Travel

The curious charm of cat city

A giant cat statue - sporting a green ribbon to celebrate the end of Ramadan - guards the entrance to Kuching's Chinatown. Photo / Jim Eagles
A giant cat statue - sporting a green ribbon to celebrate the end of Ramadan - guards the entrance to Kuching's Chinatown. Photo / Jim Eagles

FOR about 100 years, the city of Kuching, capital of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, was ruled by the legendary White Rajahs. Now it seems to pay homage to the domestic cat.

Take a tour of Kuching and you certainly see the more normal sights, such as a brilliantly decorated Chinese temple, an elegant pink mosque, traditional Malay stilt houses sharing the banks of the Sarawak River with a magnificent new state Parliament, a lively market and a Chinatown.

But it's cats and the memory of the White Rajahs - the three generations of Britain's Brooke family - which dominate.

The rajahs are the easiest to explain. The first, James Brooke, was given a huge slice of Borneo by the Sultan of Brunei as a reward for saving his kingdom from rebellious Dyak tribes, and he set himself up as its ruler in 1841.

Despite a spectacular construction programme fuelled by Sarawak's oil and gas riches, the highlight of the city is still the Astana - the elegant white palace on the banks of the river built in 1870 by the second White Rajah, James' nephew Charles Brooke, as a wedding gift to his wife.

The palace is not open to the public because these days it is the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak, but visitors can explore the superb gardens.

I spent a pleasant half-hour sitting on the bank opposite, sipping a cool drink from one of the riverside stalls, watching the little water taxis zip to and fro, admiring the palace's old-world charm and dreaming of a time when a young Englishman could make himself into a rajah.

If James was the city's founder, Charles seems to have been its builder, transforming Kuching into a modern western city with all the latest amenities of the time.

The plaque outside the Sarawak Museum - described by our guide, Taylor, as "one of the finest in Southeast Asia" - said it was built by Charles Brooke in 1881 to display the wildlife and handicrafts of Sarawak.

It certainly does that, displaying everything from a headhunter's house complete with skulls to an orangutan skeleton, a collection of blowpipes and a display of Borneo's hugely beaked hornbills.

On a poignant note, there is also a collection of swords used by the White Rajahs, including a Japanese sword presented to Vyner Brooke, the third rajah, who lost his kingdom to the invading Japanese in 1941.

After the war, Vyner returned to Sarawak and ruled for a further 75 days before bowing to the inevitable and ceding Sarawak to the British Crown. It later became one of the states of the Federation of Malaysia.

But if all that was straightforward, discovering why a large statue of a white cat, dressed in green, occupies pride of place in the heart of the city, was not.

Taylor told us it had been erected by the council of the Chinese-dominated South Kuching - the Malay and Indian-dominated north Kuching is a separate city - and was wearing green to mark the end of the Muslim festival of Ramadan.

"The cat is dressed in different costumes when there are different festivals," he said.

"So now it wears green for Islam, but if you come at other times you will see it wearing Chinese, Malay and Indian costumes."

Okay, but why a cat? And how come the boundary between the two cities held an impressive monument with cars carved on a column and four more cats guarding its base? And why was there a massive sculpture of a family of cats near the main market?

Kuching, Taylor said, was named after a fruit called cat's eye, which tastes like lychee. So the cat became the symbol of Kuching. Or at least I think that's what he said.

There was mumbling in our bus as we headed back to our ship, Orion II, berthed in the Sarawak River. Surely there must be more to it than that? If there was, Taylor didn't know.

I've since looked it up. According to Wikipedia, the city was originally known as Sarawak, but in order to distinguish it from the wider province, Charles Brooke named the place after the tidal river, Sungai Kuching, which flowed from the nearby hill of Bukit Mata Kuching, where there was an abundance of a fruit called green longan, but popularly known as mata kuching or cat's eye.

So Taylor was right.

>> Read more travel stories.

Topics:  borneo, travel, travelling


Stay Connected

Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.

BEACH SAFETY: Can you reduce your risk of a shark attack?

