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The Largest Chinese Unicorn (Qilin) Head of Malaysia

The largest Qilin head

As part of the activity of 1st Sabah / World Hakka Unicorn Convention 2015 (In Chinese: 沙巴世界客家麒麟观摩大会), 105 Unicorn (or Qilin) from Malaysia and all over the world (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Brunei, Singapore, Philippines) organised a parade in Kota Kinabalu City (KK) on 27 Mar 2015. The 100 Meter long parade and beating of cymbals and gongs definitely attracted the attention of all KK people, but the highlight is the giant head of Unicorn in front.

The Largest Unicorn (Qilin) Head of Malaysia
The huge Qilin head is 2.44 M (8 feet) high, 2.25 M (57 inches) in width and weighs about 40 to 50 Kg (88 to 110 pounds). Obviously it’s too big for Unicorn dance, so it’s placed on a pick-up truck, followed by hundred of Qilins that form its long body.

start of largest Qilin Unicorn parade
Pic: parade waited to start

This Chinese Unicorn parade set two Malaysian records: (1) Largest Unicorn head and (2) Largest number of Unicorn heads in a single performance. The parade started from Gaya Centre Hotel to Oceanus Waterfront Mall, which was about 300 Meters in distance.

You may watch the following video to see how big is the Qilin head and how long is the parade:

Unicorn dance troupes in parade
The parade took place between 8:30am to 10am on Friday. Because of the loud noise, many curious people walked out of their building to check out what was happening. Then everyone took out their smartphones excitedly and posted the photos to social media.

Unicorn (Qilin) Head and parade in Kota Kinabalu City
Lion dance always gets the most attention on the stage of Chinese cultural performance. This is the first time ever Qilin gets exclusive share of attention in a show. There were a few Northern Lions among them but not drawing much eyeballs. Hakka Unicorn Dance is listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage of China.

Huge Unicorn (Qilin) Head on pick-up truck
Please don’t think the head is something replicated from a plastic mold or 3D printer. It is totally made in traditional and authentic way by Sifu Wong (In Chinese: 黄立华师傅) from Sabah, who has played unicorn dance for over 50 years (since he is 7). He was used to repair lion heads for friends in the past, and based on this experience, he learnt actively and mastered the techniques of making unicorn heads.

Unicorn (Qilin) Head at KK Swordfish roundabout
Sifu Wong used rattan, bamboo and sticks to create the frame of this unicorn head. He even harvested the bamboo personally in Keningau, for the best material to make the perfect outline of the unicorn head. Then he sticked five outer and inner layers of paper on wooden frame with 300 sheets of 3×3 feet paper. This giant Qilin head took him 1.5 months to complete, in contrast to 8 – 10 days for an ordinary unicorn head.

side view of the big Unicorn (Qilin) Head
There is Chinese couplet written on both side of the head, which reads “客属布天下,家传归沙巴”. I don’t get the meaning totally. It probably means – Hakka is everywhere in the world; Our heritage is passed on in Sabah. Nearly 60% of Sabah Chinese is Hakka and Unicorn Dance is an important part of Hakka culture. That’s why KK is chosen as the venue for 1st Sabah / World Hakka Unicorn Convention. FYI, Lin Dan (林丹), Hebe (田馥甄), Chow Yun Fat (周润发) and Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) are Hakka.

rear view of Unicorn (Qilin) Head
Hakka also has a few sub-groups which have different dialects. For example, I can’t understand Taiwanese Hakka. Anyway, the objective of this Unicorn convention is to document the origin, story, history and design of the Hakka Unicorn, as a mean to preserve the traditional art of the Hakka community. Thank you Sabah Hakka Association and Sabah Dragon, Unicorn & Lion Dance Association (沙巴龙麒狮总会) for the initiative.

drone approaching Unicorn (Qilin) Head
Pic: a giant fly approaching big unicorn head? Drone is everywhere nowadays. I also want one. :-D

Though lion is more famous, it is ranked lower than Qilin in the family of Chinese deities. If lion and Qilin dance troupes meet on the street, lion must lower its head to give a salute to Qilin. Failure in doing so is an act of disrespect and may cause a fight. Well, that was old day, I’m not sure if such practice is upheld now.

