Brief history of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, The Land Below The Wind

Kota Kinabalu sunsetKota Kinabalu, or “KK” as it is popularly known, is a pleasant Borneo surprise, set between lush tropical hills and the South China Sea. It is the state capital of Sabah and a resort-city of exciting contrasts – vibrant, serene and hassle-free, with modern infrastructure and many attractions. Strategically situated less than three hours by air from East Asian capitals, KK has direct flights to/from major cities – Kuala Lumpur, Bandar Seri Begawan, Singapore, Manila, Cebu, Hong Kong, Taipei, Kaoshiung, Seoul, Tokyo and Sydney. KK was granted city status on 2 February 2000. It is the eastern hub and getway to Malaysia.

KK traces its beginnings to 1881, as a tiny British settlement on Pulau Gaya, the biggest of five islands directly across the bay from present-day KK city. In 1897, rebel Mat Salleh and his men fought and burnt the island settlement. The British relocated to the mainland at Kampung Gantisan, a small fishing village. In 1899, the British named the new settlement ‘Jesselton’ after Sir Charles Jessel, the Vice-Chairman of the British North Borneo Chartered Company.

Jesselton was also known as Api-Api, which literally means, ‘fire-fire’. It was said that it derived this name from the frequent fires that occurred during festive seasons caused by flying sparks from firecrackers burning the thatched roofs and wooden structures of the shophouses. Some believe the name Api-Api may have derived from the Avicennia trees which grew abundantly along the coasts and were used for firewood (kayu api).

To liberate North Borneo from Japanese occupation during World War II, Allied Forces bombed and completely destroyed Jesselton, leaving only three colonial buildings standing. These were the elegant Sabah tourism Building at 51 Jalan Gaya, the Atkinson Clock Tower and the former Land & Survey Building. Unfortunately, the latter was burnt down in a New Years Eve Fire in 1992.

The Sikh Temple, located away from the town center, was also spared from the bombing. The high cost of re-building forces the Chartered Company to relinquish their land rights over North Borneo to the British Government. North Borneo became a British Crown Colony on 15 July 1946. At the same time, Jesselton was selected as the new capital of North Borneo, to replace Sandakan, which was also destroyed during the war.

Jesselton was renamed Kota Kinabalu on 30 September 1968, for the majestic Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South East Asia, at 4,095.2m (13,435 ft). Post-war reconstruction of the capital saw major changes to its skyline, coastline and land area. Most of KK is built on reclaimed land.

Reference: Sabah Tourism Board

Aerial view of Kota Kinabalu

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About drizad

A self employed General Practitioner who lives with his lovely family in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. He dedicates his spare time serving people with precious information on climbing the Majestic Mountain of the Borneo, Mt Kinabalu. Reachable at drizad(at)

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