Tawau (also known as Tawao during the colonial era) is a multicultural town with a relaxed pace of living, friendly locals and developed fishing and agriculture sector. Chinese in this town are mainly of the Hakka dialect branch/ The main languages spoken here are Malay, English Chinese and the various dialects of Chinese including Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, Hainan, Sze Yap, Foochow and Hokkien. There are six associations which are founded based on the different dialect groups, mainly the Hakka Association, Teochew Association, Hainan Association, Sze Yap Association, Foochow Association and Hokkien Association.

Town flower: During the 21st century, Ixora (scientific name: ixora Chinesis Lam) was chosen as the town flower for Tawau. It is a colourful flower with flowers of red, yellow and white.

Tawau in 1947 (photo credits: en.wikipedia.org)

Tawau before World War II

The first time that Tawau (or Tawao back then) was mentioned on a map was during 1857, on a British map. The British and the Dutch have conflicts regarding their settlements and it was not until the year 1881 that the Dutch bent down and acknowledge that Tawau was a British settlement. If history had went the other way, Tawau might have been an Indonesian town. During the early 1890s, Tawau had only around 200 settlers, mainly formed by immigrants from Bulungan, Indonesia and Tawi-tawi Island, Philippines. This small fishing village traded with the Dutch. On the 2nd of September, 1893, S.S. Normanhurst sailed to trade in Tawau for the first time. They traded local rattan, bird’s nest, rubber sheets and grapes with marijuana, gum, Indian rubber sheets, tortoise shells and ivory. It wasn’t until 1898 that Chinese settlers started arriving. Conditions in China were harsh back then. The opium war caused massive unemployment and famine. People living in southern China immigrated to Dutch and British colonies in south east Asia.

Between the year 1898 and 1922, the North Borneo Chartered Company expanded from the west coast to Tawau. One peculiar thing was the border on Sebatik island, 4°10’N, was determined by a commission formed between the British and the Dutch. The report was signed in Tawau by a commissioner from the British and Dutch side, along with a map confirming the report on the 17th of February 1913. This report was deemed official when it was signed by Dutch and British officials in London on the 28th of September 1915.

By 1930, the agriculture potential of Tawau made it expand rapidly. Its population had risen to around 1800 by 1931. The Kuhara Rubber plantation and Kuhara Manila Hemp plantation are the two largest plantations. World War One did not have a direct impact on Tawau, but it was affected by the global economic slump that came afterwards.



Tawau during World War II

The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on the 7th of December 1941, which triggered the pacific warfare phase of WWII. All south-east Asian countries, with the lone exception of Thailand, were occupied. On the next day, Japanese troops started bombing the heart of British administration in Malaya, Singapore. By this time, life was still going on in Tawau. The Japanese landed in Labuan on the 3rd of January in 1942, followed by Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) on the 8th. Sandakan, the capital of the BNB administration, was captured on the 17th of January and Tawau followed suit on the 24th of January.

Tawau back then had no military installation or fortifications, nor had any military detachment stationed. The only armed forces was a handful of constables with no formal military training. Therefore, conquering Tawau was no hard task for the Japanese.

During the initial stage of occupation by the Japanese, the daily lives of the residents of Tawau had no significant change. The occupation government kept the original administration system. All Asian civil servants kept their posts, shops remained opened and schools continued to provide education. However, all citizens had to pledge loyalty to the Japanese Emperor on pain of torture and death.

During the first twelve month of the Japanese occupation, there was little abuse of the local population and the residents did not feel the real impact of the occupation. In 1942, a Japanese school was opened and its purpose seems to have been to acquaint the local population with the Japanese language.

However, as time went by, things began to take a downhill turn. Rubber production in North Borneo is being systematically abandoned with rubber plantation owners tasked to grow food crops as the effects of the allied blockade of Japanese imports and exports begin to take its toll. Food, medicine and other necessities were running out and support for the Japanese administration begin to fade.

The Japanese were also harsh on the population as time went by and punishments were given even for the smallest offence. Crimes fell into three categories: for first-grade felony, the punishment was beheading; for second-grade felony, indefinite detainment in Sandakan which usually meant death from starvation and disease; third-grade misdemeanours usually meant release within a few weeks. However, from the memoirs of those who have went through that era, regardless of the grade of crime, one would have to go through endless interrogations by the Japanese military police and no food or drinks would be provided until one admits to have committed the alleged crime. Only then would the military police cease torturing.

