Traders in Sandakan, once known as Elopura, want the city to be developed so that it will become vibrant again.
Sandakan, in the Suluk language, was known as ‘place that was pawned’. But the city centre here was once bustling, teeming with vibrant economic progress.
However, as traders and merchants shifted their business to other commercial zones in developed townships in the outskirts of the city the main city centre has become deserted. Many shop lots have been closed and office buildings left unoccupied for years.
“I don’t think anyone would want to open a business here unless there’s improved infrastructure," said Ha Yee Chong, 67, who owns a furniture shop.
"The economy has declined. The city centre is small and there is not enough parking space.”
Ha has been operating his shop for the past four decades. His furniture shop sits at the corner of Lebuh Dua street, overlooking a rundown 11-storey building.
Small shops such as telecommunication services, money-lending, sundry shops, goldsmith, hardware, and bundle clothing stores occupy the ground floor.
“This place used to be great and it was a timber hub. There were timber offices and businesses owned by timber companies. When businesses were shut down many years ago, the building was left abandoned and now looks haunted,” he said, pointing at the building.
To make the city vibrant again, Ha said there was a need to transform the abandoned buildings into a new business hub.
He said job opportunities need to be created so that young people can contribute to the economy and making the city lively again.
Asked why he remained in the city centre, Ha said the poor economy had forced rentals to come down.
He used to pay about RM5,000 monthly rent in the past but now only pays about RM2,000 per month.
He said rental prices in other nearby developed townships were expensive.
Apart from being a major business and trade centre on the east coast of Sabah, Sandakan is also a tourist attraction.
The major attractions within walking distance in the city centre are the Agnes Keith House and St Michael’s and All Angels Church, both which survived World War 2.
The city has a four-star hotel (Four Points by Sheraton Sandakan), which is adjacent and connected to Sandakan's biggest shopping mall, Sandakan Harbour Mall.
Sukiran Jukrala, 59, who works as a bus ticket operator, said while the coastal town has become a starting point for several nearby attractions, not many tourists were visiting the city itself.
“They may stop by but do not stay for long. That’s probably why we don’t always see foreign tourists walking down the street. I think it is important to find ways to encourage sustainable community and tourism business in this part of the city.
“We have (fruits and vegetables) market, but tourists are mostly interested to look around and they don’t really buy from the locals. The locals have to support each other,” he said.