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.

Nationals will not stop Essential Energy job cuts

Essential Energy workers are facing forced redundancies within weeks, according to unions.

Nationals leader rules out blocking Essential Energy's 600 job cuts

Military-style shark first aid kits on stand-by for surfers

Specialised shark kits will be on stand-by when the Byron Bay Boardriders paddle out tomorrow.

"As club president I have a responsibility to protect members”

Why we need sharks and sharks need us

Tagging sharks is something done with care

Why we can't live without sharks

Local Partners

Commercial fishers get extension, but it makes no difference

THE deadline for NSW fishers to decide whether to buy back into the industry has been pushed back two months in what industry leaders call a pointless move.

Five things to do in Ballina this week

ICON: Renee Geyer is coming to Ballina.

Music, theatre, culture and more

Elvis is about to leave the building for good

FOR THE LAST TIME: Elvis impersonator, Craig Teys, will perform for the last time at the Slipway Hotel on December 3.

"I wouldn't change it for anything. But it is time to finish.”

WATCH: Local artists featured on ABC's iView

DOCUMENTARY: Behind the scenes of Createability short film Corey the Warrier are Yuin/Bundjalung man and painter Corey Stewart and filmmaker Isabel Darling.

Short films feature local artists living with disabilities

David Attenborough on facing his mortality

Sir David Attenborough in a scene from the TV special The Death of the Oceans.

Life without Sir David Attenborough is hard to imagine

Goooodbye Hamish and Andy (from our radios)

Hamish and Andy

The pair have been on air since 2006

Saying "I do" changed Shia's outlook on marriage

Shia LaBeouf has a new outlook on marriage since he tied the knot.

Singer tunes in to first movie role

Tori Kelly voices the character Meena in the movie Sing.

Musician Tori Kelly voices Meena the teenage elephant in Sing

Cricketing greats bring Aussie mateship to commentary box

Cricket commentator Adam Gilchrist.

ADAM Gilchrist enjoys the fun of calling the Big Bash League.

The dead help solve the case

Debut novel delivers on wit, violence and shock

Chinese locked out of Australian property market

The rules are different if you're a foreigner

The buyer was from China - the trouble started right there

Morrison signs off on new affordable rental model

Australia's Treasurer Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference after a meeting of the Council of Federal Financial Relations at Parliament House in Canberra, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016.

Scott Morrison signed off on development of a new financing model

Coast high-flyer's fight back from bankruptcy, $72m debt

Scott Juniper went from millionaire developer to declaring bankruptcy in2012, now he is back on top of his game again with new developments including this one in Coolum.

'Apocalyptic lending storm' causes financial collapse.

How your home can earn you big $$$$ this Christmas

This luxury Twin Waters home rents out over Christmas for more than $6000 a week.

Home owners earning thousands renting out their homes this Christmas

2000 jobs at multi-million dollar Ipswich project

INSIDE: Artist's impressions of the interior of the new Eastern Heights aged care precinct.

Sub-contractors needed to build $15m aged care facility

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!