The capital of Sarawak is one of the most elegant and tidy cities in Asia
Once ruled by English White Rajahs, Kuching, the capital of Sarawak in the island of Borneo, has a romantic and colourful history that might have come straight out of a Victorian novel. A young Englishman named James Brooke sailed on his ship Royalist to the wilds of Borneo in search of adventure and fortune and landed in Sarawak in 1839. At that time, Sarawak belonged to the Brunei Sultanate and the ruling Sultan was having a spot of trouble with pirates, headhunters and local rebels. Like a knight in shining armour, James Brooke with his ship armed with weaponry, came to the rescue of the Sultan. His valiant effort was well rewarded when he was made the first White Rajah of Sarawak in 1841 and thus, began the Brooke dynasty that ruled over Sarawak for a century over three generations.
There are various versions of how the city got its name but the most popular version is that it was named after mata kuching, a sweet fruit of the longan family with seeds that look like cats’ eyes. Kuching is also the Malay word for ‘cats’ and understandably, the feline is much celebrated in the city with kitsch cat statues standing sentinel in the city centre. Once a backwater town, it has come into its own and evolved into a picturesque city full of charm. It sprawls like a sleeping cat along the scenic Sarawak River and has been voted the cleanest city in Malaysia in recent years.
The Brookes brought law, administration and order to the country and developed infrastructures and trade. They made Kuching their capital and today their indelible legacy still lives on in the many heritage buildings that have been well preserved. The colonial air still lingers on in the whitewashed colonnaded edifices reminiscent of England. On the south bank of the river, the historic shop houses known locally as Main Bazaar still function as shops since the days of the White Rajahs.
Across the river on the north bank, the Astana, a white castellated palace built by Charles Brooke, the second White Rajah, is now the official residence of the governor of Sarawak. Next to it, Fort Margherita, a small fortress still stands as a historic sentinel on the hill overlooking the Main Bazaar. It has been earmarked to house the Brooke Gallery due to open in the summer this year.
Jason Brooke, a descendant of the Brooke dynasty is overseeing the project. The display will “focus on people, places and events that shape the state and a journey through the century of the White Rajah rule from 1841 till 1941,” he tells me. The project is developed by the Brooke Trust, a charity set up to preserve and share this unique legacy in partnership with the Sarawak Museum, the oldest in Borneo, founded by Rajah Charles Brooke in 1891. The Sarawak Museum is a treasure trove of the finest ethnological collection in Southeast Asia, along with colonial history and memorabilia. The Brooke era came to an end when the Japanese occupied Sarawak in 1941.
The once swampy land on the north bank has been developed into a new town called Petra Jaya with government buildings and housing estates. The most conspicuous building on this side of the river is the new Sarawak State Legislative Assembly building. The nine-storey building is crowned by an umbrella-like roof supported by nine colossal pillars and numerous arches to symbolise the “sovereignty of the people’s power and support of all the races in the state.” It does not blend with the historic landscape but it is a status symbol of modern Kuching.
Kuching has blossomed into a prosperous and beautiful city. The once dilapidated waterfront has been transformed into a lovely promenade with landscaped gardens and water features. Colourful sampans still ferry passengers across the river. It has become a truly gentrified city without losing its identity. Sarawak takes tourism at its own pace, with a strong emphasis on its rich colourful tribal culture and to some extent, the Brooke legacy and its colonial past. Some of the quaint coffee shops and food courts are still owned by the same families serving the same favourite staples, notably the ubiquitous Sarawak Laksa, a spicy rice noodle soup; kuay chap, a herbal soup swimming with braised bits of pork; kolok mee, the town’s signature dish of a special dry noodle flavoured with fried onion oil and garnished with char siu; and many other snacks so beloved by the locals.
In honour of its name, Kuching opened a museum dedicated to everything about cats in 1993. It is reputedly the first and biggest cat museum in the world housing over four galleries with 4,000 exhibits over an area of 1,035 square metres. If you like cats, it will be a pleasure to browse through the museum guiding you through the roles the feline species play in history, culture and pets of famous people. If you are not into cats, it might bring up the fur ball in you! It is inundated with cat statues, paintings, pictures, memorabilias, figurines, and stuffed cats; some grotesque, some beautiful, some funny but mostly kitsch in a cute way. There are stories of cats owned by famous people such as Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria, Margaret Thatcher, Albert Einstein and Abraham Lincoln, among others. Isaac Newton apparently not only discovered the law of gravity when an apple fell on his head, he was a feline lover who apparently invented the cat flap so his cats could come and go as they pleased.
There are fascinating and quirky facts about cats and the role they play in ancient and native cultures. For example, the ancient Egyptians held cats in the highest esteem for their role in rodent and pest control and worshipped a Cat Goddess called Bastet.The Japanese Maneki-neko or Beckoning Cat with its upright paw is a popular statue found mostly displayed in shops and business premises that is believed to bring good luck and fortune to a business. There is a spooky taxidermy section of stuffed domestic cats and rare wild cats such as leopard cats, marble cats and a clouded leopard. Entrance to the museum is free but there is a small charge to bring in camera (RM3/USD0.75) and video camera (RM5/USD1.25).
Malaysia Airlines operates several daily flights to Kuching from Kuala Lumpur and MASwings, its regional community airline arm, operates flights within Sarawak and Sabah.