Kuching At A Glance
Kuching, which literally means “cat” in Malay, is the state capital of Sarawak. It is the 7th largest city in the country and sits on the banks of the Sarawak River. The Sarawak river splits Kuching into 2 districts – the North & the South. These 2 districts are governed by two separate administrative groups and have two different mayors. Kuching enjoys tropical climate throughout the year with occasional rainfall. The wettest months are from November to February.
Kuching (Kuching Division) was under the rule of Brunei Sultan before the time of James Brooke (1847) and was known as Sarawak. The Resident Office of Kuching was established on the 1st of June 1873. Before 1986, the administration for the Kuching Division also covers the Samarahan Division. With the establishment of the Samarahan Division in July 1986, a new borderline was created for the Administration of Kuching Division which was maintained until today. Since four decades ago, the Kuching Division has been developing aggressively especially the Kuching City. Kuching is the largest city in the Sarawak state and has been upgraded to be a major city on the 1st of August 1988. Other than being the state administration centre, Kuching Division is also the centre of Industrial, Commerce, Services and Tourism for the Sarawak state.
The population of the Kuching Division has also been increasing rapidly. In 1980, there are only 315,110 people in the division. In 2000, there are 565,504 people. This increase in the population was due to the migration of the rural people to the city.Kuching has an unusual name – the word means “cat” in Malay.
There are a number of stories as to how this name came about, but it is unlikely that it has anything to do with cats. The two more likely explanations are that it derives from the Chinese word kochin, meaning “harbour,” or that it is named after the mata kuching or “cat’s eye” fruit, a close relative of the lychee that grows widely here.
Part old city of Kuching
Kuching has more than a million residents and are made up of Malay, Chinese, Indian and other minority ethnic groups such as Iban, Bidayuh & Melanau. Most of these people speak fluent English and Malay. Other major local dialects are also widely spoken.
Kuching is an interesting city – with beautiful landscaped gardens, modern amenities with old world charm, colonial buildings and the majestic Sarawak river. Kuching is a cosmopolitan city, and this is reflected in the faces on the streets. Whilst the population is predominantly Chinese and Malay, Kuching is home to people from virtually all of Sarawak’s 26-plus ethnic groups. As well as Bidayuhs (formerly known as Land Dayaks) and Ibans (Sea Dayaks), you are sure to encounter Melanaus from the coastal areas and Orang Ulu (literally “upriver people”), the collective name given to the smaller indigenous societies, including Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Berawan, Lun Bawang, Penan, etc. All are thoroughly modern Malaysians nowadays, but many of the rural people still live in longhouse communities.
Sarawak State of Assembly Building
History – The White Rajahs
Kuching’s history is also Sarawak’s; the kind of adventure story that would be unbelievable if it were not true. At the beginning of the 19th century, Sarawak was a typical Malay principality, under the control of the Sultan of Brunei. Apart from occasional piracy on the coast and headhunting in the interior, Sarawak was peaceful. All of this changed when the Sultan of Brunei appointed a hugely unpopular Governor.
The Malays and Bidayuhs of the Sarawak River revolted in 1836 and declared independence. An ugly guerrilla war ensued, which continued until 1839, when James Brooke, a young, wealthy Englishman arrived on the scene in his well-armed yacht, The Royalist. Brooke set himself up as a freelance adventurer and the Sultan’s uncle immediately asked him to help put down the rebellion. Brooke readily agreed. The spears and muskets of the rebels were no match for a modern warship, and the conflict soon ended. As a reward, the grateful Sultan made Brooke the Rajah of Sarawak in 1841. Brooke was not content to rule over a small riverside town, and set out to pacify his new kingdom, with the help of the British Navy. At the time of his death in 1868, Sarawak was a relatively peaceful territory covering the area between Tanjung Datu (which is now the Indonesian border) and Kuching.