Yesterday's attack reminded us that sharks are still out there, despite a quiet year so far. There are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of an unwanted encounter.

Some tips and helpful apps to help you be safe

Encounters on stage at Lennox Head

COMING SOON: Dancers Elizabeth Venn and Tess Eckert are part of Encounters, the upcoming performance by SPRUNG!! Integrated Dance Theatre Inc.

By Sprung!! Dance Theatre Inc

Local Partners

Fund Ballina's ocean pool in the shark strategy: Councillor

THE failed shark barrier could pave the way for an ocean pool, which has "wide community support".

Shark attack victim to remain in hospital

A photo of Ballina surfer Cooper Allen recovering in Lismore Base Hospital shared by his friends on social media

Ballina surfer attacked by a great white shark yesterday morning

BEACH SAFETY: Can you reduce your risk of a shark attack?

Yesterday's attack reminded us that sharks are still out there, despite a quiet year so far. There are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of an unwanted encounter.

Some tips and helpful apps to help you be safe

Encounters on stage at Lennox Head

COMING SOON: Dancers Elizabeth Venn and Tess Eckert are part of Encounters, the upcoming performance by SPRUNG!! Integrated Dance Theatre Inc.

By Sprung!! Dance Theatre Inc

PHOTOS: Teen attacked by shark on Ballina beach

Multiple people attended the scene at Lighthouse Beach where a shark attack took place around 9:30 on Monday morning. Photo Marc Stapelberg / The Northern Star

Photos from the scene of the attack

It's time to get your shorts on the big screen

ANIMATED: Citizen To Activist, an animation by David Lowe and Eve Jeffrey, won the Jury Award for best Short Film at Flickerfest 2015 - Byron AllShorts.

Entries for Flickerfest 2017 and Byron All Shorts are now open

Burns Point: The blessings of filming a movie in Ballina

DRAMA: Actors Ron Kelly, John McNeill and Brad McMurray on a scene of Burns Point, filmed near Ballina.

Chris Blackburn talks about his feature film Burns Point

'Baby' recreates famous Nirvana cover shot 25 years later

The baby from Nevermind album has recreated the iconic cover shot.

PREVIEW: Luke Cage origin story is a strong addition to MCU

Mike Colter in a scene from the TV series Marvel's Luke Cage.

MIKE Colter stars as latest Marvel superhero to get his own series.

Kate goes down fighting in heated Survivor elimination

Australian Survivor contestant Kate Campbell.

YOGA teacher's 'good guys' alliance fails to get off the ground.

Emily Blunt's (almost) singing career

Emily Blunt nearly became the British Britney Spears.

Angelina is blocking calls from Brad Pritt

Angelina Jolie has reportedly blocked Brad Pitt's number.

Encounters on stage at Lennox Head

COMING SOON: Dancers Elizabeth Venn and Tess Eckert are part of Encounters, the upcoming performance by SPRUNG!! Integrated Dance Theatre Inc.

By Sprung!! Dance Theatre Inc

UPDATE: Former rodeo champ's sale rained out, now back on

Larkhill local Ken Consiglio is having an auction of most of the things on his property.

'People kept showing up and we had to turn them away'

Couple build their own 'tiny house' for $45k

Holly Bowen and Oli Bucher built their "tiny house" themselves, only hiring a plumber and an electrician. Photo/supplied

The house, which is built on a trailer and can be towed.

Sunshine Beach property breaks real estate record

The property overlooks Sunshine Beach, as the backyard lawn meets the sand.

Sunshine Beach mansion sale smashes real estate record

SOLD: Historic hotel finds new owner

Post Office Hotel Grafton

Photo Adam Hourigan / The Daily Examiner

Pub in new hands and heading in a brand new direction

Peppers Airlie Beach put on the market

ON THE MARKET: Peppers Airlie Beach is being for recievership sale by CBRE Hotels and PRD Nationwide Airlie Beach.

Peppers Airlie Beach is being offered for sale.

3500 jobs on the way with new $950 million resort

Residential, tourist, community, and open space on Hummock Hill Island.

PROPERTY developers plan to begin construction next year.