Kuching, Capital of Sarawak: The Cat City or An Old Well City?

Sarawak-Kuching 1843

KUCHING, THE CAPITAL OF THE STATE OF SARWAK has always been associated with the lovable feline, the cat. “Kuching” is a Malay word for cat, thus it is known as Cat City. The Borneo Post, on Saturday, 12 August 2017, conspicuously attempted to usurp the proud feline on its top front-page story. However, the story was not credited to any reporter or writer as practiced in journalism. The headline screamed, “Happy 145th Birthday Kuching!”

Abuse of History

Several Malay friends communicated with me in the morning and later in the afternoon. They wanted to know whether the story was factual or fiction. They sounded suspicious on the attention of the story, as it was a view from a certain community only. Could the history of Sarawak once again being abused like the 22 July 1963 controversy.

In Malay, Kuching Is Cat

The seemingly cheerful headline, however, hides a sinister idea that the Malay name Kuching was not true at all. The Borneo Post said the word “Kuching” is derived from a Chinese word “Koo Ching” that means “old well”, without stipulating its dialectic origin. With the abundance of fresh water from the Sarawak River and other streams near by back in 1870s, it is an obtuse idea that they needed to dig a well then.

1365, Javanese Called Sarawak, Sawaku

Sarawak as it was known long before James Brooke came both referred to the main river as well as its main settlement or a small town. The name “Sarawak” is not derived from the Malay phrase “saya serah kepada awak” to mean surrendering the state to James Brooke in 1841. This is a most preposterous idea that somehow found its way into Wikipedia and books.

In a Javanese source dated 1365, it was called “Sawaku”; a Spanish record in 1576 wrote “Serawak”; in 1599 when Sultan Tengah established his kingdom, it was known as “Sarawak” and in a Portuguese map in the 16th century it was written as “Cerava”.

Local Malay Aristocrats at Lidah Tanah

After the death of Sultan Tengah, Sarawak reverted back to the Sultanate of Brunei but indirectly ruled by local Malay aristocrats, the descendants of Datu Marpatih. Datu Patinggi, Datu Shahbandar and Datu Temenggong were the guardians the political traditions since 600CE when Santubong was founded and later moved to Lidah Tanah.


Muhamad Salleh Founded Sarawak-Kuching, 1824-1830

Muhamad Salleh

In the early 19th century there was a new interest from the sultan of Brunei over Sarawak. Pengiran Indera Mahkota Muhamad Salleh, a Dutch educated officer, was sent to Sarawak. He built a new administrative center in what would become Kuching between 1824 and 1830. It was deliberately established away from the local Malay aristocrats who ruled from Lidah Tanah, about 25 miles upriver where the Sarawak Kanan and Sarawak Kiri converge. In this way Muhamad Salleh would have a complete control over Sarawak.

Muhamad Salleh built the center at the site of the present Astana while his followers lived across river where a small river flowed into the Sarawak River.

Buah Mata Kuching, Bukit Mata Kuching, Sungai Kuching

This small river is known as Sungai Kuching and the settlement there was later known as Kuching. The source of the river was at Bukit Mata Kuching that means “Cat Eye Hill”, facing the Astana then and now. On the hill were found fruit trees called “Buah Mata Kuching” that means “cat eye fruit”. Its scientific name is Nephelium malayense first recorded in 1865 by John Cameron in his book, Our Tropical Possessions in Malayan India.

Borneo Post was correct pointing out that Charles Brooke, formalised the name Kuching for the town on the 12 August 1872. Nonetheless it is misleading to calculate the birth of the city in 1872 because it was first built by Muhamad Salleh in 1824.

Sarawak-Kuching in 1843

Keppel published James Brooke’s letters in his book wrote the town in 1839:

The town consists of a collection of mud huts erected in piles …. The residences of the rajah and his fourteen brothers occupy the greater part, and their followers are the great majority of the population. When they depart for Borneo, the remainder must be a very small population, and apparently poor.”

The population of the city gradually grew, viz: 1824, 1,500; 1843, 2,000; 1855, 15,000; 1870, 30,000.

Lovable Feline

Whether it is a hill or fruit trees, they all refer the lovable pet, the cat. It is not about “old well”. It is sad to read another part of the history of Sarawak was being abused. It is Kuching, the Cat City. Let us make the city as lovable as the feline.

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About sanibsaid

Studied History as my major from the University of Malaya, in particular history of Sarawak for BA, MA and PhD. My writings come from the English literature and my stories are from history. I have written several books, among them are Malay Politics in Sarawak (Oxford, 1985); Melayu Sarawak: Sejarah Yang Hilang (UNIMAS, 2013; 2nd ed. Saramedia, 2016).