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25 years of Gaya Street Fair
Published on: Sunday, February 15, 2009

IT is hard to imagine Sundays in Kota Kinabalu without the Gaya Street Fair. That thought alone makes Datuk John Lim Guan Yee a happy man.

Essentially his brainchild, he said it goes to show that the yardstick of success need not always be in terms of job longevity but the impact of a person and his work on society.

Despite holding the post of Kota Kinabalu Municipal Council (KKMC) President for only two years (1983 to 1985), John has seen his legacy survive a quarter century and grow from strength to strength.

Over the years, the weekly open-air pedestrian mall has not only become a tourist attraction and shopping destination, including for locals, but also an opportunity for small-time vendors as well as introduce their products.

Today, the stretch from the City Hall building to Jesselton Hotel is a hive of colour and activity till noon on Sundays, providing a boost to the local economy as well. More so during festive occasions.

"This weekly pedestrian mall has indisputably helped so many people make a living. It has helped the State in general and Kota Kinabalu in particular," said Lim. He cited one trader who made RM5,000 from just four Sundays at Gaya Street - which is about thrice what a civil servant can expect to take home working eight hours a day, five days a week, for a month.

It is more than a Tamu and limited only by one's imagination on what can be sold and what is illegal.

There is a myriad of merchandise, including even crocodile eggs at one stage until the public complained, fearful that this would result in crocodiles one day lurking in the city's drains.

So successful has the fair been that there is now a parallel fair at the back lane offering even rare jungle orchids.

Farmers and ordinary folks from as far as Kota Belud, Kudat and Kota Marudu, among other districts, would make the trip to sell their agricultural produce and other wares.

And it has not always been a street offering bargains. Many local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the Sabah Nurses Association (Sana) have managed to raise funds for their own organisations by putting up a counter for blood pressure checks and a donation box.

At least one political party led by a former Chief Minister is also sometimes at hand sitting behind a desk to hear out problems involving officialdom.

Then there are the visually impaired who have been trained in foot reflexology by the Human Resource Development Department (JPSM).

Their counterparts, who are musically inclined, entertain the crowd with a repertoire of Malay and Kadazan numbers. Visitors to the Sunday Fair are seen to donate ungrudgingly.

What is certain is that one is bound to bump into tourists from different parts of the world, seeking small and handy locally-crafted items to take home as souvenirs.

They are attracted to the street's carnival atmosphere. It is no surprise then that many bread-and-breakfast joints have sprouted up within a stone's throw of Gaya Street.

People like Kathy Yunker from Canada, who had a field day at the Gaya Street Sunday Fair, recently, capturing images of the "God of Fortune" on his rounds to distribute goodies to children during the recent Chinese New Year celebration.

"It's exciting," she remarked as she snapped shots of the festive decorations at the colourful fair.

Health care professionals, Mathew and Anita Sterling from Sydney, Australia found the weekly fair "very cultural".

"We like the atmosphere, the music, the food. We saw the blind playing the guitar. They are lovely," said the couple who bought a wallet and costume jewellery.

German university student Sarah Loechner, 29, was looking for textile and food but found the materials sold there is a bit expensive.

A bit of Sabah all in one - that was how two Australian ladies from Adelaide described the Gaya Street Fair.

"It's lovely. The atmosphereÉfriendly people, a mix of goods - food, clothing and plants," commented Helen McCarl, a nurse, and Cathy Harmin, a business manager. They were in quest of Sabah batik, having seen someone wearing it the previous night while on a safari on the Klias River in Beaufort. Thai batik was aplenty but they were not interested in it.

McCarl and Harmin ended up almost buying handmade table cloth from Indonesia, costing RM40 at a stall. "We asked for RM38 but the vendor won't go further down."

The duo on their maiden visit here said they found Sabah on the Internet.

"Well, just a week's holidayÉnot long enough."

The idea of having a fair where people could meet came about from Lim's travels around the world as an airline firm's manager. "I saw that almost every city had a pedestrian mall. I said to myself, why can't KK have a Sunday Fair of its own?"

However, when he sold his idea to the Council, there were Doubting Thomases around who thought it was impossible to hold a weekly fair at Gaya Street. Other sceptics suggested a once-a-year affair.

But an optimistic Lim was adamant about his proposal and went ahead.

Contrary to what was believed, it worked on the ground, so he was proven right.

