As time rolls forward, how do we decide what should change with it, and what will be preserved to remind future generations of the past that defines them? Some pieces of time seem too important to alter, or have such beauty that we want them to endure. Some moments are given monuments, while others are allowed to flicker and fade, barely noticed in the sea of reality.
In our contemporary world, big corporations push global capital just ahead of the world’s spin, perennially trying to reap tomorrow’s profits today. Too often these entities make the decisions about what is left as legacy and what is pulped for profits. Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the state of Sabah, on the once exotic isle of Borneo is the unfortunate, quintessential example of this.
Kota Kinabalu is named after the mountain that shadows it, in the “land beneath the winds”. It has a history as a favorite fishing spot of the nomadic Bajau sea tribe, and a trading post for the diversity of cultures from the interior. It is adorned with pagodas, mosques and cathedrals from its history of cultural intrusions, and memorials to the great acts of valor and resistance during the Second World War.
However, land is scarce in this town that was never meant to be settled, putting pressure on all that is, to become as profitable as can be. Originally it was just 30 hectares (15 football fields) of flat land skirting out in front of the mountainous jungle that defines the interior of northern Borneo. However, the state of Sabah needed a capital, and after failed attempts in Kudat and Sandakan, in 1946 Kota Kinabalu was chosen.
Kota Kinabalu quickly became one of the focal points of the booming domestic oil and gas industry, which saw US$ 83.7 billion dollars of investment between 2008 and 2013. Low cost airlines connected it to large Chinese cities, and other economic centers looking for investment opportunities abroad. In 2013 Kota Kinabalu received just under 3.4 million visitors, roughly eight times its population.
However, generally these visitors have not come for an authentically wild experience. They want one that comes with water wings, and are more interested in investing in air conditioned apartments, than experiencing the gales on the summit of Mount Kinabalu. Instead of taking pictures they have taken timber and copra, in their footprints they leave endless fields of oil palm, and the exploring they do off the beaten track is for oil and gas, not the elusive clouded leopard, or pygmy seahorse.
The economy of Kota Kinabalu has responded to these demands. The original patch of land upon which it was founded, has been expanded out over the vibrant reefs, using the euphemism of “sea reclamation”, which is a ridiculous term, because there was never land over the reefs, and certainly not luxury apartments which needed to be reestablished.
The Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is an archipelago right off shore which is more akin to a theme park like SeaWorld than a national park. The beaches are full of tourists, broken glass, and cigarette butts, and you are only allowed to swim in little coordinated off areas of dead coral. Restaurants serve all you can eat buffets of overcooked chicken parts and chain-smoking lifeguards blow whistles like Indian traffic police.
For now, it is still possible to find little pockets of history in the fish hawkers on the waterfront, the sunsets on Tanjung Aru beach, and the little restaurants that serve hinava and cook with turmeric, fresh ginger, and green mangos. However, a traveler already has to go searching for these experiences, which are quickly being whisked away in the whirlpool of time.
These glimmers of the past are scheduled to become even harder to find. The whole waterfront is being extended further over the reefs, to host the three 27 story Jesselton Residences, the City Waterfront project, which includes the Oceanus mega mall, and the Kota Kinabalu Convention Centre, which will put three huge hotels, a conference center, corporate offices and a massive residential block on the waterfront.
The iconic Tanjung Aru beach is scheduled to be concreted by developers who want to fill-in 400 acres of ocean (5.5 times the original footprint of the city) for the US$ two billion dollar Tanjung Aru Eco-Development (TAED) project. It is unclear if the “eco” part of the project comes from the 18-hole golf course, the luxury resort, or the artificial beach they plan to build in the middle of the ocean to replace the one they will pave over.
As the natural history and cultural legacy of the town are bartered for profits, ironically so is the business case for doing so, because without the vibrant reefs, and wild orchids and ginger flowers of the forest, the exotic island of Borneo becomes more like another Cancun or Las Vegas, trying to keep prices competitive with the other generic entertainment destinations of the world, perennially chasing the unique character that once made it so irresistibly timeless.