Surprises from Tawau
Published on: Sunday, October 18, 2020
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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Section of very nice open seafront green space with hawker food stalls at background which have now been permanently lost.
LET’S GO light and easy in this Special Report. Many people have asked me: Are you from West Malaysia? As a Tawau patriot, I never liked that question.

I thought they knew. But of late, two pleasant surprises from Tawau came my way.

One, as I was browsing through Google images on the history of Tawau, I saw this Singapore Reuters report titled: “Fire Sweeps Borneo Town”.  “Waa,” I said.

Two, everybody knows Sabindo open space is a matter of legal dispute.  I thought it’s all history but suddenly, ex-classmate Loong Ding Hock WhatsApped a set of rare pictures of that once fantastic green open space I thought all lost in history – but what a down memory lane revisit to paradise lost.

The big Tawau fire 1953

But first, on the Reuters report on the March 7, 1953 Tawau fire, I am frankly surprised for two reasons: One, that a fire in Tawau deserved the attention of presumably Singapore-based The Straits Times. Two, this is the first time I came across the report. 

It reads: “The town of Tawau, on the east coast of North Borneo, was almost destroyed by fire yesterday. Tawau is the third largest town in North Borneo (Still is). 

“In 37 minutes the fire destroyed 133 shops and houses (all wooden), six Government buildings including a police station and bond store, and the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank building. A girl was missing, one person was seriously injured.” That was 1953. Do I remember? 

Yes, I remember seeing smoke billowing and swirling high into the sky late that afternoon from our coconut palm clad hill top house five miles away on Apas Road. 

Of course, as a five-year-old boy then, I did not know the town was burning, neither had I much memory or impression of that post-war set up because in those days with meagre means and meagre transport, five miles was like going to Hong Kong – you just don’t go.

But what caused that infamous fire?

There were claims that three children were playing with match sticks in the bedroom of Hap Seng’s shop and the mosquito net caught fire. How true nobody knows.


Old pictures of controversial Sabindo Open Green Space 

But the top dog surprise were the pictures of the open green space sent by Loong which ignited a flood of fond memories. 

After completing Primary Six in 1961 at Chung Hwa Mile 6, Apas Road, I moved to town in 1962 to attend St Patrick’s. 

North Borneo was still a British colony then.  But the long stretch of well-manicured green open space complete with marble seats was already there – set nicely at the seafront looking out to Cowie Bay and Dunlop Street and shops at the back.     

I think that was part of a clever colonial day town planning which offered not just a needed recreational relief just metres from hectic town for a relaxing stroll down seafront walkway whatever the sate of sea tides and the best part of it – at the end of the green space – well placed sea front hawker food stalls selling fabulous local food, some memorable dishes include mee soup with freshly caught prawns. Those days in the 1960s, white pomfrets were in abundance and very cheap. One of the most cherished and popular dishes was pickled pomfret for only 50 cents a dish offered by one of the stalls.

Because it is an open air hawker stall right opposite the most popular cinema in town – Empress Cinema, that open space eatery area was very popular with Tawau folks, lots of people packed the place at night. All that was very nice.

But after a large reclamation work for the expansion of Tawau town into Sabindo in the mid to late 1970s, the original glory of that seafront green space waned and even developed. 

By right, what’s lost should have been compensated with another sea front green space at the seafront of Sabindo overlooking the Cowie Bay, like what former Chief Minister Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat had done in the Kudat reclaimed area – a wide esplanade for stressed town folks to unwind. But alas, that didn’t happen!


A perspective view of the green open space at left and a broad cross section of Tawau.

The big Tawau fire on March 7, 1953. Note the Peace Tower at right built by the Japanese in 1918 which remains there until this day.


The Reuters report on the major Tawau fire in 1953 was published by the Singapore paper. 

The old Kinabutan township taken in the late 80’s on Mile 5½, Jalan Apas.  

Aerial view of Tawau in 1966. Notice sea front Open Green Space at extreme left and the Empress Cinema at foreground.


The open air hawker food stalls at one end of the open space opposite Empress Cinema. 


Aerial view of the entire Green Open Space at left down Dunlop Street.


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