk Jin, one of the daughters of  LMC stayed in a huge timber complex on an adjacent plot. (See sketch plan below).

Regrettably, we could not find any old land mark which we could connect concretely to the area where those old houses once stood. Even the old champaka (cempaka) tree was destroyed during major redevelopments of the area after George left Sandakan.

(Beyond Point F) -- St. Mary's and St. Michael's Schools

We could have continued our walk to these two locations via a an old concreted pathway which has since been roofed over against the weather. For this, we would have to leave our car at an unsafe, roadside location. Instead, we drove there via Jalan Leila and Jalan Puncak (formerly Church Road). We parked our car under some shady trees in front of the St. Mary's Church (now upgraded to a Cathedral).  As George and Lilian are Catholics, this stopover gave them an opportunity to have some private moments for meditation as well as to roam the area and feel the church atmosphere there. 

St. Mary's Church soon after its completion 

St. Mary's Cathedral today
George, Lilian and Stella taking rest in the shade
Audrey at the Grotto
A group photo at the entrance before moving on

     From this Catholic Church we walked the short distance to the opposite hilltop where the St. Michael's and All Angels Church stood. George had two very memorable connections with  this Anglican location. 

Flashback to a beautiful day in September 1923 (nearly 85 years ago): great uncle Peck Boon and great aunt May Lai were married in this church (see the extracted BNBH's report at left). Aunt Chai Bee (Ah Bee), Georg's mother, was one of the two bride's maids.  

St. Micheal's School, attached to this church was also the school that George attended before his family moved to Singapore in 1957.

George, the 1957 pupil, with his 2018 counterpart

The front of the SM&AA Church comes into view

Stella and Cathie posing enroute to the SM&AA Church

A front-view shot, with George and Peter (Liew) at right edge

Side view of the Church, with Peter and George at foreground
SM&AA Church as viewed from the other side of the canopy-walk

       Looks like we had arrived on a wrong day. We would not be able to get inside the Church today. 

The night before, I had called up my auntie (the wife of the former Bishop) for information on accessing the Church. Unfortunately, she was in the US and we did not have a lengthy chat which could be very costly. But she did advise me to approach the administrator. Unfortunately there was no people manning the office at the time we arrived. I was also unaware that my aunt had notified the administrator to expect us. For various reasons, she could only contact me hours after we had left the area.

George and Lilian posing outside the Church

A group photo with everybody in (by Jimmy)

Group photo taken by me

Shot by Peter Liew

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(Other Activities whilst in Sandakan)

Bukit Merah (Red Hill)

Viewing Pavilion

No visit to Sandakan is complete without taking a trip to Bukit Merah or Red Hill Peak. One can get a breadth-taking view of the town from the Rotary Club's Viewing Pavilion. Unfortunately, over the years, the Sandakan Municipal Council have not been keeping up with the necessary tree trimming and other maintenance works to enhance the value of this tourism asset. Thus, on the day we dropped by this viewing pavilion, our view of the town was mainly blocked by trees.

A group photo with Jimmy's selfie stick
 These two other views (below) taken by me in the early 60s show what part of the town looked like more than half a century ago.

 This post card below was taken much later. 

Agnes Keith's House

Actually, it was the Government quarters allocated to her husband as the Conservator of Forest before the war. 
Posing in front of the shed to Agnes Keith's Housse

Some of  us was in dire need of the wash room after arriving at this tourist destination. As bad luck had it, the public or visitors' toilet was out of bound. A tree branch (?) had smashed the roof of the toilet block and the public had been barred from using it for some time. (The authorities concerned ought to give priority to attending to such problems which affect paying visitors.) The only decent alternative for us was to make use of the wash rooms in the English Tea House, probably much to the displeasure of the management of this cafe/restaurant.

Storm-damaged Toilets --  closed to visitors

Looks like this water tank also requires some urgent repairs

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(Ending of the Trip)

Dinner hosted by Alex


Kerana-Mu Restaurant, Sandakan

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