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Remembering Jesselton's birth
Published on: Sunday, January 31, 2016

Kota Kinabalu: Feb 2 marks the 16th anniversary of Kota Kinabalu upgraded from a municipality to city status through a royal charter by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on Feb 2, 2000.

At that time, it was only Malaysia's fifth city, after George Town (Jan 1, 1957), Kuala Lumpur (Feb 1, 1972), Ipoh (May 27, 1988), Kuching (May 1, 1988) and Johor Baru (1 Jan 1994).

KK's first Mayor was Datuk Ghani Rashid, followed by Datuk Iliyas Ibrahim and current Mayor Datuk Abidin Madingkir.

The basic criteria was a minimum population of 500,000 and an annual income of not less than RM100m.

Interestingly, George Town became a city via a royal charter granted by Queen Elizabeth II in the hey days of the colonial Federation of Malaya.

The city chartered was renewed on Jan 1, last year, while Ipoh's city status was granted by the Sultan of Perak.


Similarly, Johor Baru was declared city by the Sultan of Johor.

Following hot on the heels of KK City, Shah Alam was next made city on "double 10" in 2000.

Next, Malacca City (April 15, 2003 – although its Historical City status preceded this); Alor Star (Dec 21, 2005); Miri (May 2, 2005); Petaling Jaya (June 20, 2000); Kuala Terengganu (Jan 1, 2008); Penang (Jan 1, 2015) and this time, by the Malaysian Government. So George Town is the only city in Malaysia granted that status twice.

But if 1881 is the original trigger to the destiny of Kota Kinabalu City, when a tiny British trading post was established on Gaya Island, then Sabahans are looking back at a documented history of 135 years.

At least four different names – Singgah Mata, a Bajau term meaning "where the eye loves to behold", Api-Api (literal translation: fire-fire) Jesselton (named after Sir Jessel, Vice Chairman of North Borneo Chartered Company) and finally Kota Kinabalu, named after Mt Kinabalu.


Until now, many members of the local Chinese community still call "Api" for KK.

But KK city's whereabouts certainly dates back to Mat Salleh's July 9, 1897 midnight Gaya trading post attack, looting, torching and kidnapping of its treasury clerk at the British trading post on Gaya Island.

Since Mat Salleh launched the raid from upstream Inanam River which was then a Bruneian territory, the British demanded compensation from the Sultan who gave as a present some KK areas away and so relocated the destroyed Gaya settlement to present KK site. It was then just a small Bajau fishing village named Kg Gantisan and given the named Jesselton.

But there are conflicting opinions how the name Api-Api came into being.

The poster at Padang Merdeka claims the trigger was the huge midnight fire on Gaya settlement after Mast Salleh's attack and arson.


Another says it is derived from the frequent fires that burnt Jesselton's original 'atap' (nippah) roofed and wooden shophouses during festive seasons especially Chinese New Year, triggered by cinders from fire crackers.

Still another says it refers to the dramatic nightly spectacle of flickering lights from fireflies that once saturated the huge swathes of mangroves that once covered the coast of Karamunsing! So, who is right? Whatever is the answer, KK has certainly risen from a rustic little fishing village to a booming city of today.

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