History tells us that Sandakan was founded on 21st June 1879 by an Englishman named William B. Pryer who served as the first Resident of East Coast after the initial settlement was burned down. The British North Borneo (Chartered) Company rules Sabah from 1881 to 1946 and Sandakan was officially pronounced the capital of British North Borneo in 1884.
The oldest company in Sandakan started in 1882 and by 1883, a monthly newspaper, the British North Borneo Herald started printing, continuing uninterrupted until the Japanese occupation. The first school, St. Mary’s was formed in 1887 and even telephone came early to Sandakan in 1896. On 8th April 1897, the telegraph communication between Sandakan and London was established.
Roads were sealed by 1899 and electricity supply was introduced in 1909. By 1923, Sandakan had an automatic telephone exchange even before Hong Kong and Shanghai had theirs and motorcars appeared in the streets as early as 1912. Even a golf club was formed in 1917. As most of the town area was sea, the Sandakan town padang (or field) was first reclaimed in 1902 while the present town proper was completed in 1930. Sandakan was a “modern town” in her heydays scoring a number of firsts.
Beginning the heritage trail …
As you began to trace the beginning of the town, it is no mistake that Masjid Jamek, the town mosque which is more than 100 year old has served the muslim community in Sandakan from its original site from day one making it an excellent starting point for this heritage trail. Next to it is the new Hotel Sandakan (an old Hotel Sandakan existed nearby in the late 1880s).
As you proceed uphill, you will reach MPS Square in front of the local council administrative building where the William Pryer Monument is placed, moved from its original site after the war. At the same place an imposing Memorial for Chartered Company’s officers killed in service is also situated. Moving across the street, you will come upon a WW2 Memorial unveiled on 17th September 1946 by Malcolm Macdonald Governor-General of Malaya and British Borneo near the old Court House.
From here, go uphill using the Stairs with 100 steps to reach the infamous Agnes Keith’s House. Before turning left to the house, you may want to go right to visit the WW2 Chinese Memorial and the Japanese Cemetry at the end of the road. By turning left towards Agnes Keith’s house, you will have a chance to see the bird eye view of Sandakan town from the Rotary Observation Pavilion built by the Rotary Club of Sandakan in 1970.
Agnes Keith’s House now being conserved by Sabah Museum is almost similar to the house where the American authoress Agnes Newton Keith lived with her husband and family from 1934-1942 which was destroyed and later re-built after war to its current form. It is here where she wrote the famous book “The Land Below The Wind” which was published in 1939. However it was her second book “Three Came Home” about her war experience in captivity with her infant son that established her as an acclaimed author.
This book was also turned into a Hollywood movie in
1950 and part of the movie was shot in Sandakan. She also wrote “White
Man Returns” published in 1950 continued with the story of rebuilding
and reconstruction of Sandakan when she and her husband returned following
the war to serve under the British government in 1946. The Keiths left North
Borneo in January, 1952 and never to return again. She died on 30th March
1982 but her legacy will be remembered forever in Sandakan.
Trekking downhill you will reach the Clock Tower roundabout. Please be careful while crossing over to the other side of the road to reach the remains of the stairs/foundation of what believed to be the consulate building of the pre-war Chinese Government. The ancient graveyard of the early Chinese settlers are about 10 minutes away along Jalan Aman on the right but by turning left you are going down hill using the newly constructed road towards Jalan Singapore to locate the entrance of the Goddess of Mercy Chinese Temple; a small and inconspicuous temple built in the late 1880s.
A little further down the road, you can see a little pathway/stairs leading to the quaint stone church of St. Michael’s and All Angels Church. In the same vicinity, you will also locate the first school in Sandakan-St. Mary started in 1887 and St. Michael’s school in 1888 next to the church.
Rev. Henry Elton was perhaps best known for the construction of St. Michael’s Church which lasted from 1893 to 1906. St. Michael’s Church was the first stone building erected in Sandakan and the stones are said to have come from nearby Buli Sim-Sim delivered by prison labour at $1.25 per cubic yard weighing about 140lbs per cubic foot and each stone was laid on one after another purely by human effort.
The western porch of the Church (main entrance) was not completed and dedicated until 1952; 32 years from the date of first construction and long after the death of Rev. Elton. It avoided major damages during WW2 and it remains one of the very few stone buildings in the whole of Sabah.
Going down from the church passages and walk way, we will be heading towards the town padang on your left which was used by the colonial government as their recreation ground. By passing through the main gate of the padang and turning left, you will see the oldest temple - Sam Sing Kung Chinese Temple in front of you. First constructed in 1885, the temple was completed and dedicated in 1887. It was established as the religious center for the Chinese from Guangdong Province, namely the Hakkas, Cantonese, Teo Chews and Hainanese.
The temple honours the three deities of Lui Bei, Guan Gong and Zhang Fei who were heroes in the story of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Being an old temple. Its is also a repository of historical artifacts and plaques which contain a wealth of information on the early history of Sandakan. One of the more important artifacts is a bronze bell presented by the first Kapitan Cina (Chinese leader) whose name Fung Ming Shan is found on the bell. It is interesting to note that the Chinese character engraved on the bell for Sandakan was ‘Xian Da Gang” which means the “harbour where fairies alighted.”
Strolling along the side of the padang after visiting the temple will bring you to the traffic light junction facing the Malaysia Fountain. By crossing here you will arrive at the Harrisons (& Crossfiled) building, one of the oldest British origin company and in the opposite direction, the former Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (now HSBC Bank) and Chartered Bank (now Standard Chartered Bank) both prestige banks of the colonial period.
As you proceed forward along the main road (Lebuh
Tiga), look out for the Stairway beside the Harrisons building. The last historical
building on top pf these stairs awaiting to greet you is Wisma Warisan which
now houses the Tourist Information Centre. Wisma Warisan used to be main government
building during the British administration. The former Residency office was
on the first floor and the present Tourist Information Centre was the general
post office for many years.