To Stroll, To Gather And To Bond Down Memory Lane at Gaya Street Market

Words by Janice Ng
Photos by Janice Ng and Yeo Li-Sha

As many travel aficionados would repeatedly exclaimed, no trip will be wholly complete without a visit to the local market. As for this author, markets personally resonate and reside a dear place deep within. It is as though they exude a certain wanderlust vibe that she simply adores. The general hustle and bustle, encountering the friendly locals. With any other locales, Sabah also has a distinctive marketplace of its own. A highly must-see lying in the commercial district of the city, it is the Tamu Market, also equally renowned as the Gaya Street Market.

IMG_20170627_174755Travel back in time as you set forth beyond this monumental arch

What makes this marketplace truly one-of its-kind unique is the abundantly rich history behind it. Its tale rewinds dating back in the 20th century during the British colonial era. Dunlop Street, then, comprised of makeshift Chinese shophouses without doors or windows. In August 1901, a large fire destroyed 17 shophouses. These razed wreckages were later replaced with permanent structures. With the completion of the construction of shophouses a year later, the street was re-established as Bond Street. Bond Street first emerged as a railway track for rubber transportation all the way from Sapong and Melalap rubber estates in Tenom which arrived at the wharf in Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu). However once again when Sabah (or North Borneo back then to be exact) was afflicted from WWII, none of the shophouses were spared and the street was in ruins; the entire state was gone with the wind. As the war ceased, temporary atap (thatch) structures were built immediately. In 1951, these buildings were slowly restored as permanent two-storey shoplots. By 1958, all the temporary buildings had been replaced. Another inevitable name change occurred after independence in 1963 and the street was renamed and known to this day as Gaya Street.   

Beyond merely as the epicentre of post WWII nostalgia, Gaya Street was and still is a trade haven. Back then, farmers from the highlands and fishermen from coastal areas met once a week to barter their local products with migrant Chinese, Indonesian and Filipino traders. The locals traded fruits, vegetables, rattan, poultry, deer and wild boar meat, and local handicrafts for cotton and silk, spices, medicinal ointment, jewellery and kitchen utensils. This buzzing hub was how the name Tamu Market was attained; tamu is derived from the word temu, meaning ‘to meet’. Fast forward a century later, the Tamu Market at Gaya Street simply evolved to become a much favoured destination among locals and tourists alike. Indeed, nothing much has changed since its opening in the late 1940s as Gaya Street persists where the heart of the city is.        

Spending yet another day off and our very last day of this trip, the ISO Sabah team headed to the Gaya Street Market to get some last-minute shopping done. Here are some of our encounters throughout the duration of this quick visit.

DSC_0965Memorabilia galore(a?) – commonly seen in the street market scene

DSC_0944Boasting a myriad variety of marine biodiversity, it’s not surprising to sea (see) shells selling by Sabah’s sea shore

DSC_0945Wanna swing from this shell-delier?

DSC_0942May not be a Prince Charming in disguise, but I suppose it’s a truly intriguing accessory otherwise #closeenough

DSC_0939Delve further in, the scent of fresh local produce evidently wafts the air

DSC_0971Thirst-quencher/Aesthetic Instagram model

Culminating this experience hands down was the unexpected but pleasant sojourn at this particular calligraphy booth. While just merely the presence of any calligraphy stall among street markets as such is itself atypical, if not few in numbers, according to my prior knowledge, what establishes this kiosk as a crowd-pleaser is the fact that the master behind this reputable workspace is actually of Indian heritage. Huang Poh Lo, or N. Poolohgasingam, is a self-taught calligrapher who has perfected the art of Chinese brush work. With swift, deceptively simple strokes, he expertly crafts works of art utilising a range of brushes, adorning Chinese characters and accompanying illustrations with the greatest of ease. The world-acclaimed only known Indian Chinese calligrapher took calligraphy a step further by incorporating elements of Arabic calligraphy, or Jawi, into his masterpieces; resulting in a typographic style that he calls Shah Rumi Jawi. While he is fully capable of illustrating purely in Jawi, Poh Lo’s variation on the font uses the style of Arabic script to write in the standard alphabet. A word may perceived to be completely written in Jawi from afar, but revealed upon closer inspection that it is actually written in highly stylised Roman letters. Complicating to be described, yet fascinating to be observed – a remarkable feat nonetheless.

DSC_0954The ‘Man Below the Wind’ himself deeply engrossed in producing his masterpiece

Truly, the Gaya Street Market is a living history on its own; no doubt a sight to behold. Should you seek to spare a few hours, the market only opens every Sunday from 5 am to 1 pm. It is hardly unmissable as the street market extensively stretches about 500 metres from the City Council Building to the Sabah Tourism Board Building. Additionally, the length of Gaya Street is closed off to traffic to make way for the market.

DSC_0946Pro tip: Best head over in the morning to avoid the crowd and the scorching heat


This dancer/cheerleader has conquered half of Southeast Asia to date; next up Asia? The current item being prioritised in her bucket list at the moment is to witness the Japan 2020 Olympics

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