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In the late 1800s, the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) began to establish colonies throughout North Borneo (now Sabah). In 1882, the Company founded a small settlement in the area known as Gaya Bay which was already inhabited by the Bajau people. The first settlement was on Gaya Island (Pulau Gaya). In 1897, this first settlement was burned and destroyed by Bajau rebels led by Mat Salleh.

After the rebellion, the Company decided to relocate the settlement to the more easily defended mainland opposite Pulau Gaya. A nearby fishing village named Api-Api (see Original names below), was the next settlement of the Company. This new location was then designated as the main harbour and port, as well as the terminus for the North Borneo Railway. It was expanded and renamed Jesselton, named after Sir Charles Jessel, the then Vice Chairman of the Company.

Eventually, Jesselton became a major trading post of North Borneo, dealing in rubber, rattan, honey, and wax. The new railway was used to transport goods to Jesselton harbour. Bajau uprisings during these times were not uncommon, and the Company worked to quell the long-standing threat of piracy in the region.

Jesselton was razed by the retreating British early in World War II to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Japanese. After the Japanese takeover of Borneo, it was again renamed Api. Rebellions against the Japanese military administration have taken place in Api. One major rebellion occurred in 1943 by the group called Kinabalu Guerrillas, consisting of local inhabitants. Japanese forces quelled the rebellion after its leader, Albert Kwok, was arrested and executed in 1944.

At the later stages of the war, what remained of the town was destroyed again by Allied bombings as part of the Borneo Campaign in 1945, leaving only three buildings standing. The war in North Borneo ended with the official surrender of the Japanese 37th Army by Lieutenant General Baba Masao in Labuan on September 10, 1945.

After the war, the British North Borneo Company returned to administer Jesselton but was unable to finance the huge costs of reconstruction. They gave control of North Borneo to the British Crown in 1946. The new colonial government elected to rebuild Jesselton as the capital of North Borneo instead of Sandakan, which had also been destroyed by the war.

When North Borneo together with Sarawak, Singapore & Federation of Malaya formed the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, the state became known as Sabah and Jesselton remained its capital. Jesselton was renamed Kota Kinabalu on September 30, 1968 and received official city status from the Malaysian government on February 2, 2000.

Etymology

Kota Kinabalu is named after Mount Kinabalu, situated about 90 kilometres east-northeast of the city. The meaning and origin of the name Kinabalu is uncertain. One theory suggests it means "Chinese widow", where Kina meaning "Chinese" (person) in Kadazandusun language, and balu meaning "widow" in Malay language. This theory derives from a folk tale about a Chinese prince who came to the mountain in search of a giant pearl which was guarded by a dragon at the top of the mountain. While he was here, he married a local woman but later returned to China and left the woman heartbroken.

Alternatively, it is also argued that Kinabalu or Akinabalu is the name of the dragon which guards the giant pearl itself. Another theory suggests that the term is derived from the name Aki Nabalu meaning the "revered place of the dead", in which, Aki means "ancestors" or "grandfather", and Nabalu being a name for the mountain in the Dusun language. There is also a source claiming that the term originated from Ki Nabalu, where Ki meaning "have" or "exist", and Nabalu meaning "spirit of the dead".

Kota is a Malay word for a "fort", "town", or a "city". It is also used formally in a few other Malaysian towns and cities, for example, Kota Bahru, Kota Tinggi, and Kota Kemuning. It could also be used informally to refer to any towns or cities. Henceforth, a direct translation of the name Kota Kinabalu into English would be "City of Kinabalu" or "Kinabalu City".

Original names

Besides Jesselton, there has been a number of other claims as to the original name for Kota Kinabalu. The most popular, as mentioned above, is Api-Api, or sometimes simply Api, which is a Malay word meaning 'Fire'. It was apparently named as such by the mainly Bajau locals to denote the blazing of the British administrative office in Pulau Gaya instigated by Mat Salleh, as well as other blazing incidents normally perpetrated by pirates.

There were claims however that it was actually named after a nearby river called Sungai Api-Api. Another theory states that "Api-Api" is the local name of the common Avicennia tree found in abundance around the area. Transliterated into the formal Chinese name of Ya Bi (亚庇 yà bì), the Hakkas here too adopted this name (亚庇,"ah-bi" which pronounced in Hakka, Chinese dialects) and some still use this name to this day. Besides Api-Api, another suggested historical name was Deasoka, which roughly means "below the coconut tree" in the Bajau language.

The Bajau locals purportedly used this name to refer to a village on the southern part of the city which was filled with coconut trees. Another name was Singgah Mata which literally mean "transit eye", but can be loosely translated as meaning "pleasing to the eye". It is a name purportedly given by fishermen from Pulau Gaya referring to the strip of land of what is today Kota Kinabalu city center.

Today, all these names have been immortalised into names of streets or buildings around the city. Some examples are: Lintasan Deasoka, Api-Api Centre, Jalan Singgah Mata, and Jesselton Point.

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