Friday, October 7, 2011, 00:00
The city of cats and much more
Many would swear that it is the most attractive city in Malaysia.
It possesses almost everything that one could ask of an exciting city great art, public spaces, and commanding structures like the Borneo Convention Center and Sarawak State Library.
The city also retains the relaxed and indolent charm of a backwater capital.
It is hard to guess that not so long ago the island of Borneo (now divided into three countries; Brunei and the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah in the north, and Indonesias Kalimantan in the south) was covered by wild tropical forests that seemed impenetrable, sheltering countless species of wild animals.
It was also the place from where warrior tribes and headhunters menaced daring adventurers coming from the rest of Asia and beyond. So Borneo remained off-limits for centuries, penetrated only by a few explorers.
Sarawak used to be part of the mighty sultanate of Brunei. But eventually, it was ceded to James Brooke, the British adventurer who helped defuse a rebellion against the sultan and thereby, became the first White King Rajah of Sarawak, ruling it till his death in 1868.
Kuching became the capital of Brookes personal empire, where he unleashed his imagination, his genius and his unbridled thirst for power.
In his book Sarawaks Colourful History, historian Alan Spencer describes the White Rajahs adventures after the sultan granted him land in the far west of Borneo in 1841. A single river and its tributaries provided the only way through the dense jungle, and James Brooke had to encounter the fierce headhunting Sea Dayak warriors at its mouth before being able to base his headquarters upriver at the village of Kuching.
What followed were countless wars fought with the powerful tribe of the Iban headhunters for access to the Sarawak River.
Brooke kept pushing the Iban and other tribes further inland, continuously expanding his empire. Thats how Sarawak was born.
As news of this remarkable area began filtering out to the British in adjoining areas, Sarawak became better known, and Brooke became known as the White Rajah.
In 1850, the US recognized Sarawak as an independent state and the British followed suit in 1864. After his death, his nephew, Charles Anthoni Johnson Brooke, took over the crown, to be followed by his son, Charles Vyner Brooke.
The end of this private empire came with World War II and the arrival of the Japanese army. But not before the White King had managed to build, in the middle of the jungle, his magnificent Victorian mansions and administrative buildings.
He also introduced railroads (now abandoned), and steamers, built fortifications and passed laws against piracy and headhunting.
Kuching is to Southeast Asia what Manaus was to Brazil and South America, though on a smaller scale.
Both cities experienced the rubber boom in the 19th and 20th centuries and both were shaped by some megalomaniac ambitions.
Kuching also feels like a Chinese city. According to the 2006 census, of its 579,900-strong population, 220,400 were of Chinese origin, making them the citys largest ethnic group.
The Chinese are also the majority at the center of the city. There is a large Chinatown which is a fascinating medley of cultures, temples, and eateries, architectural styles and services that originated from all over the Chinese mainland. There are attractive cultural halls, restaurants, tea rooms, and the professionals include locksmiths and even artisan coffin makers.
Phang, a curator at the Chinese History Museum, is proud of the museum as well as Kuchings Chinese heritage.
The labels of the exhibits in this museum are in Chinese because this is a Chinese history museum, he says.
We were able to renovate and transform this building to its present state, thanks to the support from the local Chinese communities. Used as the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce in 1950, it was originally the Chinese Court of Rajah Charles Brooke, inaugurated on July 1, 1912, he adds.
The Chinese here speak Hokkien, Hakka and Foochow as well as other dialects, including Cantonese, Teochew, Hainanese and Henghua.
Mandarin is understood and spoken by almost all Chinese in Kuching.
Kuching is a city of immigrants. In the 19th century it used to attract the Chinese and Indians trying to escape the poverty in their own countries and today, it is a magnet for millions of Indonesians across the border.
Juliana, an Indonesian kitchen help at the Four Points by Sheraton Kuching hotel, says she loves her life in Kuching.
It has been two years since I began working and living in Kuching, she says. Im from Indonesias Pontianak city. My husband is also working here. But unfortunately, we had to leave our three children in Pontianak with my parents. They go to school there.
In Pontianak, she says, it was almost impossible to get a job, even poorly paid ones that paid $2 to $5 a day.
Here I get at least $240 a month, not counting overtime, she says. The city is very comfortable, the people are kind to us and our life is much better than in Pontianak. If it werent for the children, I would be very reluctant to go back home.
Many foreigners would like to make Kuching their first or second home. To protect the local real estate market, the government allows foreigners to buy houses only if the price of the property is above $100,000.
Kuchings architectural heritage for many, it is more impressive than Kuala Lumpurs can be savored from the magnificent Old Courthouse which was built in 1874.
The Istana (palace), which was built in 1870 by Brookes nephew Charles, the second White Rajah, as a wedding gift to his wife Margaret, is another interesting sight.
A must-see is the Tua Pek Kong Chinese temple, a tribute to a Hakka clan member, Zhang Li, who landed in Penang in the 18th century after being shipwrecked. Today, Tua Pek Kong is worshipped by Malaysian Chinese throughout the country.
Kuching is also home to several first-rate museums. They include the Sarawak Museum, designed with large outdoor parks and resting areas, a gift shop and an elegant caf, the Art Museum exhibiting the works of both local and foreign artists, the Museum of Natural History, Sarawak Islamic Museum, Sarawak Timber Museum, Sarawak Textile Museum and the Chinese History Museum housed in a beautifully restored building on the riverfront.
There is also the enormous and amazing Kuching Cat Museum. A treat for cat lovers and people interested in feline history, this museum boasts over 2,000 exhibits on the history and beliefs surrounding cats.
These include a mummified Egyptian cat dating back to 3,500 BC, and the only stuffed specimen of the worlds rarest cat, felis badia, which lives in the jungles of Borneo.
It makes sense for the city to have its own cat museum.
After all, it is the city of cats.
Kuching in Malay means cat. While some historical accounts claim that the name is derived from Cochin, which means a port in Chinese, a colorful legend going back to the days of James Brooke offers a different explanation.
Brooke apparently kept pointing at the settlement across the river, asking about its name. Whoever he asked mistakenly thought he was pointing at a passing cat and according to the legend, thats how Kuching got its name.
Also home to the oldest planetarium in Malaysia, Kuching boasts enormous public projects like the Sarawak State Library, Borneo Convention Center Kuching and an international airport with flights to Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Singapore, Brunei and elsewhere.
Cultural events take place every year both in the city and in the Sarawak Cultural Village (see sidebar). Since 1997, Kuching has been hosting the Rainforest World Music Festival, one of the largest music events in Malaysia. Performers and spectators from all over the world congregate during this annual event.
It is also often voted the cleanest city in Malaysia. Pollution is almost non-existent, except for the smoke from forest fires and land clearing across the Indonesian border. The Sarawak River is delightfully clean.
The other attractions include the river walk with paths winding around the old trees while the main promenade follows the curve of the river. Small traditional ferryboats connect both banks of the waterway and as one walks, the international hotels like the Hilton and Pullman eventually give way to heritage buildings, craft shops, galleries and historical fortifications.
Across the river are traditional villages built on stilts. The overall effect is stunning.
And Kuching welcomes everybody. It is one of the most interesting cities in Southeast Asia. On top of its high-art institutions and centers of learning, there are also dozens of nightclubs, bars and pubs.
Here, culture evolves spontaneously, and its diversity is natural. Its never imposed.
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