March 20, 2012

Beaufort - Venice of the East

The town of Beaufort was founded in 1898 by the Managing Director of the British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBCC), Mr William C. Cowie. This would make it about 114 years old this year. It is named after Sir Leicester Beaufort who was then the Governor of Labuan and British North Borneo (1895 – 1900). 

W.C. Cowie and A. Cook with the Sultan of Sulu

There were of course existing settlements in the vicinity of Beaufort prior to 1898, mostly in areas like Padas Damit, Klias, Jimpangah etc. Prior to the arrival of the BNBCC to this part of Sabah, the people in these areas were ruled by local Chieftains. Cowie established the town of Beaufort at the banks of the Padas River that runs through the heart of the town. He probably did not know that this area was prone to flooding. Otherwise, he would have had reconsidered his choice of a site for new town. Despite the occasional inconvenience of flooding, the new township remained where it is. No doubt in part, due to the Padas River; the very same source of the inconvenience. The Padas River was the 'highway' of old.

Padas River Circa 1915
When people think about site seeing, Beaufort would probably be the least considered destination. That is what Beaufort is to most people; Just a transit town to them. People coming from Sarawak, Brunei and Sipitang have to drive pass Beaufort to Kota Kinabalu but only on a very rare occasion that you see them stopping at Beaufort to sample what it has to offer. Once a girl from Sipitang asked me whether Beaufort has any nightspots. It is to my knowledge that this girl always drive to Kota Kinabalu for the weekend. So I asked her, “You always drive pass Beaufort on your way to Kota Kinabalu. Hadn't you even once stop by and check out the town?” She replied me with a definite NO.

Kung Ming Primary School
Kung Ming Primary School 1953

Well, we from Beaufort cannot really blame them for their attitude towards Beaufort because we really do not have much to offer, in terms of interest and attraction. It is unfortunate because if we scrap the layers of perceived boredom off Beaufort, you would find loads of interesting facts about it. Beaufort has a rich cultural and historical heritage that has to be preserved and thrust to the public knowledge.

During World War II, Beaufort was one of a few towns that witnessed heavy fighting between the Imperial Japanese Army and our Australian liberator. The Australian took a two pronged attack against the Japanese in its mission to liberate North Borneo from Japanese clutches. One of the landing parties made their way to Mempakul while the other one, made their way to Weston. From Weston they made their way up to Beaufort and this was where the Japanese was heavily entrenched. In Beaufort, at a little road named Jalan Tugu next to the old Beaufort police station which presently houses a school for children with special need, there stand a monument to commemorate the bravery of one Private Leslie Starcevich which earned him the Victoria Cross. The vicinity of the site saw heavy fighting between the Australian and Japanese which was determined to hold on to their position. 

Pte Leslie Starcevich who was awarded a Victoria Cross for his valor in Beaufort.
I remember vividly one day, as a youngster, a friend of mine told us that he had stumbled upon some bullets in some brushes behind the railway staff quarters next to SRJK St John. Being inquisitive, my friend and I asked our informant friend to bring us to the site. Upon reaching the site, we found some rusted bullets in a sack but what got our interest more was a small mount where the bullets were found. There were small tunnels inside the mount! Being superstitious then and being afraid of snakes even more, we decided against exploring the tunnels. Recently as an adult, I tried to find the tunnels with a friend from out of town but unfortunately, were unsuccessful. Most likely it is no longer there.

Beaufort also played a role in the survival of our Kota Kinabalu city, which was known as Jesselton then. The following is an excerpt from Sabah – A General Geography by Godfrey A. Chatfield:

No sooner had Jesselton been chosen than it became, in 1900 and 1901, a railway boom town with a population of about 1,500 persons, mostly Chinese labourers. The population decreased, however, as the railway was pushed southwards towards Beaufort and this first phase in the development of Jesselton ended with railway being handed over to the Government on its completion in 1902.

Town Padang is still there but the buildings in the picture no longer there.

A railway without either passengers or cargo to carry is of little use so the coming of rubber to Sabah soon after was a godsend. As the export of rubber expanded after about 1910, so Jesselton slowly grew too. Everything going to, or coming from, the rubber estates had to be handled in Jesselton.”

The rubber producing towns in those days were towns like Tenom, Beaufort and Bongawan. So there you go, our quaint little town helped Jesselton stay afloat! Surely Beaufort deserves more mentions in our travel brochure. Fortunately, Beaufort is experiencing a resurgence of sort with the advent of the booming Palm Oil industry. There are a few development in the town, new hotels are slowly sprouting but how do we get people to come to Beaufort? How do we make Beaufort a tourist attraction? As of now, tourists come to the district only for our wetlands and the Proboscis monkeys while the town itself is most often, ignored. One area worth exploring is to develop our very own heritage attraction. Old buildings need to be preserved. Old buildings like the building that used to house the Kung Ming Kindergarten. It has to be preserved and its background explored.

We need to identify locations where important events took place and perhaps put up a board explaining what happened at the site. For a town as old as Beaufort and played a prominent role in the early economy of the state, it is disheartening that we do not have our own museum to showcase our rich cultural and historical heritage.

We cannot just leave it to the government to look into this, everyone of us has to do our part because at the end of the day, it is our heritage that is in danger of being forgotten.
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