Rise of the Small Town

17 May 2017

These Malaysian entrepreneurs are doing all it takes to bring their own small towns at par with the nation’s more established art centres.

For good or for bad, Malaysia has abruptly awakened and realised she needed quite a bit of work to bring her body up to world-class standards. In the past four years, Malaysian cities big and small, from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, Ipoh to Kota Bharu, have rebranded themselves by letting international and local artists use their walls and buildings as a canvas. This artsy Malaysian makeover has peppered once old-fashioned towns with hipster cafés, art murals, retro-style barbers, and an entourage of excited young locals. It seems like there's never been a better time to be a millennial in Malaysia than today.

But what's happening beyond the big towns? Indeed, Malaysia's artsy makeover only belongs to a few selected cities; the countryside and its old kampungs still languish like boxed up old toys. However, in Sandakan, one person has recognised the appeal of this peripheral Malaysian vintage, and is resolute to change things in his hometown.

Sandakan's compact waterfront town may look quiet, but there's an artsy revolution on its way.

“I spent a decade studying and living abroad, and then I received a call,” says Anton Ngui from Sandakan, Sabah’s second town. When his family informed him that the Nak Hotel – the town's oldest, opened in 1966 by his grandfather who passed away in 1963 – was in dire need of a refreshing and new direction, Anton found himself back in the hometown he didn't know any longer with a new, unplanned career in tourism as his next big challenge.

Sandakan is Sabah’s gritty port that never really took off as a travel destination, despite its beautiful bay and nearby islands that still lie untouched by tourism. The town is widely seen as a mere jump-off point to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre just 30km away. “There was nothing in Sandakan,” says Anton, “or to put it better, all the good things – the best places to eat and the hiking trails that only few locals know – were hidden.”

While running his family’s hotel remains a challenge for Anton, it has however, allowed him to channel his experience in the hospitality business to something he is passionate about: nature.

Sandakan's sunsets paint the bay with shades of gold.

“I grew up romanticising about a life in the outdoors, and my wife Linn Yong spent her youth in Johor, climbing, hiking, and travelling around,” says Anton. The couple decided that if hospitality had to be their new career direction, they wanted to do it their own way. Thus, the idea for Paganakan Dii was born, the first “hipster” eco-resort in Sepilok.

“We took part in the construction as our own DIY contractors, working with a local team of carpenters,” says Anton, adding that Paganakan Dii took over a year to build. It was from being close to nature everyday that led the couple to start a nature-themed international music and arts festival. To do this, they formed Future Alam Borneo (FAB) with eight other individuals, a non-profit group that “creates opportunities, connections and platforms to showcase Borneo’s ecological potential to a broad audience”, particularly through the arts. The Borneo Rhythms of Rimba Wildlife Festival, launched in 2014, is FAB’s key event featuring music, performances, film screenings and more activities focused on the environment and conservation.

A view of Sandakan's bay from the Puu Jih Shih hilltop temple.

Of course, with an eco-resort and a music and arts festival to their name, Anton and Linn Yong’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by locals. “We are still seen as offbeat, but locals now expect to see ‘the next big thing’ from the crazy guys who do things for the hell of it and not for profit,” says Anton. In 2016, Anton and Linn Yong later teamed up with a friend, Teo Chee Kim, to open San Da Gen – Sandakan’s first kopitiam-style café – next to Nak Hotel.

San Da Gen's old-meets-new interior.

“The name means 'Three Spoons' because we are three partners obsessed by food,” explains Anton. Similar to the efforts of Kuala Lumpur and Penang's heritage-focused entrepreneurs, the trio wanted to revive Sandakan's food culture by offering a new, hip place for millennials.

“In the past five years, the café scene has mushroomed here in Sandakan as much as in other Malaysian big cities; mostly following the same cookie-cutter, Aussie-inspired, coffee-focused, hip industrial-chic theme,” remarks Anton. “San Da Gen hopes to be the antithesis by going backwards and rediscovering the nostalgic moments and comfort foods that bring back timeless Malaysian memories.”

Anton with his wife Linn Yong and their daughter Adira.

With a funky old-meets-new décor, crackling pop-yeh-yeh vinyl records and vintage tiles, San Da Gen's menu is all about recovering Sandakan's rich Hakka-Chinese culinary heritage. For sure, you won't find the city's peculiar UFO tarts – sweet creamy custard over vanilla-flavoured biscuits – paired with cappuccino anywhere else in town.

“As people start noticing what we do, we plan to steer the attention to thinking hard about the quality of local ideas. It’s only by being different that we will redefine our town’s character, thus stand apart and not remain the boring, average place Sandakan is known as,” says Anton.

With traditional kopi, egg tarts and UFO tarts, San Da Gen serves Hakka favourites in a hip atmosphere.

Small is also getting bigger in the Peninsula: in Kuala Lumpur, Romaizie Mustapha, better known as Rom, has been making waves with his art space and retail store Dumpster in Publika. Dumpster's philosophy is to encourage local artists and talented art graduates not to resort to work unrelated to the arts. But Rom's vision isn’t just about selling Malaysiana art pieces to the rich; the revival of his hometown Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan, is in his immediate plans. A convenient stop along Highway 9 connecting Melaka and Tampin to the East Coast, Kuala Pilah is one of those small, sleepy Malaysian towns that double their occupancy only on weekends when commuting workers from the city balik kampung.

“Dumpster plans to rejuvenate and make Kuala Pilah a creative town,” explains Rom of his new project that’s completely self-funded. “If you go there now, you'd see that the town is abandoned and dying, as there's nothing to do for the young.”

Who knows? With Sandakan already pushing on the pedal, and Kuala Pilah set to become a new small-town canvas, more Malaysian and international artists will have new old spots to pimp up with wall murals, exhibits and cool hangouts. Another sign that soon even the most remote Malaysian countryside could be completely re-branded.

Nak Hotel Sandakan Jalan Pelabuhan Lama, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah (089 272 988).
Paganakan Dii 9000 Sandakan, Sabah (012 868 1005).
San Da Gen Lebuh Dua, Pusat Bandar Sandakan, 90000 Sandakan, Sabah (089 238 988). Open daily, 8am-5pm.
Dumpster Lot 53, Publika, 1 Jalan Dutamas 1, 50480 Kuala Lumpur (012 302 3170). Open daily, 10am-8pm.

By Marco Ferrarese
Photos by Kit Yeng Chan   

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