James Brooke’s nephew Charles, who succeeded him, was no adventurer like his uncle, but an excellent administrator and politician. He set up a proper system of government, gradually expanding his area of control until it formed the present day Sarawak. His legacy is everywhere in Kuching. It was he who built the Astana, Fort Margherita, the Courthouse, the Sarawak Museum and many other fine buildings. Charles Brooke died in 1917, and was succeeded by his son, Charles Vyner Brooke, who built on his father’s achievements and improved the general administration of the state. In 1941 he set up a State Council to oversee the passing of new laws, bringing the first stirrings of democracy to Sarawak. The rule of the State Council was short-lived, as the Japanese invaded at the end of the same year. When the Japanese surrendered in September 1945, Sarawak came under Australian military administration. Vyner Brooke felt the state would be better off as a colony and ceded it to Britain. This move was very unpopular and resulted in the assassination of the Governor, Duncan Stewart, in 1949. Order was eventually restored and the colonial administration concentrated on preparing Sarawak for independence. In 16 September 1963, Sarawak and Sabah gained independence by joining with Malaya to form the new nation of Malaysia.
The Great Cat of Kuching
This Great Cat is undeniably the most famous landmark in Kuching. Located at the junction of Jalan Padungan and Jalan Central, this landmark is the city’s most photographed object. Interestingly, the city council will dress the cat up during major festive seasons such as Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Christmas and Gawai. What a sight to behold! The Great Cat of Kuching, a monumental kitsch statue, is situated at the junction of Jln Padungan and Jln Central. After years of being the king of kitsch, the Great Cat now has a competitor – the Cat Statue opposite Hotel Grand Margherita.
The Square Tower
The Square Tower
The Square Tower was once a prison. It was then converted into a fortress and then a dance hall before finally becoming a tower. This tower offers visitors breathtaking views of Mount Santubong and Mount Serapi. Today, the Square Tower is more than just a tower. It has been converted into a multimedia center and it now offers visitors information on Sarawak’s tourist spots and key attractions. The Square Tower on the Waterfront was built in 1879 as a fortress, fortunately never fired a shot in anger, unlike its wooden predecessor which was burnt down in the 1857 gold miners’ rebellion.
Built in 1870 by the second Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke, the Astana is actually made up of three separate buildings which are connected to form one main building. This building was once known as the Government House. Today, the Astana serves as the official residence of the Yang Di-Pertua Negeri (Governor) of Sarawak. As such, visitors are not allowed to enter the Astana. Nonetheless, visitors are welcomed to stroll around the beautiful and lush landscaped gardens surrounding the Astana. The Astana, the imposing palace on the north bank of the river opposite the Waterfront, was built in 1870 by Charles Brooke as a bridal gift to his wife Margaret. It is nowadays the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak, and therefore not open to visitors.
Fort Margherita is a fort perched on a hill overlooking the Sarawak River. Built in 1879, this fort’s primary function is to protect Kuching from invasions of pirates from the River. Named after Charles Brooke’s wife, Ranee Margaret, it is an extremely attractive and interesting building. As the Fort now is situated within the police training barracks, visitors may be asked for some form of ID. Sampans go to the Fort from various Waterfront jetties.
A view of monument at Waterfront
The Waterfront area of Kuching serves as the heart and soul of this city. A visit to Kuching is never complete without a stop to the waterfront. Visitors can have the pleasure of strolling along the modern esplanade or sit and relax while enjoying the breathtaking sunset view. The waterfront has undergone numerous changes from the time James Brooke landed till today where you can find modern sculptures and landscaped riverside walk. There are also an open air theatre and a musical fountain. the Waterfront offers excellent views of the Astana, Fort Margherita and the Malay kampungs which line the north bank of the river, but at night-time it really comes alive; it seems like half of Kuching is out meeting friends, watching a show, or just taking the air.
Ancient building built in 1929 at Waterfront
The Waterfront and Sungai Sarawak
The Sarawak Steamship Building on the Waterfront was built in 1930, and was previously the offices and warehouse of the Sarawak Steamship Company. It now the home of the Kuching Waterfront Bazaar, with dozens of stalls selling a wide range of handicrafts and souvenirs.
