Monday, June 22, 2009

The Kota Kinabalu of Today

The Kota Kinabalu of Today

Gentle cool breezes, lazily sweeping waves ebbing and flowing, starfish and corals in the crystal-blue sea, open clear skies ... abundant fruit and vegetables everywhere... sipping an ice-cold glass of lime drink... These are the vague memories that have haunted me since my first trip to Sabah 45 years ago.

It was one of the most memorable times of my life, when at the age of five, my mom brought me along to Sabah to visit my dad who was working in Kota Kinabalu as a clerk of works in a relative's large hardware shop, Wui Cheong Hardware Sdn. Bhd. In fact, it was reputably the largest hardware shop in this city in the old days.

The flight itself was sheer fun as we flew on a Malaysia-Singapore Airways (MSA)Fokker-friendship, the predecessor of Malaysia Airlines System (MAS) in those days from the Lutong Airfield. What an incredible flight that was, having to sit in a jerky rickety Fokker as it took off with a loud roar from the tarmac that was surrounded by grass and trees!

I could recall on board the crammed small plane, we were given a plastic cup of pineapple juice and some sweets by a charming friendly air hostess with a really cheerful disposition. That was "service with a smile" comparable in some ways to today's MAS' golden girls, I guess.

Coming back to the present Sabah, I am experiencing a Borneo state that is familiar and yet alien in some ways.

There is an air of excitement here. This has to be due in many ways to the multi-cultural races, many attractive friendly members of the public and the opposite sex, plentiful eateries and mega shopping malls.

The locals are friendly and they speak my kind of dialect, Hakka of the 'sing-on-hak' type. In overhearing the locals' conversation in Hakka, I can understand every single word and it is safe to say that the candidness of the speakers speak volumes about the things I need to know about everything here!

But what is the city of today like?

An interesting conflicting conclusion I can make is that it is rich in some ways; yet also poor in many ways.

A trip to the local wet market was a learning experience of the richness of this city in terms of jungle products. Lots and lots of bananas, honey dew fruit, water melons and other exotic fruit were stacked up high virtually almost everywhere. The fruit were amazingly cheap too-prices of bananas at RM2 a comb, honey dews at RM2.00 for 4 huge slices, and so forth. Miri's fruit market was incomparable to the market here with such insane prices!

There were also heaps of dried large prawns that looked simply fleshy-reddish fresh and other sea food around. Fish were abundantly displayed in the fish market.

Looking out to sea, I could see the richness of the sea as Sabahans carried out their abundant harvest of Mother Nature's gift to humans, abundant sea food. Far out in the horizon, it was dotted with numerous fishing vessels and sampans, bobbling gracefully in the deep blue sea. Further ahead could be seen the many kampung houses along the sandy shore of a distant beautiful greenish forested big island known as Pulau Gaya.

Then there is the majestic Mount Kinabalu, south-east Asia's tallest mountain! It attracts tourists like hungry flies to food. A stay in a back-packer's hostel is sufficient to see the many foreign tourists putting up for a night or so, obviously eager to conquer the mountain. Many of these tourists could also be seen mingling around in this capital city, Kota Kinabalu.

That is the golden side of Sabah that I have exprienced since my arrival here over a week ago.

However, there is also a disturbingly less glittery side to this magnificant state that once used to have a reputation as the richest state in the Malaysian federation (Today, Sarawak is considered rich though still considered as underdeveloped).

There are some beggars everywhere. (Don't get me wrong-Sarawak, including my hometown, Miri does have beggars too). They seemed to appear from nowhere like forgotten spirits of the movie kind.

Just the other day, when I was having a meal at a popular spot near my office, an elderly man dressed in rags popped out from nowhere and went around with his open palms to ask for money.

After leaving the coffeehouse, as I strolled along High Street, by the sea, towards another part of the city, an elderly lady, dressed in rags as well, suddenly appeared amongst some metal pilings for a building project that had long been abandoned. Predictably, she stretched out her hand for money as well.

Even an admiring gaze at the clock tower in the evening from my hotel veranda soon turned me off when out of the corner of my eye I caught the sight of some movement on the bench by the roadside. It was between the Traffic Police Station and the KK Municipal Council building.

What was it? As I stared hard, trying to discern what it was, I could see a man with a dark complexion hanging around near it. Seizing my camcorder hastily, I magnified the viewing lens and could see he was actually preparing to bed down for the night!

"Fine!" I tried to falsely reassure myself, "He's just relaxing out there!" Of course it was not true because when I asked the counter clerk he confirmed my nagging suspicion: he was a destitute lost soul who would sleep out there night after night and leave when dawn would break!

To be continued...

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