As the war progressed, it became increasingly desperate for the Japanese to fight the war as continuous allied bombing threatened to cut off Japanese supply of food and ammunition. The Japanese military began savaging the locals for food.

By 1944, sporadic bombing of Tawau by the Allies began and by 1945, heavy bombing had reduced Japanese resistance to almost nothing. These heaving bombing were part of an Allied strategy to divert the attention of the Japanese into believing that they will land in the east coast. In fact, the Australian-led Allied forces had planned a landing in Tarakan, which is not far away from Tawau.

The landings in Tarakan was a success and the Japanese surrendered on the 13th of August, but mopping-up in Borneo continued and the Japanese formally surrendered in Labuan on the 11th of September.  

Tawau Post-WWII

After the war, the British gained direct control of North Borneo when it became a crown colony. Almost all shops in Tawau had been destroyed by the war but by the end of 1947, the pre-war economy had largely been restored.In 1948, the populatioon of Tawau to be estimated at 18125, which puts it behind eight other town districts in North Borneo.  However, there was a major plan to improve the infrastructures of Tawau, which includes enlarging the wharf, replacing the light on the lighthouse with a better one and the construction of an airstrip.

Former Japanese Estates, mainly hemp estates, were being operated by the Colonial Development Corporation under the name Borneo Abaca Limited (BAL). The Korean War also boosted the economy of Tawau with the rise in rubber and coconut due to direct and indirect demand increases for both of the crops. In 1951, a census was conducted and Tawau had recorded a population of 18610, which is 76.6% higher than 1931.

1953 Tawau Fire

At around 4.00pm on the 7th of March 1953, a fire broke out in one of Hap Seng company’s shops. The fire was attributed to the activity of children trying to light a mosquito coil or playing with cigarette. Within 37 minutes, the fire had destroyed 149 out of the 170 shophouses in Tawau, destroying one in every 15 seconds. The steady wind along with the dry atap roofs only fueled the fire.

Some buildings that were lost include the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, the police station, the headquarters for St. John’s Ambulance and housing for more than 1200 people. Miraculously, the fire stopped short of the diesel fuel building of Harrisons and Crossfields. If it had not, Tawau might suffer even more damage.

Eyewitnesses accounts the priest of a Chinese temple, refusing to have his idols removed and assuring everyone that if he lit more joss-stick , the fire would stop. It did. The fire did reach the temple, but it did not take down the temple.

Economic Progress and Joining the Federation

After the fire, life goes on as usual. The fire might have caused significant damage to the town, but the most wealth is generated from estates located out of town, and rehabilitation programmes for these estates are well underway.

The Colonial Development Corporation’s  (CDC) Kuhara Estate, which contained 12,144 acres of rubber, underwent a major rehabilitation programme. The company decided that rubber was going to be the mainstay of their income and much of their income was diverted to the eradication of “bunchy top” disease from the hemp estates.

Later on, cocoa was introduced in the volcanic-rich Tiger Estate. By the year 1960, 902 acres have been planted. In 1957, BAL also decided to introduce oil palm as the main crop in the Motsyn Estate and 200 acres were planted in 1959, followed by 850 in 1960 and 950 in 1961.

All the progress made was well-reported in the 1957 North Borneo annual report, where Tawau was being described as an important trading centre, with an annual supply of 250,000 gallons of treated water, and a wharf than handles 800,000 tons of cargo per year. The population was growing, and the healthy economy supported the population growth.

By 1961, political awareness started to form in the wake of the suggestion by Tunku Abdul Rahman to form a federation of Malaysia, consisting of Sabah, Sarawak, Malaya and Singapore.

The Cobbold Commission, authorised by the colonial government, was sent to gather information about the willingness of the people of Sabah to join the federation. The result was positive and in 31 of August 1963, Sabah gained independence from the British and on the 16th of September of the same year, it joined Malaya, Sarawak and SIngapore to form the Federation of Malaysia.


The Konferentasi was the undeclared war between Indonesia and Malaysia during the early years of federeation. Indonesia was opposed t the formation of Malaysia as it is thought to disrupt their plan of forming Melayu Raya. Tawau’s location near the border with Indonesia makes it the main point of conflict during the conferentation.

