History of Tawau

Tawau is situated at the south eastern tip of Sabah facing the Celebes Sea to the south and Kalimantan Indonesia to the southwest. So far, we know very little of its history prior to 1890. Perhaps, with the exception of rare collections in the archives of the governments and institutions of higher learning, records on Tawau is not easily available to the public. Some senior inhabitants may give some accounts and impressions of both the pre-war and post war events, albeit at times conflicting. The following accounts are gathered from several sources.

Steps were taken to establish the rudiment of local government by the British North Borneo (Chartered) Company (North Borneo Annual Volume 1955-1965 recorded that the Tawau was founded in 1898). Land leases were alienated by the Administration.

Since Tawau is situated close to the boundary with Indonesia, it is noteworthy to mention here that the Sebatik boundary is in latitude 4′10′N which was delimited in 1912 by a Boundary Commission comprising of officials from United Kingdom and Netherlands. A joint report was prepared together with a map and duly signed by their respective commissioners in Tawau on 17 February 1913. By protocol between the U.K. and the Netherlands signed in London on 28 September 1915, the two governments confirmed the joint report and the map.

In early 1890s, its population was about 200 comprising mainly immigrants from Balungan and Tawi-Tawi who had fled from Dutch rule in Kalimantan Borneo. This small village maintained trade with the Dutch. In February 1893, the vessel ‘Normanhurst’ sailed into Tawau (or Tawao as it was then known) for the first time with a full cargo to berter for rattan, raisins and rubber. It was in 1898 a settlement was then established and Chinese immigrants begun to settle in Tawau.

In 1930s, Tawau prospered rapidly due largely to its agricultural potential. The inhabitant population rose to 1800 in 1931. There were two large plantations, the Kuhara Estate of rubber and manila hemp and Kubota Estate of coconut. The First World War (1914-1918) did not directly affect Tawau, which had, however, its share of the world slump. Sandakan was the permanent seat of the Government and the center of commerce; Tawau was small but a prosperous town.

By the end of 1930s, there were about 60 shophouses, all timber-built, lined the two main streets of Tawau, Dunlop Street (named after A.R. Dunlop who was a district officer) and Man Cheong Street (now part of Dunlop Street). Man Cheong was a popular coffee shop. It still operates at Dunlop Street. The Dunlop Street was so close to the shore that the shops on one side backed out over the high water mark. Most shops were owned by Chinese. They sold foodstuffs and equipment in small holding. There were some coffee shops and lodging houses too.

Ariel view of Tawau in 1955

There was no restaurant and chemist’s shop. Tawau’s center was the padang with sea on one side and whitewashed timber buildings on the other three – the district office, police quarters, the government resthouse, none more then two storeys high. A tower (which still stands at the Town Padang) was erected by the Japanese after World War 1 and hour being rung at intervals by the police guard. The scene was tranquil and beautiful. Traffic was scarce – a handful of private cars, lorries, and vehicles belonging to the estate. From the padang, Dunlop Street turned into Apas Road, which was metalled for 4-5 miles. From its end, a tract went on to the lighthouse at Batu Tinagat; other roads branched off to Kuhara rubber estate and Sin On. There was no ingress from further afield from the landward side. It was a very inhibited area and small and well defined. Its people knew intuitively that they had to live and work together. Despite there were many different races and ethic groups and religious, the town was very peaceful. There was no serious crime; doors and windows of dwelling houses were normally left unlocked.

There was neither electricity supply nor main drainage. The water supply to the town was by means of tubs set on trolleys, which ran along the narrow gauge trolley line from Tawau River. The tubs were hauled by hand. A telephone line linked the District Office with the District Officer’s house, the lighthouse and Kuhara estate. The Government’s wireless station communicated daily with Sandakan, whence messages were transmitted to Hong Kong and Singapore. There was no bank, but money could be remitted through the post office, and the Treasury accepted and repaid deposits on behalf of the State Bank.

There were 300 Japanese working on the estate and 100 on Si-Amil Island. They owned the biggest estates (Kuhara estate) and a golf course. There was an estate hospital and representative office of a Japanese Bank set up for the benefit of the Japanese inhabitants. Their commercial fishing (mainly tuna) was unique. Their company, Borneo Fishing Company, whose office and factory were mainly worked by Japanese women. The workers and suppliers arrived in Tawau in Japanese ships, and all were disembarked into launchers and lighters and taken direct to Si-Amil. Despite their commercial activities, they left no impact on Tawau in term of local affairs, social and cultural life.

The S.S. Kinabalu of the Sabah Steamship Company linked Tawau with Sandakan, Lahad Datu, Semporna and Tungku (yes, Sabah Steamship, the name ‘Sabah’ then was already in use and the company was a subsidiary of Chartered Company). The ship was wrecked off Semporna and later replaced by S.S. Baynain by The Bakau Company (also a subsidiary of the Chartered Company). The government cruiser, “Petrel”, was based in Tawau. But it was often used on duty elsewhere. Apart from that, there were very few sailing craft. There was no airfield in Tawau (or anywhere in Sabah). There was a small public hospital close to the shore but had no medical officer. A medical doctor by the name of Ernst Sternfeld was sent from Sandakan to station in Tawau in 1939-1940, but lasted only for a few months.

The Chinese community maintained schools. The Roman Catholic Church was later established in 1922 and provided the only English primary school. Mosques were unostentatious. The District Office was headed by expatriate district officer and assisted by a chief clerk and court interpreter, Mr. Lim Ong Tun. In the community, a highly respected figure was OKK Abu Bakar. The Chinese “Kapitan” was Mr. Stephen Tan (who was later killed by Japanese invaders). A letter from Tawau to Sandakan could take above nine days to arrive and to reach Singapore took nineteen days. Since it took many days from the locals to receive mails and newspaper, they tended to rely on radio to keep themselves informed of world news – for the wars in Europe, China etc. Even then, a few people could afford a radio set. The best station, apparently, was Manila Station.

For 3.5 years Tawau and the rest of the country remained under the Japanese occupation until final liberation by units of North Australian Division, who landed in Labuan on 10 June 1945. The British Military Administration for North Borneo found the colony in a state of appalling devastation. Like all other major towns in the colony, Tawau was destroyed or damaged by bombing or fire.

Bomb damaged area of Tawau after being liberated by units of North Australian Division in 1945 (courtesy of Sgt F. A. C. Burke via Australian War Memorial)

In January 1942, Japanese naval and military forces invaded North Borneo. As the Japanese forces advanced around the coast of Borneo, from the oil field of Kuching, then to Jesselton – Tawau carried on normally. On 19 January 1942, the Sandakan wireless station went off the air. On 24 January 1942, Japanese launches were sighted from Batu Tinagat. The District Officer (Cole Adam) and his Assistant met the invaders at the wharf and were arrested immediately. Mr. Cole Adam, after forty-four months in Japanese prison camps, died in September 1945 on the very day of release by the allied forces.

During the Japanese occupation, many of the inhabitants were massacred, among them large number of government servants. The British Military Administration continued until 15 July 1946, when North Borneo became a Crown Colony and civil government was resumed. A lot of pre-war records had been destroyed. The emphasis in the immediate post war period had to be concerned with rehabilitation and reconstruction. A reconstruction and development plan for the years 1948-1955 was adopted in 1948 for the Colony. There had been much program in the field of social services. The Tawau Town Board was constituted in 1955 with control over its own finances and local authorities.