Unicorn dance troupe from China
Pic: Unicorn dance troupe from China

Unicorn (Qilin) may look fierce because its dance is characterized by swift and powerful head movement, accompanied by intense beating of gongs and cymbals. In fact, Qilin has the kindest heart of all sacred animals. It doesn’t harm any life. It symbolizes benevolent and auspicious, and its presence will bring peace and prosperity.

longest Qilin unicorn parade in Sabah
Just a trivia. The fleet of Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) once sailed to East Africa and brought back two giraffes, which he claimed are Qilin. The emperor was so happy and declared the coming of “Qilin” was a sign of approval to good reigns of his kingdom (I would do the same if I were him).

The following are half-century-old photographs of Sabah’s Lok Yuk School unicorn dancers back in 1963.
old photo of Qilin Unicorn

old photo of Qilin Unicorn dance troupe

It’s cool that Unicorn dance doesn’t fade away as a forgotten part of Sabah history. Instead, our unicorn dance shines until today and even makes history.

Photos taken in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden of Kinabalu Park

Kinabalu Balsam

Kinabalu Park has one of the richest assemblage of flora in the world, with an estimate of 5,000 to 6,000 vascular plant species that cover the habitat from warm lowland forest up to cold alpine mountain zone inside a park area of 754 KM2. Though Kinabalu Park has become the most popular destination of Sabah, most tourists can’t even name 3 plant after a trip there. A short visit to its Botanical Garden will improve their travel experience considerably when they learn the wonders of our flora kingdom.

Mount Kinabalu and forest
Pic: Kinabalu Park is an UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its mega flora diversity

“The interest, and uniqueness of Kinabalu lies largely with its mountain flora.” -van Steenis, plant geographer

Liwagu Restaurant of Kinabalu Park
Pic: Liwagu Restaurant

direction sign to Botanical Garden
Pic: the direction sign to Mountain Garden

Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden (a.k.a. Mountain Garden) is completely concealed by dense trees and pretty much neglected by tourists. The “secret” entrance is located in the wood between Liwagu Restaurant and Kinabalu Hall (Dewan Kinabalu). Just follow a small trail to the forest from road side and look for the direction sign. Some locals may have visited the park a dozen time, but they never discover this garden. Like my father, he was so surprised to see this “hidden garden” and didn’t know it has existed since 1981.

entrance of Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden
Pic: entrance and ticket counter of Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden

The garden is about 50 Meters away from the sign and you will see the long stairway leading to the entrance and ticket counter. The surrounding here is quiet, in contrast to other park areas full with noisy tourists. I heard many bird’s chirping and squirrels skulking behind the leaves. The air is cooling and refreshing too, as the garden is about 1,520 Meters above sea level, with a mountain stream named Silau-Silau River (the mean temperature of the water is 16°C) running through it.

layout map of Botanical Garden in Kinabalu Park
Pic: layout map of Botanical Garden

The garden is only 1.4 hectares in size and there is a 700 Meters garden trail (see map above) with labels, so you can explore the garden on your own (but not so advisable). I strongly recommend you to join the 1-hour guided tour (at 9am, 12pm and 3pm daily) for a very small fee, or you will be disappointed and give it a thumbs down in TripAdvisor. Even botanists have difficulty to identify 25% of the flora in Kinabalu Park, so normal visitors won’t have much fun if they wander on their own.

umbrella tree
Pic: umbrella tree

Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden is not only about flowers, it also shows the endemic flora, fruits, ornamental plant, trees, local herbs and other special plant from Kinabalu Park. Though most plants are green, they are not made the same. A guide from Interpretative & Education Unit of Kinabalu Park will provide a 1-hour interpretive walking tour in the garden, in English or Malaysia language (depending on the nationality of the audiences). I forgot the name of my guide. Let’s call her Sumandak here. The first interesting plant that Sumandak presented was an Umbrella Tree, which is used by locals for birth control (female).