A Daily Express chat with older vendors at the fair found they still remember the Council's contribution under the then Berjaya Government.

Mary Wong, 71, from Kg Salut, Telipok, said she has been there since the Gaya Street Sunday Fair started.

"From Day One, I have been making a weekly living here and I will be here for as long as I can move around. Initially, we didn't have to pay a sen for the lot allocated to us. It was free but now we have to pay," she told this writer.

At their age, the grandmother of four and her 83-year-old husband, who now live at Signal Hill, Kota Kinabalu, are still creative, making flower-pots out of coconut shells which are sold for RM4-RM6.50 each.

Turtle vendor Loke Kok Heng, 69, chipped in: "Oh, I have been selling turtles since the Berjaya eraÉcoming to 30 years already. My earnings varies from Sunday to Sunday." He offers two types - kim chen kui (gold money turtle) and chau kui (grass turtle) priced at RM68 and RM15-RM18 each respectively.

Then Chief Minister, Datuk Harris Mohd Salleh, spotted Lim's potential and handpicked him to be President of KKMC in 1983. For 19 years until 1982, he had served as Area Manager for Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei for Cathay Pacific Airways.

He was no stranger to KKMC, having served as a councillor and had made a head start in getting the Council's Urban Beautification Committee, of which he was Chairman, to provide the KK Greening Programme.

His greatest challenge at KKMC was trying to reverse its financial status - a task he succeeded, he says, due to his business acumen.

"The average yearly budget was approximately RM30 million to RM40 million, just enough to cover the provision of essential services.

However, I managed to put the Council in the black. When I left the Council, there was a surplus of RM7 million. It was through a lot of hard effort and we had to be prudent with spending," he said.

His adherence to stringent controls paid off though it might have upset some people. "But I did the right thing. My conscience is clear."

In his first year, the Council chalked up enough revenue to settle all the outstanding debts (loans from the Government, etc).

"This was possible through savings, collection of assessment rates and cutting down a lot of unnecessary expenses."

Lim recalled how on his first day of office, he was approached by a staff member, telling him to sign a paper on street lighting expenditure.

"I had to verify the cost estimated by those responsible for installing street lights. I refused to sign. How can I sign buta (blindly)?" he said.

On another occasion, he was told that the street lights at the KK Central Market needed to be changed.

"So I asked them which bulbs were not working. But they couldn't tell me.

I told them to put on the lights to check which were not functioning. And they said it had to be done at night. But surely we could find out even at daytime."

The Street Lighting Committee was entrusted with the task of monitoring the use of street lights in the municipality.

"To make sure that every street light was accounted for throughout the municipality, we gave each one a number. That way, we would know which were in order and which were not."

Lim is pleased that Kota Kinabalu has transformed into a modern metropolis, a far cry from almost three decades ago.

Among the major improvements are enhancement of aesthetic quality and provision of better utilities and public facilities.

"KK has taken on a cosmopolitan outlook with its wide range of shopping malls, hotels (of various ratings), restaurants and entertainment outlets."

These improvements, he said, have invariably made KK a prime tourist destination, as evidenced by the increased number of tourist arrivals.

"This is fully in tandem with the thrust of the Sabah Tourism Board (STB), which is to make Sabah an ideal tourist destination. Clearly, such effort is supported by the KK International Airport expansion and implementation of new urban renewal projects like lBorneo Hypermall and Sutera Harbour Resort."

Against this backdrop, the third KKMC President said Kota Kinabalu is definitely on the right track to grow as a modern city on par with the national capital, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong and the like.

Towards this end, he said KK should now further tap the city's advantages.

"It is the gateway to the majestic Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia's highest peak. The city offers excellent and comparatively cheap seafood. We should also capitalise on our non-crowding and friendly lifestyle."

The other plus point, he added, is KK's scenic beauty along the Likas coastal drive and Tunku Abdul Rahman Park.

Given the seriousness of global warming, Lim said it is imperative that the Government preserve the remaining "green lungs" such as the Tun Fuad Park, City Park and other green belts. "These are places that are very popular with the increasingly health and environment-conscious public."

At the same time, he wants historical sites that are synonymous with Kota Kinabalu to be preserved by maintaining and improving the State capital's icons. These include the Atkinson Clock Tower, Australia Place, Independence Memorial, Padang Merdeka and Prince Philip Park.

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