From the 1st of October 1963, Indonesia opened several military training camps along the border on Sebatik Island. From the period between October and December of the same year, at least seven shooting incidents occurred and in December, a bomber of the Indonesian Air Force flew over Tawau bay and bombed Tawau.

An Indonesian commando unit was clandestinely sent to Sebatik with the aim of taking Kalabakan. They attacked a Royal Malay Regiment Quarters without warning but the Malaysian armed police managed to drive them back.

Situation remained tense throughout 1964 with eight Indonesian man arrested for trying to poison the water source of Tawau. A curfew was declared to prevent the Indonesian army from contacting the local Indonesians. An attempt by Indonesian troops to invade Sebatik on June 1965 was backed off by Australian troops and ceasefire in Tawau was generally achieved in 1966. The undeclared war between Indonesia and Malaysia ended. Tawau, being the focal point of the war, carried as it had been after the second world war.
Confrontation Memorial (photo credits: Sabah Chinese High School)

Moving Ahead

The economy was moving forward in Tawau, in the late 1960s to the 1980s, thanks to the surge in timber production and cacao prices. The period between 1976 to 1985 was even dubbed the “Golden Age”. The surge in timber production, however, also meant that deforestation was at a rate that was so high, that it caused floods in Tawau, mainly due to soil erosion due to extensive logging.
Tawau Hotel in the 1960s (photo credits: http://www.northborneohistory.com)

The population growth had also doubled in the 1970s, and land constraints led to the developer Sabindo Nusantara Sdn Bhd proposing and being approved of a land reclamation project in front of Dunlop Street, with the area reclaimed now known as Sabindo.

The New Economic Policy (NEP), which mandated that companies have at least 70% local equity, led to the sale of BAL to Golden Hope Plantations, which, in turn, lead to the mass planting of oil palms in estates, and the start of the switch from cacao, to oil palm.

By the 1990s, major development projects were underway, including the Shan Shui Golf & Country Club, the Central Market, a new power-plant, a new airport, a new mosque, and a satellite township development by Hap Seng.

1. Nicholas Chung, Under the Borneo Sun-A Tawau Story, Natural History Publications (Borneo) 2005
2. Ken Goodlet, Tawau-The Making of a Tropical Community, Opus Publications 2010



1 Sim Hua Seng (Mui Kee)- a 4 storey building owned by the family of the late Datuk Sim Ching Ban
(photo source: Sabah Chinese High School)

2 Tawau Hotel- the first modern hotel operating in a concrete building constructed in the early 60’s and is still in operation. (The first hotel in Tawau is Nam Wah Guest House, which has now been demolished)
(photo source: Sabah Chinese High School)

3 Chinese Chamber of Commerce Tawau building- a 3 storey building constructed in the early 60’s with the 2nd Floor as its office.
(photo source: Sabah Chinese High School)

4 Tawau Marine Department- this building used to house the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (today known as HSBC Bank)
(photo source: Sabah Chinese High School)

5 Standard Chartered Bank
(photo source: Sabah Chinese High School)

6 Old Post Office- situated next to the banks and Chinese Chamber, facing the town padang, providing all postal services to the Tawau community since the 60’s until now.

(photo source: Sabah Chinese High School)

7 These traditional Red boxes are the post box which served the Tawau community for many generations. Despite the internet era, these boxes are still serving its purpose.
(photo source: Sabah Chinese High School)

8 The semi permanent shop houses built in the 50’s with wooden planks and zinc sheets as roof, are the land marks of Chester Street. The numbers are getting lesser by the years.
(photo source: Sabah Chinese High School)

9 The Clock Tower- contributed and constructed by the Japanese traders to commemorate the ending of the First World War, and the alliance between the British Colonial government and Japan.

10 The Centenary Archway- a monument built in 1998 to commemorate the 100th year of Tawau town.
On the left side is the Clock Tower whilst the Centenary Archway is at the right side.
(photo source: Sabah Chinese High School)

11 0 km land mark- to indicate the starting point of Tawau town
The 0 km land mark (photo courtesy of Rotary Club of Tawau)

12  Dunlop Hotel- believed built in 1966
(photo source: Sabah Chinese High School)

13 Old Office of Teck Guan (yellow building on the left, believed to be built in 1966)
(photo source: Sabah Chinese High School)