Joanna Funk

music, gardening and my dog

The Hakka Association in Kota Kinabalu

Yap Keng Vui and Chua Chun Kiong brought me to meet curator Allen Lin at the newly-built Hakka Association building in Kota Kinabalu.

“The Hakka Association has 13 districts in Sabah,” Allen said. “Penampang, Putatan, Kota Belud, Ranau, Labuan, Lahad Datu, Tawau, Sandakan, Keningau, Beaufort, Kota Kinabalu and Tenom.”

At the entrance is a massive head of a unicorn, made with a variety of materials.  When I posted this photograph on Facebook, Wah Keng Hyen (fierce vocalist for the only Chinese metal band in KK – For Aggressive Gentleman aka 4AG) shared a photo of himself with the man who made this unicorn head – Master Wee

During Chinese New Year when there are what is generically known as Lion Dances, the Hakka use a unicorn head, not a lion. Yap said, with the unicorn dance, there are no tympany drums, only crashing cymbals. So he can tell from a distance when the dance is Hakka.

Allen said that in China, the Hakka  Chinese were continually displaced and disenfranchised by the local incumbent group. As they were essentially nomads, they were very poor. Arriving in Sabah, they were fixated with the idea of educating their young. Two prominent schools in Kota Kinabalu were established by the Hakka Chinese: Institut Sinaran and Tshung Tsin secondary school

“Wherever you see this symbol, it means it has to do with Hakka,” said Chua. This one was on a ceiling. I also saw it high up on one of the outside pillars.

Inside, Chua picked up one of the displays.

“This is a pair of worker’s silk trousers, this one is about 130 years old. A lady in her 90s donated it to us, and it was worn for many years by her mother. It’s tough silk. See? I can roll it over…”

“Stop!”  I said in a panic. “It will disintegrate! What are you doing manhandling this stuff?  It should be behind glass displays. What if kids get hold of it?”

“Ah, this place isn’t open to the public yet.  We still have to raise more money to protect everything, before we can open the doors properly.”

Right! So I’m getting a private viewing. Cool! 

By the way, see the red writing on the white waistband of those trousers?  That’s the labelling from a flour sack! People were so poor that they used the material from flour and rice sacks to line their clothes.

Here is a round table made with bevelled parts, no screws or nails to attach the legs. The table is set with bowls. Apparently the Hakka were so poor, they ate and drank with bowls only. No cups and no plates.

Left to Right.  Yap Keng Vui, Chua Chun Kiong, Allen Lin and Tommy Chaw, a Hakka clan leader.

Here is a modern Hakka Chinese dictionary!

Wait.  I thought that the Chinese characters are always the same, and people of all dialects read the same language. It’s only when they read it aloud in different dialects that it sounds like separate languages.

No.  Apparently this is not true, and the Hakka language has different characters to the Mandarin language. Chua and Yap created a game, guess what this means – Hakka characters on the right. Lift the flap and voila, Mandarin characters underneath, on the left. The calligraphy was written by Yap.

This ruler has ten intervals marked.  But Allen, Chua and Yap don’t know what the measurements are called. They look almost like inches, but are not.  But that means China was decimalised before… decimalisation!

If anyone reading this post knows more about units of measurement in China, especially in Hakka culture, please contact me and I will pass your details to the curator. Your knowledge would be much appreciated.

Here are chairs made from recycled Sabah hard wood, famous for its heavy durable quality and beauty. They look quite ordinary but when I was invited to lift one… I couldn’t even shift it!

Allen and his father visit demolished homes and other places searching for hard wood, which his family recycles to create new works. His home is built with recycled hardwood.

Here is a newspaper piece about his hardwood recycling activities.

There is a lot of documentation here, but I would make this post very long uploading photos of the history of the Hakka people and the 25 year process it took to get this building started. When this place is open to the public, for sure I will help them announce it.  Here is one picture, which includes my great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Paul Funk (far left), part of the first Hakka Basel Christians to land in Kudat, Sabah.

Tai Pu is the original place of the Hakka clay building, according to Chua. Tommy Chaw in the picture above descends from this area.

The Hakka, as they moved around, built these clay fortresses.  The entire community lived within it,  the animals were below, and sentries could keep watch.

Worker’s sunhat.

Yap couldn’t figure out what this is.  It’s either for carrying a baby on your back, or attached to a chair.  What do you think.  Not very comfortable,  I can tell you.

Thank you Allen, Chua and Yap for bringing me to the Hakka Association in Kota Kinabalu. When you open to the public, I will post about that for sure, wherever I am at the time!

6 responses to “The Hakka Association in Kota Kinabalu”

  1. Hello Joanna,

    Thank you for your writing and sharing. I’ve been very interested in the migration story of Hakkas into North Borneo via the Immigration Scheme, and thus have read Delai’s and Danny’s book versions of it.

    As a very grateful younger generation of Hakka descendant, yet with my grandparents unable to recount stories of their past due to severe old age, I was hoping to be able to chat with someone and perhaps glean some verbal histories regarding that particular period.

    I was hoping if you could connect me with someone? Your kindness is much appreciated.

    1. Hello Sharon. The curator of the Hakka museum in this post is Allen Lin. I suggest you send him a message on Facebook. He has a company page on I’m sure he will be glad to discuss this with you further. Good luck and get back to me if you have further questions.

  2. Wow, I don’t even know half of this! Thanks Joanna!

    1. Hey thank for reading Heng! Well if you didn’t know some of this, and you’re Hakka, then I did something good.

  3. Very interesting indeed!!

    1. Thanks for visiting Paul! It’s good to touch bases again

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About Joanna

Joanna is British Australian. She worked mainly in financial news in London. In her forties she moved to her parents’ birthplace, Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, where she became a pianist in a hotel and wrote a blog about musicians. The blog became a book before Joanna came to Australia in 2012. In this blog she writes mostly about music, gardening, and trips to Sabah. Oh, and Wookie the Havanese.

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