The amazing hospitality of the Tawau people

We just came back from a short but very happy and memorable trip to Tawau to attend Ming-Yi and Yui Ping’s Tawau wedding reception this weekend.

We had our Subang reception last weekend, and I cannot help but draw some comparisons between the two, so please do allow me to share my experience.

Upon our arrival, the hotel shuttle was there to receive us from Tawau Airport.  Yui Ping had already made all the arrangements for us as our arrival time coincided with the yumcha (tea ceremony) at Yui Ping’s house.  The driver of the hotel van was very pleasant and polite.

The moment I stepped into the lobby of the LA Hotel, the receptionist greeted me with a smile and handed over the keys to our suite to me. I didn’t even have to say a word, she was all prepared and waiting for our arrival. Note: Yui Ping had already booked the suite, but had not had time to pay for it yet since he was so busy with the preparation for the wedding. Not paid yet, but there was no problem at all.

Over at our Subang reception, let me tell you what a totally HORRIBLE nightmare it was for our guests. We had booked 7 rooms for our out-of-town guests. The rooms were paid for in full TWO WEEKS prior to the wedding reception, as per the hotel’s policy. Our first guests arrived and the front desk could not locate the bookings. Luckily Yui Ping was present and he settled it but our guests (who were his parents and sister’s family) had to wait 20 minutes before they could be checked in. We had also booked an extra bed in one of our rooms but the bed was not there. Yui Ping had to call THREE times before the bed was finally sent up, grudgingly. Remember, all already paid for in full two weeks earlier.  

Next, it was the arrival of the next two groups of our guests who do not speak English. LUCKILY I was present this time. AGAIN, the front desk could not locate our bookings (which had already been paid for in full two weeks ago). They asked for our confirmation number and said they had to check with the restaurant if we had paid for the rooms or not. What?? This was conveyed in front of our guests who had to wait until 15-20 minutes before they finally found our booking. Our guests, who even though spoke no English, kept asking us if there was anything wrong. It was very embarrassing for us. 

I was horrified by the experience and told the front desk that we have another 3 groups of guests arriving later on that day, so is this nightmare going to repeat again especially when there would be a shift change at 3pm? The front desk (manned by staff who were rude, inefficient and arrogant) said they would “pass the word down” to the next team on duty. 

Next to arrive was my well-travelled 87-year old aunt from Ipoh who took a train down by herself. Make no mistake, this is no ordinary 87-year old; she just recently travelled all over England to 6 different cities all by herself, unaccompanied, and she speaks impeccable English. What do you know, she had no trouble checking in and even had her room changed because the first room given was unsatisfactory! So I thought all would be well.  

But that was not so. Our final 2 groups of guests arrived and again, the front desk could not locate their bookings. This time, luckily I was around and let me tell you, I have not, in all my life, encountered such a offensively RUDE and shockingly unprofessional staff in the hospitality industry than the lady on duty at the front desk this time. I practically had to engage in a “war” of words with her and by then, I was totally exhausted, more out of shock than anything else – shocked that anyone this rude can be at ANY hotel’s front desk! This was on the eve of our Subang wedding reception.    

I made a complaint immediately on that day itself and the next day, the director of sales came to see me (this was the morning of our wedding reception). He promised me he would get back to me on this “in few days”. I also wrote a formal letter of complaint to the general manager of the hotel but I have yet to hear from either of them. I am still waiting. It’s been 8 days now.   

THAT was our Subang experience as far as the hotel was concerned. Luckily the restaurant experience was a much better one. And the only reason we chose this hotel was that it was located in the same building as the restaurant thereby making it convenient for our guests. Trust me, I will NEVER in my lifetime patronise this hotel again. NEVER. EVER. AGAIN.  

Back to Tawau now. After our arrival at the hotel, we walked to a nearby kopitiam for lunch.

The staff in this kopitiam were Sabah locals. They were amazingly friendly, very pleasant and polite. They were also patiently “training” a young Chinese boy to be a waiter. We later concluded that this young boy was must the owner’s son. The sincere inter-racial harmony that we saw was so, so heartwarming. It’s just not something that you would see over here in Peninsular Malaysia.

