Ask any Kuchingites and many could relate the fond memories of the ‘Open Air Market’. Located along the roads of Jalan Khoo Hun Yeang, Jalan Power, Jalan Market and Jalan Gartak, the official name for it — not known to many — is actually the ‘Tower Market’.
From fire brigade to a foodie hotspot
The ‘Tower Market’, more fondly known as the ‘Open Air Market’, is actually a remnant of the old 1920s Sarawak Fire Brigade. The name derives from the watchtower perched from within the market.
When the new station at Jalan Padungan was completed in the 1950s, the old fire brigade building at Jalan Gartak was demolished. However, the watchtower was spared to serve as a historical landmark, signalling that a fire station once stood there.
If one were to look closely, the landmark bore the year of its construction — 1927, as a testament of its past.
The first fire brigade
Before it was developed, the market area was actually a tidal creek connected to the Sarawak River. There, residents of the surrounding area would draw water from the stream that was known as ‘Sungai Gartak’.
During the second White Rajah era in 1907, the area was reclaimed. With development in progress, the first fire station was built at the site. The site was chosen as it was closest to the town centre at the time, to avoid a tragedy like the Great Kuching Fire of 1884 that swept most of Kuching from happening again.
Before the construction, the second White Rajah, Charles Brooke saw a need for fire and rescue services. It was revealed by Bomba Sarawak’s public relations officer Tuan Mirza Miraj. “Before there were specialised firemen in Kuching, a team of policemen from the Central Police Station held the responsibilities of fire services in Kuching,” he said.
During the reign of the third White Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke, a coal-powered fire engine from England was ordered and delivered in 1917. It was the first of its kind in Kuching then.
Sarawak Heritage Society (SHS) vice president, James Yong shared, “The Kuching Fire Brigade moved to its (then) new quarters in Jalan Khoo Hun Yeang in 1926.”
Mirza added that the building housed the fire engine and the service of eight to 10 firemen to care for the safety of Kuching. “These men, hailing from Kuching, were trained on fire services by the European civil servants under Brooke’s administration.”
To commemorate the opening of the fire brigade, the Sarawak Gazette on June 1, 1926, announced under their ‘notes’ section in the front page, “We are informed by the Municipal Commissioner that the Kuching Fire Brigade has now transferred to the new quarters in Khoo Hun Yeang Street. Telephone number 143.”
As communication was scarce back in the 1920s, the following year, the (present) watchtower was erected to observe Kuching from high grounds for any fire signs.
A new service
According to Ho Ah Chon’s book, ‘The History of Kuching Municipal’, wanting to accommodate a better fire service in Kuching, the local Municipal Council constructed a new fire brigade at Jalan Padungan.
What was once a mosquito-infested swamp, Jalan Khoo Hun Yeang housed the fire brigade up until April 13, 1957, where they moved to the new station in Padungan.
Currently, the Padungan fire brigade is still in operation, providing nearby fire and rescue services.
Meanwhile, the old station underwent a makeover. The whole building, bar the watchtower, was demolished.
The market, given its location at the centre of Kuching, became a transport hub to residents in Kuching and from afar. To complement the people coming in, the area was turned to a food court to locals and visitors alike.
The vicinity then became an alfresco food court which is known to the locals as the ‘Open-Air Market’.
Hawker stalls and eateries sprouted around the watchtower, and the area is often packed with patrons.
Despite the construction of the roof above the market in 1971, the name stucked with locals. And up to this day, it is still known as the ‘Open-Air Market’.
Today, the Tower Market serves local delicacies such as seafood, porridge, kolo mee, sio-bee, shaved ice, beef noodles and many others. It became one of the most popular tourist attraction and go-to place for foodies to get a taste of authentic local food.
As a young boy visiting the market in the 60s, James remembered it was already a popular place to dine in. “However, it was only partially covered. When it rained, we had to move to the covered areas so that we don’t get wet!”
The SHS’ vice president recalled that the conditions of the eatery were more ‘primitive’ and messy back then. “The floors were not yet tiled and vendors had to setup their make-shift stalls everyday.”
Nonetheless, he said the food was fantastic as always. James added that dining there today certainly brought memories from the good ol’ days.
James also revealed that there are families who have been operating there for generations. “The stalls selling Char Kueh Teow, Rojak, Jiu Hu Eng Chai (Sotong Kangkong), Curry Rice are still operated by the same family. Not to forget desserts like the Ang Dao Cendol and Goh Mee T’ng!”