Heritage advocator Richard Nelson Sokial believes that the historic townships in Sabah, particularly along the railroad are untapped tourism resources.
He listed several towns including Beaufort, Bongawan, Membakut, Papar, Kimanis, Kinarut and Weston as historical towns that flourished thanks to the North Borneo railroad started in 1896 by the British North Borneo Chartered Company administration.
“Many young Sabahans do not even know that these towns have their own history. For instance, the town of Weston was named after Arthur J. West, the railroad engineer who built the first rail from Bukau to Beaufort township between 1896 – 1900. Therefore, the town of Weston can trace its history back to 115 years ago. Sadly, nothing architecturally significant from that era exists today – except for the old jetty which is estimated to be more than 100 years old. The local communities in some of these towns have lost a lot of their architectural heritage”.
He believed that the Sabah State Government and Sabah Railways could tap into the potential of promoting heritage tours using the railroad as the primary means of travelling to these pre –WWII towns.
“Heritage tours could be conducted for those who want to experience something other than nature and orangutans. I myself have taken the new Sabah Railway trains to all the historical towns along its operational route. The new trains are comfortable and there is a lot of interesting views to see along the way”, he said.
“For the budget backpacker, travelling along the Sabah Railway would be aviable option to explore into the heartland of Sabah. They could stop and stay at the various townships that still retain their historical shophouses like Kinarut, Bongawan and Membakut. To my knowledge, many of these shops are now rented out to sub-tenants with some of the upper floors left vacant. With proper supervision, repairs and initiative, these vacant lots can be turned into budget backpackers accommodation”.
“Imagine how many tourists would love to stay in an old colonial building that has a historical value to the local community – it could start an economic boom for the township again. There is a significant value in heritage branding of these townships, if done properly with the right amount of funding and expertise”.
He noted that some existing buildings in townships such as Membakut and Bongawan have unique and distinct architectural details that link directly to the glory days of the British Empire.
“One of the corner shophouses in Bongawan, for instance, has a window ornamentation with the date ‘1939’ on its gable. The style is distinctively Chinese with influences of British Colonial style. Many of these townships flourished between the 1920-1930s because of the rubber boom of that era”.
“Another architectural feature is the use of decorated bargeboards on the roof ends of the shophouses. These timber bargeboards are a distinctive feature of British Victorian architecture”, says Sokial who studied architecture at University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.
He noted that some of these old shophouses have already been slated for demolition upon the expiry of their land leases within the next few years. He urged the state government to study the merits of preserving selected building sites in towns along the original North Borneo railway lines which is currently operating under Sabah Railways.
“Saving heritage is not just for the tourists. It’s for the people of Sabah as well. Locals who commute from one town to another via train can learn a little about the history of each heritage town at their respective train stops. A generation of Sabahans that understands their history is a generation that can change the course of their future”, he added.
“A heritage town loses all its meaning and identity if its historical buildings are destroyed in the name of commercial development. However, it is still possible to develop a township for the modern needs of the local community and still retain some heritage character of the old buildings”.
Sokial who is currently doing a research on several historical townships along Sabah’s West Coast Division urges the locals to take pride in their historical buildings.
“It is a testimony that once upon a time, the town in which they now live in was once a piece of history, not just for Sabah but for UK, Australia, Japan and the rest of the world”.