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.

Former sushi operator fined over exploitation of workers

Sushi Sushi is looking for staff for its Toowoomba store. Photos from Facebook.

"Deliberate and calculated" exploitation of young Korean workers

Pigs really fly at family festival

NOVELTY RACES: The racing pigs were a feature of  last Sunday's Alstonville Family Festival.

Alstonville's Main St was closed for the community festival

Juvenile girl caught drink driving with carload of people

Checks revealed that she did not hold a driver's licence

Local Partners

Sam Armytage and Tom Cruise? Saaaaay what?

SAMANTHA Armytage has hit back at rumours she’s dating Tom Cruise, following reports the pair had hit it off during an interview on Sunrise.

Musical tribute to flood volunteers released

Songwriter honours flood volunteers who helped their neighbours.

Lismore songwriter Simon Thomas was moved by strangers' kindness

Karl Stefanovic's rant about Schapelle Corby 'a bit rich'

Karl Stefanovic is sick of hearing about Schapelle Corby.

Maybe he just wanted to make himself the story.

Could Schapelle be heading for Gladstone?

Australian Schapelle Corby is escorted by Bali Police at the parole office in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, 27 May 2017.

Schapelle's mother teases her free daughter could be Gladstone bound

Six things you never knew about Men in Black

Mushu the pug

It's been 20 years since Men in Black first hit cinemas

10 strange stories behind famous sex scenes

Khaleesi and Khal Drogo in a steamy moment.

Every set has their own way of filming sex scenes

HBO spills new details on Game of Thrones’ final season

Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season will only have six episodes.

New details about what to expect from the eighth, final instalment.

This is real estate's billion-dollar man

Bob Wolff at AREC with John McGrath of McGrath Real Estate.

They don’t call him the “Billion dollar man” for nothing

Man's amazing comeback from monster crisis

Pat O'Driscoll agents Penny Keating and Doug Webber sold 56 Agnes St, The Range at auction over the weekend.

NOT long ago, he sold his possessions to pay staff. Now he's back.

Here's your chance to carp about feral pests

Carp might by great fun to catch but they're destroying Australia's watercourses.

Science in the Pub looks at carp and coral trees

SNEAK PEEK: What new shopping centre is going to look like

Artist impression of the proposed redevelopment of the cinema and shopping complex on Jonson St, Byron Bay.

Mercato billed as regional NSW's most sustainable shopping complex

How Toowoomba house prices compare in Australia

For sale sign in front of home.

Here's what $700,000 will buy you in Toowoomba, Brisbane and Sydney

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!