The Refugee Marketplace

03 April 2018

A marketplace that was set up in the 1980s to provide Filipino refugees with work has evolved to become a popular tourist destination in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

Most will say that a tour around Kota Kinabalu’s city centre is not complete without a visit to the Pasar Filipin, a name locals have given to the tourist hotspot. Built in 1983, it was set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide trading opportunities for Filipino refugees in Sabah.

Walkways are tight as trinkets hang above the ceiling and are displayed at every corner of the marketplace. 

The market has since been officially renamed as Pasar Kraftangan Kota Kinabalu, however, its structure has been relatively unchanged since its inception. The market stands along a bustling city street; traffic builds up outside its doors. Inside, it is cramped with rows of vendors displaying a variety of souvenirs, trinkets and jewellery, especially pearls imported from the Philippines.

Pearl jewellery sold at the market are strung together by vendors themselves.

“My family has owned this business since the beginning. I used to jaga kedai with my sister back then,” says Siti Munirah, 58, who’s initially hesitant to discuss her family’s origin. “We are all warganegara now anyway. I grew up here, I speak the language, and my children were born here.”  

Refugees fleeing civil war from the Mindanao Region of the Philippines arrived by the thousands to Sabah between the late-1960s and 1980s. The pasar was just one of many resettlement opportunities provided by the government and UNHCR to encourage employment.

Siti Munirah calls out to a group of potential customers walking by. 

Today, the market has evolved to become a localised institution with a majority of its traders identifying as Sabahan. In 1987, the UNHCR withdrew its aid. Those same refugees that the UNHCR sought to help were mostly granted work permits and had more than likely weaved themselves into Sabah’s population.

From speaking to Siti, it’s clear that her connection to her business is a sentimental one. “Competition is tough. Nowadays, many would prefer to purchase pearls like mine at the more luxurious, air-conditioned shops elsewhere. But my main worry is if [the authorities] decide to demolish this place and relocate us, vendors.”

Tailors are lined up along the market entryways offering clothing alteration services.

A customer waits for his jeans to be fixed; it usually takes just 30 minutes.  

The pasar’s central location makes it an easy target for tourists walking by, while its old façade makes for an interesting photograph to any outsider. Occasionally, you’ll notice tour buses with visitors parked nearby. Yet tourists are hard pressed to part with their money, according to Pak Lah, who has been in business here for 30 years selling beaded crystal and gemstone jewellery.

Food vendors operate at the open area behind the market every evening.

“About 15 years ago, I used to be able to earn RM3,000 per day, but these days getting just RM300 is a challenge,” he says. “A lot of Chinese, Japanese and Korean tourists do stop by, but my customers are mostly West Malaysians, Bruneians and Sarawakians.”

Originally from Kelantan, Pak Lah came to Sabah 35 years ago searching for better opportunities. He is one of a handful here – who’s not of Sulu or Tawi-Tawi origin – that rode on the market’s early success. Despite the quieter days now, Pak Lah stays because of the market’s cheap rent and friendly community.

Echoing Pak Lah’s sentiment, Hatifah Suhaimi is a native Dusun vendor who agrees that business is not as lively as before. “I inherited this shop from my in-laws. I’ve been here 12 years, memang sunyi lah sekarang [it is a lot quieter now], but I don’t see a reason to leave yet,” she says.

Customers bargain with Pak Lah for a decent price on items.

Although labelled as a tourist hotspot, it becomes apparent that the Pasar Filipin is more important as a historical marker to the community it serves, than it is as a tourist destination. The pasar’s four walls tell a story of hardship and resilience, but also of hope, inclusion and diversity.

Address: Pasar Kraftangan Kota Kinabalu Jalan Sinsuran, Pusat Bandar Kota Kinabalu, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Open Mon-Sun, 8am-8pm.

Text and photos by Natasha Sim



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