The servings were, needles to say, so generous. Two delicious meals and four drinks costs us less than RM30! I could not believe it. We stayed back to enjoy more drinks and for me, it was just to look at the wonderful relationship between the Sabah locals and the Chinese boy. I just needed to see more of it because you don’t get to see such sincerity or harmony over here. It was genuine. One could feel the warmth.

Now, by afternoon, it was time to dress up the bride!

Earlier on in the morning, Ming-Yi wore the traditional kua for the tea ceremony. She had brought her kua (rented from here) to Tawau but when they had a pre-wedding meet with the make-up artist, she offered to lend her kua to Ming-Yi for free.

For free? Yes, for free. Just pay RM35 for the laundry charges. That’s all.

This is the beautiful kua lent by the make-up artist in Tawau…for free.

That’s Doraemon, Yui Ping’s cat in Tawau.

Doraemon shares his food with a neighbourhood (stray) ginger cat.

Needless to say, the make-up artist charges in Tawau is much, much lower than that in the Klang Valley (and no, we are not complaining as we know the cost of living is different). But over the Tawau, when you book for make-up services for the bride, it automatically includes a pre-wedding trial, two make-up sessions for the bride and free make-up and hair-do for the mother of the bride (yes, that’s me) and free hair-do for the groom as well! So three make-up artists will be present to attend to the bride, the mother of the bride and the groom!

As for the photographers, Yui Ping and Ming-Yi had booked them for the day to do the yumcha (tea ceremony) and the dinner. Since there was time before the yumcha, the photographers offered to take them to a local temple for an extra photo shoot – for free!

A free photo shoot at the local temple.

All in white, for the dinner.

I have short hair, so no hair-do was necessary!

This bouquet is special – Yui Ping bought it for Ming-Yi for their registration earlier this year. It’s a paper bouquet as Ming-Yi does not believe in “killing flowers”. Atta girl!

We were ready by 6pm, so we went down the lift to the lobby of the hotel to head for the restaurant. By the way, the lift was very fast too. The Subang hotel lift? Wait for at least 5-10 minutes before it reaches you! 

At the lobby, a group of local guests had just arrived and upon seeing us, very naturally and spontaneously, they clapped and cheered!

Such warmth and friendliness!! Total strangers, too!

We got to the restaurant and it was beautifully decorated. It was a small Chinese restaurant and there was going to be 14 tables for our reception. One would think that the normal Malaysian “rubber time” would apply in Tawau, being a small town?

Nope, wrong!! All the guests arrived punctually and dinner started on time. The restaurant also provided decorations and a cake.

Over at our Subang reception, all our guests arrived punctually too! So, goodbye to the infamous Malaysian “rubber time” for Chinese weddings! But our Subang restaurant did not provide any decorations. However, thanks to a very committed and dedicated restaurant coordinator, she went out of her way to provide a stalk of rose for each table, partly also to compensate for the HORRIBLE experience I had with the hotel’s front desk. In fact, she offered to give free desserts on the eve of the wedding for all our 22 guests at the hotel, but I politely declined as it really was not her fault at all. It was the hotel front desk, not the restaurant, but the two are under the same management. The restaurant was excellent. The hotel was…..(I have no words to describe).    

The Tawau restaurant provided decorations and a cake. The restaurant manager acted as emcee too. Let’s not compare the price of both restaurants now since the cost of living in Tawau and Subang are different. Needless to say, of course it was much cheaper in Tawau.

Right in the middle of this photo is Yui Ping’s very happy and cheerful 88 year-old grandmother who flew in from Kuching to attend the wedding. She is a strict Chinese vegetarian (no eggs, no garlic, no onion) so the restaurant made special vegetarian dishes for her and also for another vegetarian guest, served specially for them, during the dinner (while preparing the wedding menu for all the other guests)

As for the restaurant booking, they allow on-the-spot cancellations too. You just pay for the number of tables you occupy on that day. Never mind if you have booked for more. If you need extra tables on the spot, they can cater for that as well! Over in Subang, the number of tables had to be confirmed much earlier and cancellations must be made one week prior. Hence, on that day, because of guests who did not turn up, we had 3 extra (unoccupied) tables (which is charged and must be paid for). In all fairness, the restaurant allows us to redeem for two tables within 1 month, but it would have to be the same menu. So yes, we are going to have two feasts before the end of this month! 