trees in Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden
The garden trail is paved by concrete and boardwalk. The place looks more like a natural forest than garden. While listening to the guide, we couldn’t help to turn our heads around to appreciate the beautiful lush environment of lower montane forest.

wild banana tree
Pic: wild banana tree

There are five wild banana species in Kinabalu Park. Their fruits are edible but contain plenty of oversized seeds, unlike the seedless banana that we buy from supermarket.

fruits of Medinilla Speciosa
Pic: Medinilla Speciosa, with pink pendulous inflorescences

Nicknamed as Showy Asian Grapes, Medinilla Speciosa fruits all year round and its ripe berry (in dark purple) is an important food for birds and wildlife. The fruit is edible with sweet taste and might protect you from eye diseases. Medinilla is also a popular landscaping plant in highland.

orchid nursery
It’s an enjoyable experience to hear Sumandak to explain the features of interesting plants. Everything said is in plain English, she didn’t use much scientific names and jargons that only botanists could comprehend (unless you request). You can ask questions too. Many plants are not pretty but very useful. Without an introduction from the guide, you won’t know the awesome things it does. It’s like knowing a new friend who looks low-key from outside but has charming personality.

orchid and pitcher plant in flower pot
Then we came to the nursery area of the rarest orchids and pitcher plants of Kinabalu Park. To prevent people to pluck them, the nursery is fenced, but you still can have a good look of them through the wire mesh. These fully protected species are highly sought-after items in black market.

Low's slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum lowii)
Pic: Low’s slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum lowii) is the only epiphytic slipper orchid of Borneo.

Sabah is well-known among orchid mania, because more than 1,200 orchid species are found in Kinabalu Park. In general, the blooming months for most orchids are between Sep and Dec. However, whatever day you visit, you won’t see them all blooms at the same time.

Rotchcild's Slipper Orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum)
Pic: Rotchcild’s Slipper Orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum) is the State Flower of Sabah and has many names such as “Aristocrat of all slipper orchids”, Gold of Kinabalu and Sumazau Orchid. It’s endemic to Sabah and a highly endangered species. You have better chance to see it flowering if you visit in Oct or Nov.

Laughing Orchid (Bulbophyllum lobbii)
Pic: Laughing Orchid (Bulbophyllum lobbii)

When gently shaken by breeze, the moving lip of Laughing Orchid appears like a naughty boy sticking out his tongue repeatedly. Actually the “tongue” is called labellum, which serves as a landing platform for visiting insects (pollinator). The blooming months of Laughing Orchid are Jan, May and Jun.

Sexy Lady Orchid - Stikorchidis sp.
Pic: The Sexy Lady Orchid or Dancing Lady Orchid. Too bad it didn’t flower during my visit, so I can’t show you how it earns this funny name.

pinhead orchid (Podochilus tenuis)
One of the highlight of this tour is sighting of Pinhead Orchid (Podochilus tenuis), the smallest orchid in Borneo (some says it can be the smallest in the world). Its tiny flower is about 2 MM across (note my finger next to it). The funny thing is – it grows on a tree near the entrance but none of us notices it. See, that’s why you need a guide or you will miss many things.

Besides the amazing orchids above, Jewel Orchid (Macodes sp.), Rabbit Orchid (Stikorchis sp.), Necklace Orchid (Coelogyne sp.), Phaius subtrilobus and many other orchids also grow in this garden.

flower of Begonia
Pic: Begonia

Begonia sp.
Pic: Begonia

Sumandak also showed us some Begonia flowers. There has been many publications about Begonia in recent years and new species was discovered in Sabah. Botanists are quite excited about Begonia but I don’t know why. May be you can tell me.

flower buds of ginger
Pic: flower buds of Alpinia havilandii, a ginger endemic to Mt. Kinabalu and Crocker Range

Who would relate colorful flower with pungent ginger? I’ve been hiking in many forest of Sabah and always impressed by variety of colors and shapes of ginger flowers in the wild. Without ginger flowers, the view of rainforest will be less spiced up. 30 species of non-edible ginger are planted in Mountain Garden.

hybrid of Nepenthes lowii and Nepenthes edwardsiana
Pic: hybrid of Nepenthes lowii and Nepenthes edwardsiana

We entered the pitcher plant section. Suddenly a tour guide broke the silence with a 50-Watt megaphone and introduced a hybrid of Nepenthes lowii and Nepenthes edwardsiana to her tour group. Nepenthes lowii and Nepenthes edwardsiana have highly localized distribution. To see them in the wild, you need to climb Mt. Tambuyukon (a dreadful long climb), so it’s something worth to shout about.

