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.

Logan's playground nearer completion

TEAM: Hayden Brosnan, Finn Mann, Brooke Roth, Marshall Lebron and Leanne Fordham (back) with Matt Stokes, Bekky Kinsalla, Dylan Blackwood, Dan and Nardia Dimech on Saturday.

There's a new addition to Logan's Adventure Playground

Power back in the Whitsundays

An expected power outage has wiped out electricity across the Whitsundays.

Ergon is reporting that power should be returned to all homes.

The 5 best burgers in the Whitsundays

Little Vegas was voted top 5 place for burgers in the Whitsundays

What was your pick for best burgers in the Whitsundays?

Local Partners

PCYC makes school holidays fun

WITH the summer school holidays spanning several weeks, it can be hard to keep kids constantly entertained.

Puppetry of the Penis secrets revealed ahead of show

The famed Puppetry of the Penis is coming to the Sunshine Coast for shows in Noosa and Caloundra.

WARNING: This interview contains adult themes and traces of nuts

Noll meltdown won't affect Gympie Oz Day concert

Shannon Noll

Photo Contributed

Shannon Noll is still expected to perform in Gympie next Thursday

The surprising problem police face at Woodford Folk Festival

STREET SCENE: Woodford Folk Festival 2016.

The biggest issue for police at Woodfordia is not what you'd expect

Chrissy Teigen likes her "soft" stretch marks

Stretch marks are no problem for Chrissy Teigen

Naomie Harris in the dark over Daniel Craig's future as 007

Naomie Harris has no idea if Daniel Craig will be returning as 007

REVIEW: Will Kasey Chambers' Dragonfly take off with fans?

Kasey Chambers’ new album Dragonfly gets 3.5 stars from Cameron Adams.

CHAMBERS is back with her 11th studio album.

Ed Sheeran wants Beyonce collaboration

Ed Sheeran wants to record a duet with Beyoncé.

Nicole Kidman squirms through questions on Keith

Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban

'God, you guys are personal ... that’s for him to talk about'

Mark Salling's child porn court date cancelled

Mark Salling's upcoming court hearing has been cancelled

By the water's edge

Secure your seachange

HOT PROPERTY: Money to spend on land, buildings

File picture.

Sale, leasing of industrial real estate picks up in Mackay

Collapsed Coast company could owe up to $5 million

Staff, ATO, landlords among those out of pocket.

Ipswich block of dirt sells for $582 a square metre

JUST SOLD: A property on the Brookwater golf course sold for a record-breaking $612,000.

Property smashed 2007 record by close to $100,000

Sunday auction for historical home

Former Catholic school sure to attract spirited bidding

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!