The Sarawak Steamship Building at Watefront
Sarawak State Museum
This museum is hailed as one of the finest in the region. The original building of the museum was once the residence of James Brooke. The construction of the museum was completed in 1891 and was further extended in 1911. It currently features a large ethnographic collection of Borneo as well as tribal artifacts from Sarawaks’s various ethnic groups. You can also find the reconstruction of Sarawak’s history which includes walkthrough longhouses and tribal art.
Chinese History Museum
Formerly the courthouse for Sarawak’s Chinese Community, this colonial-era building was built in 1912. In 1993, this building was converted to the Chinese History Museum. Currently this museum houses a small collection of Kuching’s numerous Chinese groups. This collection offers visitors fascinating insights into the development and evolution of Sarawak’s Chinese Community.Chinese History Museum
The Sarawak Museum, straddling both sides of Jln Tun Abang Haji Openg, has one of the best collections in Southeast Asia. The old wing, opened in 1891, is designed in the style of a Normandy town-house. It houses an exceptional ethnographic collection, some good natural history displays and a section on the oil industry in Sarawak. The exhibition of traditional wood-carvings on the first floor is magnificent. The new wing across the footbridge is used for events and exhibitions.
In the Museum grounds there is an Aquarium, the Botanical Gardens and the Heroes’ Memorial.
The Islamic Museum presents a clear picture of the rich historical heritage and special culture of the Muslim community in Sarawak and throughout the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, and traces connections with the development of Islam in the rest of the World. It is located on Jln P. Ramlee in the beautifully restored Maderasah Melayu Building (1930). The museum consists of 7 galleries set around a central courtyard garden, each with a different theme.
The Kuching Mosque
The Kuching Mosque is one of the most prominent landmarks in the city. Built in 1968, this mosque was constructed on the site of an old mosque. The site originally housed an old wooden mosque built in 1852. The architecture and design of the mosque is unique, featuring magnificent gilded cupolas which are visible from many miles away. The present day Kuching Mosque, previously the State Mosque, is best seen from the river. The new State Mosque is situated across river at Petra Jaya.
Monument of Warriors infront of The Court House
Sarawak Cultural Village
The Sarawak Cultural Village is aptly described as a living museum. The Cultural Village offers visitors glimpses of the various lifestyles of Sarawak’s ethnic groups. Within its seven hectare site, the cultural village features replicas of traditional long houses, roundhouses and even huts which are built around a lake. Each of these houses features representative of each ethnic group and they are dressed in the group’s traditional costume. Visitors are then treated to stories of the ethnic group’s tribal traditions and are invited to participate in the activities of the ethnic group. For the adventurous, you can participate in an Iban war dance performance or try your luck at blow piping or try bamboo carving Bidayuh style or even learn how to make traps from the Penans. Isn’t it amazing that you can learn all these in a day just by visiting one place? The Sarawak Culture Village is a must on any visitor’s travel itenarary!
The Court House Complex (junction of Main Bazaar and Jalan Tun Abang Haji Openg, facing the Waterfront) was built in 1871 as the seat of Sarawak’s government, and was used for this purpose as late as 1973. It is a superb collection of buildings, with magnificent belian (ironwood) roofs and beautiful detailing inside and out, reflecting local art forms. The colonial-baroque Clock Tower was added in 1883 and the Charles Brooke Memorial in 1924. The complex also includes The Pavilion Building – a piece of old New Orleans transplanted to Kuching, completed in 1909 used for many years as the General Hospital and now transformed into Sarawak’s Textile Museum – and The Round Tower, originally planned as a fort (1886), then used as a dispensary, and nowadays the headquarters of the Sarawak Craft Council. Following restoration of the original buildings and redevelopment, this important heritage site reopened in 2003. Now known as the Sarawak Tourism Complex, the area also houses the Visitor Information Centre.
