KOTA KINABALU, March 12 ― A busy central business district, shopping malls, the lively nightlife along the KK Waterfront, day-long traffic jams and 24-hour eateries; yes, Kota Kinabalu has all the trappings of a flourishing small city.
But in the middle of all this modernisation, one quiet unassuming street has taken a different direction and carved out a niche of its own to complement the busier and better-known Gaya Street just adjacent to it.
The four blocks of nondescript shoplots along Jalan Dewan, also known as Australia Place, have transformed from an old school printing hub into a cool hangout spot for the younger crowd complete with hipster cafes and B&Bs.
The street was at first home to the Australian Liberation Forces which landed in the then-named Jesselton in 1945 during World War II. The soldiers camped out here with hopes of liberating the island from the Japanese.
The locals named the street Australia Place in a gesture of gratitude to that nation after the war ended on September 10, 1945.
Adjacent to Jalan KK Bypass and at the bottom of Signal Hill, it sits on the edge of the central business district where at one end is the Kota Kinabalu community hall, and at the other, the historic Atkinson Clock Tower.
At the start… Printers Row
In the 60s, most of the 20 or so shops on the street offered offset printing services to meet the demands of a growing township.
“When you came here during the 60s and up to the 80s, all you would see were printing shops. There was maybe an electronic shop and a signboard maker thrown in the mix somewhere,” said Addison Jung, who runs Quick Service Printing Sdn Bhd, one of a handful of printers left on the street.
“Back then, business owners and locals who wanted to get their printing done just had to come here and they could survey all the different places and bargain among the different printers. It was very convenient,” he said.
Jung’s family business was not one of the firsts on the street but they are among the longest survivors.
“We’ve been here about 30 years but there are others who were here first who have since moved out.
“Many of them were unable to keep up with new technologies and demands that involved a lot of investment, and those that could, opted to move to other areas outside the city,” he said.
Tell-tale signs of the street’s historical past can still be seen here. Hand-drawn signages from decades past, rattan furniture and old grill doors that are still in good condition.
Tian Sing Printing is one of the shops that has conserved much of its original façade, including rustic old-fashioned grills and worn tiles that have aged beautifully.
Step in and it is like time has not passed: an old man bent over the printing machine, the smell of ink in the air, and stacks and stacks of paper everywhere. The natural light pouring in illuminates everything.
Jung said that while the street’s location used to be its biggest attraction, the congestion now is a hindrance to business.
And of the handful printers that still remain, most still have old-school Heidelberg offset print machines.
New energy in the neighbourhood
Nowadays, the street enjoys a different kind of patronage. Backpackers seem to have taken over because of the budget accommodation that have mushroomed in the last few years.
Earning itself a reputation as a little backpackers’ area, the street sees tourists from the eight or so accommodation options here. Then there is a host of trendy cafes which bring in a local, younger crowd.
Lucy Chong, 60, one of the original tenants of the historic street and the namesake behind “Lucy’s Homestay” has watched the changes on the street from the balcony of her home along the street.
The street, she said, was and still is, an ideal choice for travellers who can enjoy the convenience of the location and yet be away from the busy city centre.
They will also have added peace of mind from having the police station just next door, and the rich history of the street to add value to the experience.
While it means she has lost some business to her competitors ― and there are a lot of them ― Chong said that the newer businesses have brought a new atmosphere to Jalan Dewan.
“I think the change is good for the tourism industry overall. It’s also good to have our very own backpacker street as long as it doesn’t turn too touristy and they preserve the historical value of Australia Place,” she said.
Chong added that people just need to be mindful that the street is still home to many residents and not “a party street.”
“But it is good that it is growing, its looks nicer now,” she said, pointing out the clean backyards which she said were once littered with industrial waste.
Cafes like Syarikat Biru Biru, Nook, The Workshop and Woo have brought their own unique aesthetics to the stree.
Woo owner and founder Ling Jeat said the buildings along Jalan Dewan were one of the few remaining “heritage” buildings in the city which have retained the vintage look.
“This beautiful quiet street is full of history. When I found this vacant lot up for rent, I decided to take it almost immediately,” he said.
Ling Jeat has one of the first hipster coffee cafes in the city – The B Side ― and opened up Woo here last year.
“Shops like these are hard to come by here. Being from KL, I’ve seen many vintage-looking cafes in KL and Penang. Vintage but modern at the same time. So I decided that I will do the same with Woo ― make it modern but maintain the original vintage look,” he said.
Acknowledging the retro value, Ling Jeat worked at using as much of the original fixtures as he could. Woo retained some 60 per cent of the original shop, which was previously Chin Chi Printing house.
Aside from budget accommodation, cafes, printers and signmakers, the street also houses an art gallery, an upmarket stationery and gift shop, a tattoo artist specialising in Borneo traditional tattoos and a sundry shop.
A space for all
Although urbanisation has spelt the end of Printers Row, its evolution into a backpacker street or a hipster hangout doesn’t mean the end of all things old.
Margaret Florist has been here since 1983 and has no plans to move.
“The location has been good to us. We love that we can use the hilly space behind for a little garden. As a florist, it hasn’t affected our business and we are still going strong,” said Lucy Chin, the owner of Margaret’s.
Chin and her mother, Margaret, started the flower business three decades ago with the shop lot they inherited from her grandmother, as the sole florist among the printing shops.
“It was quieter then of course as Kota Kinabalu was not yet a busy city. To us, it’s a very convenient location before and now. We like the change, it’s got some new life. Especially at night, when it really comes alive,” said Chin.
Although nothing is official yet, there is talk of a proposal to make the street more pedestrian friendly, or at least turn it into a one way street.
Limuel Estrop, owner of Orangutan Studio and tattoo artist, said that the lane is livelier with foot traffic and this has benefitted the businesses.
“I’d like for there to be a variety of businesses ideally. But the direction it is moving now is good too,” he said.
“I’d like to see Jalan Dewan take on a new culture, like Melbourne lanes. But that would take a lot of direction and effort from everyone,” said Ling Jeat.
Jung echoes that while the new life is edging out the old, the tenants, especially the originals, have formed a close knit community and know each other by first names and are on speed dial with each other.
“Because of the parking constraints, we all double park against each other, so we are all just a phone call away,” he chuckles.
Shops to check out when visiting Jalan Dewan:
Salt and Paper ― upmarket designer stationery and gifts plus craft classes.
Ensera ― Art gallery featuring Borneo handicrafts and artifacts.
Orangutan Studio ― Tattoo and piercing studio, focuses on Borneon tribal inking.
Woo ― Specialty coffee, beautiful desserts, brunch and dinner in a minimalist vintage space.
Nook Café ― Cosy hangout for specialty coffee, waffles and sandwiches.
Chopping Block ― Modern Western restaurant serving lunch and dinner.
Biru Biru ― Open-air hangout with local-themed food, bar, and social events including open mic and salsa events.
The Workshop ― Fair trade coffee, wide Western menu and comfortable seating and lounging, including backyard for kids.
October Café ― Cosy café with selection of coffee and tea, Korean toasts and cakes.
Print Café ― Printers cum café serving local coffee drinks and waffle-based snacks.
Lucy’s Homestay ― Lucy is an institution, the oldest backpackers hostel on the street and Lucy’s home.
Borneo Backpackers ― Attached to Biru Biru, with open rooftop.
B&B21 ― One of the newer accommodation with dorms, single and double rooms.