Remembering the good old days at once-famous Borneo Hotel

KOTA KINABALU: Long before the fancy five-star resorts in modern-day Kota Kinabalu were built, there was the Borneo Hotel.

Located on the Tanjung Aru coast, the hotel, according to its former patrons, was “the place to be seen in” in Jesselton, the old name for Kota Kinabalu. It was one of only a handful of hotels in the town.

It is situated in a prestigious locality, where there used to be detached government houses for heads of departments and senior officials.

The movers and shakers, the who’s who in town, from local politicians to visiting dignitaries, used to grace its corridors and banquet halls for weddings and dinner parties.

But speak to anyone under the age of 50 and most of them will tell you they have not heard of this once-talk-of-the-town establishment or that they have only a faint memory of it.

Borneo Hotel in its heyday. (Bernard Liew pic)

There is not much information available online and even those in their 70s, like Joseph Liew, are unable to say exactly when the hotel was built.

“I think the Borneo Hotel started business in the mid-1950s,” Liew told FMT.

He said the original owner came from a certain Kwan family of Sandakan and he sold it to a group from Tawau in the early 1980s.

“I attended quite a number of dinner functions there between the late 1960s and early 1980s,” he added.

The hotel has long been abandoned and is now in a state of neglect and decay. It was once visible from the roadside, but overgrown grass has now blocked it off.

Joseph Leong, press secretary to former chief minister Yong Teck Lee, said the secluded location of the hotel and its scenic seaside surroundings added to its feeling of grandeur and exclusiveness.

“It was a top hotel in the sense that it was a standalone hotel while others were part of shop houses,” he told FMT. “It could well be recorded as the first ever resort hotel in Sabah.

“Like the Jesselton Hotel downtown, it was one of the most popular social centres of entertainment in the state capital at the time.

“The mention of Borneo Hotel evokes a nostalgic feeling for me. The government house at Tanjung Aru that my family was staying in, in the 1960s was located opposite the hotel.”

Leong said the Chinese restaurant in the hotel was well known for its roast chicken with golden crispy skin that was served with keropok on the side.

“It has a very big hall around the foyer and lobby areas, giving the management the ability to stage large-scale wedding banquets and many other joyous celebrations.”

Mohan Ramday said it was the leading hotel in town between the 1950s and 1970s. “It was a popular gathering venue for the orang putih,” he said.

One of those orang putih was David Porter, whose family came to Sabah from England in 1960 when his father worked for the North Borneo Trading Company.

Members of the Berjaya party at their first meeting, held in the hotel. (Bernard Liew pic)

“We lived at Tanjung Aru till 1974,” Porter told FMT. “So we were very near to the hotel. I was turning five when we arrived.

“It was probably considered the place to go for richer Sabahans, Europeans, politicians and dignitaries who came to visit. I was told the Berjaya party held its first public meeting at the hotel.

“As a boy, I loved the entrance and the foyer but really it was the food that the hotel was most famous for.

“I thought the chefs were from Hong Kong, but a friend pointed out that they were actually from Shanghai.”

Porter now lives in Australia but he still has many friends in Sabah and he follows developments in the state he still considers his home.

“I grew to adulthood in North Borneo and still marvel at those times of racial, ethnic and religious tolerance. It’s a place of beauty in both its people and its terrain.”

A 2017 photo of part of the decaying Borneo Hotel. (David Porter pic)

He last returned to Sabah in 2017 and was dismayed to see what was left of the hotel. He fears that his old haunt will be forever gone, eaten up by the Tanjung Aru Eco-Development (TAED) project.

“I have a great deal of sadness and anger that the whole area, including the beach area, has been allowed to fall into neglect and ruin by the inaction of the city authorities,” he said.

“I would add that sadly, many things from the past have not been saved in Sabah but their greatest crime would be to ruin Tanjung Aru beach.”

Former state secretary Simon Sipaun, who sat for his Cambridge school certificate examination at the hotel, said he hoped the developers of TAED would revive and incorporate the Borneo Hotel into their project.

“For old time’s sake, they can do this and maintain the name, just like the Jesselton Hotel,” he said. “This would be viable because the TAED is a mixed development project anyway.”

By : Durie Rainer Fong – FMT

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