Monday, January 08, 2007

Kuching - City of the eternal cats

Cat statues adorn the town centre in Kuching.
Unique buildings such as this one can be
found in various locations of the city.
Popular shopping mall in Kuching.
Aerial view of Kuching, Sarawak.
Islamic Court resembles an inverted pyramid.
Chinese gateway signifies the longstanding
between the Kuching Malay
and Chinese communities.

Photos: Mohammad Abdullah ;
Copyright © 2007 Brunei Press Sdn Bhd. All right reserved.

By Mohammad Abdullah

Kuching's history is also Sarawak's; the kind of adventure story that would be unbelievable if it were not true. Local bookshops are crammed with volumes old and new describing the reign of the White Rajahs in great detail. What follows is a brief summary.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, Sarawak was a typical Malay principality, under the reign of the Sultan of Brunei. Apart from occasional piracy on the coast and headhunting in the interior, Sarawak was peaceful. All of this changed when the Sultan of Brunei appointed a hugely unpopular Governor. The Malays and Bidayuhs of the Sarawak River revolted in 1836 and declared independence. An ugly guerrilla war ensued, which continued until 1839, when James Brooke, a young and wealthy Englishman, arrived on the scene in his well-armed yacht, The Royalist.

Brooke set himself up as a freelance adventurer and the Sultan's uncle immediately asked him to help put down the rebellion. Brooke readily agreed. The spears and muskets of the rebels were no match for a modern warship and the conflict soon ended. As a reward, the grateful Sultan made Brooke the Rajah of Sarawak in 1841. Brooke was not content to rule over a small riverside town, and set out to pacify his new kingdom, with the help of the British Navy. At the time of his death in 1868, Sarawak was a relatively peaceful territory covering the area between Tanjung Datu (which is now the Indonesian border) and Kuching.

James Brooke's nephew Charles, who succeeded him, was no adventurer like his uncle, but an excellent administrator and politician. He set up a proper system of government, gradually expanding his area of control until it formed the present day Sarawak. His legacy is everywhere in Kuching. It was he who built the Astana, Fort Margherita, the Courthouse, the Sarawak Museum and many other fine buildings. Charles Brooke died in 1917, and was succeeded by his son, Charles Vyner Brooke, who built on his father's achievements and improved the general administration of the state. In 1941 he set up a State Council to oversee the passing of new laws, bringing the first stirrings of modern government to Sarawak. The rule of the State Council was short-lived, as the Japanese invaded at the end of the same year.

Why is Kuching called Kuching? There was a story behind the naming of this eternal cat city. The first white man who set foot on Kuching saw an unusual animal from the other side of river. They had never seen this type of animal before. They had asked the local people what the animal was. The locals answered, "Itu pusa'", referring to 'cat' in the local dialect.

However, that was not why Kuching was called 'Kuching'. There is a small river, called the Kuching River which originates from Mata Kuching hill. This is where Kuching got its name, not from the river but from the hill.

However, the true origins of its name have never been clear. "Kuching" does indeed translate into 'cat' in Malay ("kuching" is an old Malay spelling, whereas the new official Malay spelling today would be "kucing", but both of them are pronounced the same), in specific reference to the domesticated cat, but it may actually be a variation of the Indian name for "port", which is "Cochin".

Apart from the possible unrecorded natives of the land, Kuching was first settled by Indian traders who set up base at Santubong. Artefacts of Hindu origin can today be seen at the State Museum. The city has never been remembered for having a significantly larger population of cats when compared to others. In fact, the numerous cat statues, the Kuching Cat Museum and other association with cats have been part of a modern effort of tourism. Many travel brochures refer to Kuching as "Cat City" or the "City of Cats". Otherwise, they hold no real meaning for the residents and are not considered by locals as romantic.

There are other theories which attribute the name to a fruit called "mata kucing" or "cat's eye"; it would seem that trees bearing this fruit used to grow in abundance by the river banks - where the city proper lies today.

Mata Kuching is a local fruit whose direct translation would be "cat's eye". However, due to the cumbersome name, the word 'mata' was dropped, and Kuching had since been used as the official name of the city.

The unique political system in Kuching is that the city has two mayors, with two governing councils administrating the city - one in the north and one in the south. The two mayors are appointed by the government of Malaysia.

The northern section of Kuching is run by the Dewan Bandaraya Kuching Utara (Kuching North City Hall) while the southern section is administrated by the Majlis Bandaraya Kuching Selatan (the Council of The City of Kuching South). There are those who believe that the divisions in power for the northern (primarily Malay and Bumi residents) and southern (primarily Chinese residents) districts came about due to ethnic reasons in the 1980s. There are also those who believe the administration is divided due to geographical reasons, as the northern and southern districts are linked by only two bridges spanning the Sarawak River.

The existence of two councils seem to create a healthy political administration system. The two councils are in healthy competition with each other, and hence the state of Kuching is run very smoothly.

The development of the Cat City is therefore constantly on the rise, and the general cleanliness of the city, immaculate.

Courtesy of: Borneo Bulletin

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