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.

Upgrade to prevent letter theft

The E from the Welcome to Airlie Beach sign was  stolen.

Police have arrested the man caught with Airlie's missing 'E'

Fantastic Beasts a whimsical hit

PERFECTLY CRAFTED: Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston in a scene from the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

Fantastic Beasts hits the Proserpine Entertainment Centre this week

Whitsunday resorts make global top 10

RELAX: Qualia Resort came in 9th place in a list of The World's Most Drop-Dead Gorgeous Bathrooms.

The Whitsundays has two of the best bathroooms in the world

Local Partners

Fantastic Beasts a whimsical hit

THERE'S a phrase those with wizarding powers use regularly in this mightily impressive new JK Rowling adaptation.

Man builds playground entirely out of packing tape

Artist Eric Lennartson is in the process of completing his huge tape sculpture at the Ipswich Art Gallery.

VIDEO:And here's where you can play on it.

Countdown to Woodford Folk Festival begins

ECONOMIC BOON: Woodford Folk Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.  Photo Contributed

The first larger-than-life inhabitants have stepped into Woodfordia

'I need to do what I can': 65km walk for cancer patient

Karlee Robinson is walking from Caloundra to Noosa for her cousin Aaron Parker, who has terminal brain cancer.

What do you do when someone you love has terminal brain cancer?

Brad Pitt bids to keep custody battle private

Brad Pitt will go to court to keep his custody battle private

Fantastic Beasts a whimsical hit

PERFECTLY CRAFTED: Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston in a scene from the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

Fantastic Beasts hits the Proserpine Entertainment Centre this week

Sia has split from her husband

Sia has split from her husband Erik Anders Lang.

Amy Schumer thanks Barbie trolls for hateful comments

Amy Schumer is in the lead role for the new Barbie movie

Shannen Doherty's husband is suing for destroyed sex life

Shannen Doherty's husband is suing her former manager

Island adventure has many twists

FRIENDSHIP: Mak and Robinson Crusoe

REVIVING an old school classic film can be quite a risky endeavour.

Ipswich City Properties asset portfolio retains its value

Ipswich City Council Administration Building, South Street, Ipswich. Photo: Claudia Baxter / The Queensland Times

New website launched by Ipswich City Council

Iconic strip offers irresistible sights

HOME: Ray White Real Estate agent Steve Marks welcomes people to check out the best view in the Whitsundays.

Secure an ocean-side block from just $295,000

INSIDE STORY: The highlights of your $150 million CBD

GRAND PLAN: The highlights of the Ipswich CBD redevelopment and where they will be located.

Work on city heart's radical transformation to begin next year

VOTE IN OUR POLL: Sand mine opponents face serious dilemma

Public meeting for the proposed sand mine at Maroochydore last week.

Coast MP calls on Minister to stop KRA proposal with stroke of a pen

Developer's grand new multi-million dollar estate

NEW ESTATE: This is the only plan revealed by the property developer's new Billabongs Estate in Agnes Water.

DEVELOPER given the go ahead for a massive estate with 149 homes.

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!