Dinner ended at about 9pm and as we were leaving, other restaurant guests (yes, total strangers) came to greet and congratulate us! Such warmth and genuine friendliness again. These are complete strangers!! They were happy for us and wanted to express their joy too!

I remember over at Subang, we had booked the entire restaurant for our reception (24 tables) so a placard was placed outside which said, “Closed for private function” on that day. Quite a number of people came to the restaurant, read the placard and walked off. I was standing right there waiting to greet our guests. No one said a word nor was there even smile from these strangers who walked away. Granted, why should they smile, right? They don’t even know us.

Well, perhaps we can now learn a thing or two from the people of Tawau on hospitality and friendliness then? Won’t kill you to smile, would it? 

We spent the night at our very comfortable suite (no 810) at LA Hotel. The suite was perfect.

Over in Subang, besides the horrible experience in the checking in process, the rooms were also less than satisfactory. I shall not elaborate. My well-travelled 87 year-old aunt can tell you why it was less than satisfactory. 

Tawau has its own town newspaper. The Tawau people will make announcements (like marriages, graduations, etc.) in the newspaper – it’s a tradition in Tawau. It’s so that everyone knows what is happening and can share in the joy and happiness.

Oh, Subang also has its own newspaper, but er….it is controlled by a certain political party. One would think that even though it is controlled by a political party, perhaps the purpose of the newspaper would be to serve the people? Hah…think again! Remember when Jon Tham cycled for us to raise funds earlier this year? My friend tried to get the news into our Subang newspaper so that we could raise more awareness about our animal welfare work (or raise a bit more funds) and his request was rejected outright! Why was it rejected? I was told the reason. I shall not elaborate here. Go figure! So much for a “community” newspaper!!  

The next morning, I woke up at 3.30am. I wished I had a computer then and there so that I could write all my experiences down before I forgot them. I could not help but draw parallels (or more correctly, “unparallels”) between Subang and Tawau. I just had to write everything down before I forgot what I perceived and more importantly, how I felt. But I did not bring my computer with me.

Maya Angelou — ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

Outside, by 4.45am, the azan sounded.

Outside the window of our suite, one can see a big mosque and an even bigger St Patrick’s church (the church and a separate building for the church’s taska (nursery)) side by side.

Will you get to see this over in Peninsular? You tell me. 

St Patrick’s Church is called “Rumah Doa”.

Yes, there is a service in BM too.

We saw local girls in traditional attire performing a dance inside the church, to local Sabah music. I heard from a Sabahan friend that over in Sabah, if there is a church wedding, all guests attend regardless of one’s religion. There is no taboo whatsoever. Having different religions within a family is a very common phenomenon in Sabah too. All festivities are celebrated…together. In harmony.

We had buffet breakfast at the hotel and at the entrance, there was no one checking or questioning you if you are a guest at the hotel. It’s all about trust and respect.

Over in Subang, at that hotel for buffet breakfast….(I shall not comment – it is yet another horrible story). 

On board the aircraft on the flight back, a local Sabahan boy sat next to my husband. He drew out the table for my husband when the food arrived and even offered to open the lid of the container for him! And after we finished eating, he collected both our empty containers and utensils and placed them on his own table so that we would be more comfortable. A total stranger! Such kindness!

We only stayed for 36 hours in Tawau for this trip (can’t leave the cats for so long but Jia-Wen and Sihui took good care of them!), but it was such a wonderful and memorable experience, not only because it was our daughter’s wedding reception, but because of the wonderful hospitality and warmth of the people of Tawau and the realisation that indeed, there is another way to live our lives – one of harmony, friendliness, benevolence and respect to everyone.

To the people of Tawau (and I was told, the whole of Sabah) – please lead the way. If Sabah chooses to be its own independent country one day, they have nothing to lose.  We definitely have a lot to lose!