Nepenthes burbidgeae
Pic: bloated Nepenthes burbidgeae, the least common species in Kinabalu Park

Pitcher plant (or Monkey Cup) is a peculiar carnivorous plant which traps insects as food. Its genus name, Nepenthes is a Greek word meaning “removing all sorrow” (Go figure). The Mountain Garden has 5 species of them (all endemic to Sabah), including the most magnificent Nepenthes edwardsiana that has the most developed ribs on its peristome (rim), and Nepenthes rajah, the largest pitcher plant in the world (can hold up to 3.5 litres of water. Sometimes rat, lizard or frog is found drowned inside).

Tristaniopsis tree
The exposed smooth orange-brown trunk of “naked” Tristaniopsis tree will catch your attention. It is endemic to Kinabalu Park and its bark peels in scrolls constantly. Villagers use its bark as mosquito repellent.

mossy stick insect
Then Sumandak spotted something moving on the floor. It’s a well-camouflaged stick insect that blends perfectly into mosses. It was busy pressing its tail to the ground to lay eggs. Nobody would see it if it stayed motionless. You may see it in action in following video:

thorny rattan
Pic: thorny rattan

The largest of the mountain rattan is Plectocomia elongata (see photo above). Its thorns look so nasty that I want to stay 10 feet away from it. This rattan only flowers once in its life and it’s one of the 40 rattan species live in Kinabalu Park. Malaysian parents like to whip naughty kids with rattan, luckily they don’t use the species that has thorns.

yellow flower of Rhododendron
Pic: yellow flower of Rhododendron retivenium

Rhododendron is also called wild rose. There are 24 species of Rhododendron in Kinabalu Park (5 are endemic to Borneo). Observant climbers of Mt. Kinabalu would see at least 6 species along the trail to the summit, if they are keen to stop and smell the roses.

Bird Nest Fern / Crown Fern
Pic: Bird’s Nest Fern / Crown Fern, a common ornamental plant in Sabah.

608 species of fern are found in Kinabalu Park. Most ferns at or above the altitude of this garden are not found in other parts of Malaysia.

Other remarkable plants you can check out in Mountain Garden are Dawsonia Giant Hairy-cap Moss (world’s tallest land moss), fig, lipstick flower (Aeschynanthus), Kinabalu Balsam, bamboo, Kerosene tree (with combustible oily seeds), aroids (with heart-shaped leaf), wild raspberry, etc. As plants have different flowering and fruiting seasons, you won’t see exactly the same things every month. What I mention here is just a very small fraction of what Mountain Garden has.

Ticket & Info

Ticket Fee: RM5 (≈US$1.50) for Non-Malaysian, RM4 for Malaysian, (50% discount for visitor below 18 years old)
Opening Hours: 9am-1pm and 2pm-4pm daily (Last entry: 3:40pm, Gate closes at 4pm sharp)
Guided Tour: 9am, 12pm and 3pm daily
Location: Kinabalu Park HQ in Kundasang (see Location Map)
Tel: +60 88-8889103

Other Tour

Near to Mountain Garden, there is another nature tour starts at 11am daily. A guide will take you for a 1-hour walk in Silau-Silau Trail nearby, a great bird-watching area. If you are interested, you may purchase ticket and wait at Kinabalu Hall before 11am. The fee is RM3 (≈US$0.90) for Non-Malaysian and RM2 for Malaysian (50% discount for visitor below 18 years old).

There is a Video Show at the theater in ground floor of Liwagu Restaurant at 2pm every day (and 7:30pm on Fri-Mon & Public Holiday). Ticket fee is RM2 (≈US$0.60) for Non-Malaysian and RM1 for Malaysian.

Photos taken in Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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