Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fires, Fireflies and Fairy Tales

Good question, Charles. Why was Kota Kinabalu called Api-Api? Actually, KK was known by a number of names besides Api-Api.

Let me tell you a short history of KK. The city started as a small fishing village. Because there are no written records of that very early settlement we don’t know when Bajau fishermen started a kampong there. However, we do know that except for a narrow strip of land hugging the foothills, there was little flat land in Api-Api. And we also know that the Bajaus of the old days were fond of building their houses directly over the water. So KK was just a cluster of attap-roofed dwellings built near or over the water.
Api-Api circa 1905

The areas all along the coast were covered with mangrove trees. I discovered only recently that there are thousands of varieties of mangrove and that the trees are natural protective cover along the coasts and river banks besides supporting wild life. They also act as filters which release clean water out into the sea.
Mangrove trees at KK Wetlands

Anyway, to go back to the question ‘why Api-Api?’ Some people say it was named Api-Api because of the many fires which destroyed the town from as early as 1901—just one year after a few shophouses had been built by Chinese traders who had relocated to KK after their shops were burnt in Pulau Gaya. (The NB Chartered Company started a trading post on the island in September 1882, hence the presence of shops.)

Some say it was because there were many fireflies in Api-Api. A version of this story went like this: A white man, just picking up some Malay words, was walking in the village when he saw this swarm of fireflies lighting the dark night and he exclaimed in his tottering Malay, “Api! Api!” The story about the sighting was spread by the white man’s companions. Thus the village got its name.

Don’t believe any of them! Didn’t the village have a name before the fires? Would the village be nameless if that white man had not uttered ‘Api! Api!’?
Avicennia, a type of mangrove

I tell you what I came across through my search for the answer to this question. A place is usually named by the people who lived in it or frequented it. And they usually choose a name which has something to do with the place… a natural landmark (a mountain, a big tree,) types of plants, etc… because these have been there from the very beginning. Remember Tanjung Aru, Pulau Gaya, Keningau?

So, my dear reader, KK used to be called Api-Api not because of fires or fireflies or some fancy fairy tales but because a type of mangrove called api-api (Avicennia) grew there in profusion.

The British renamed Api-Api ‘Jesselton’ after Sir Charles Jessel who was Vice Chairman of the NB Chartered Company. Now two questions for you: when was the town renamed Kota Kinabalu and why?


  1. Thank you for the esplanation, Tina.

  2. Hi Tina,
    I remember reading about something like this in your book but I'm glad you post this here. I was starting to forget :)