The Clock Tower of Court House
Part of present Court House
Another view of The Court House
Sarawak Craft Council Building at Court House
Textile Museum at Pavilion Building. I had involved in restoration and rehabilitation of this building 15 years ago
The Textile Museum, housed in the Pavilion Building opposite the Main Post Office on Jln Tun Haji Abang Openg, showcases Sarawak’s fascinating traditional textiles, most notable of which are the Iban pua kumbu and the Malay kain songket. Textile buffs interested in a more hands on look at textiles should not miss the Tun Jugah Museum, 4th Floor, Tun Jugah Tower. Run by the private Tun Jugah Foundation, it houses a superb collection of Iban pua kumbu textiles, both antique and modern, as well as exquisite Iban silverware and jewellery.
The Main Post Office, Kuching
The Main Post Office on Jln Tun Haji Openg is another good example of Kuching’s cosmopolitan architectural mix. Built in 1931, it appears to belong to the early 19th century with its neo-classical style and Corinthian columns.
It’s fun to shop in Kuching. Aside from the major shopping malls, visitors should also drop by the Main Bazaar in Kuching to shop. The Main Bazaar is actually made up of 2 story shop houses which are lined in a row on one of Kuching’s oldest streets. Main Bazaar, opposite the Waterfront, is the oldest street in the city and the heart of old Kuching. It has some superb examples of Chinese shophouse architecture, many of which have been occupied by the same family for generations. These families still pursue traditional occupations such as tin-smithing, carpentry and petty trading. Kuching’s highest concentration of antique and handicraft shops are to be found here, and shoppers can rest between bargaining sessions in a number of old-fashioned coffee shops with panelled walls and marble-topped tables. Bargain hunters would love shopping here. There are many things to look out for including souvenirs, handicrafts including Sarawak’s renowned hand made mats, antiques, accessories and ornaments. You can also find brassware, tribal art and crafts and even blowpipes among these shop houses.
Tua Pek Kong Temple
The ornately decorated Tua Pek Kong Temple is located on Jln Tunku Abdul Rahman, opposite the Waterfront, and is the oldest Chinese temple in Kuching. It is believed to date from 1843, although official records only recognise its existence since 1876. The Wang Kang festival to commemorate the dead is held here.
Mix view of an old temple and a colourful modern building
If you are looking to buy gold, then head on to Carpenter Street. Carpenter Street is actually parallel to the Main Bazaar. Aside from gold, the other attraction here is food. You can find a few Chinese coffee shops and open food stalls which sell popular local fares. Jalan Carpenter, parallel to Main Bazaar, has a similar selection of small traders and coffee shops, as well as food stalls and two small Chinese temples. The whole area oozes charm and character. Off Leboh China (Upper China St.) there is a row of perfectly preserved 19th century Chinese houses.
View of Leboh China and Sarawak State Assembly Building at the background
Another place to shop in Kuching is along India Street. It is actually a pedestrian walkway flanked by shop houses. Here, you will find numerous shops selling colourful textiles, clothing and accessories. Jln India is lined with shops selling all kinds of goods, particularly textiles.
Architecture of an old bulding at Jalan India
An arch at Jalan India leads you to the Indian Mosque and Jalan Gambier
Mid-way down Jln India there is a narrow passageway that leads to Jln Gambier. If you follow this passageway you’ll pass a small Mosque hidden away in the middle of the city. The Mosque’s structure has undergone many changes since it was originally built by Kuching’s Indian Muslim community in the mid 19th century.
The Sunday Market in Kuching is an open air market which has almost everything under the sun to offer its visitors. The market, which actually starts on Saturday afternoon, is held at Jln Satok. It is renowned for the Bidayuh ladies who set up shop here selling fruit and vegetables, but there are also many good Chinese and Malay stalls. Goods on offer include handicrafts, forest produce (including delicious wild honey), pets of all descriptions, orchid plants, live fish, and a whole range of local snacks and delicacies.
Perahu Tambang, the popular old mode of transport to cross Sungai Sarawak at Waterfront, Kuching
There are many more interesting places to visit in Kuching. These are the places that I covered during my brief visit to Kuching.