With the utmost appreciation and sense of nostalgia for the places he grew up in, James Yong released his book about the streets of Padungan and its surroundings. The book includes notable figures, sports, food, and many others.
Reliving the yesteryears of Padungan
When James Yong sees Padungan, he often sees it for what it was yesterday rather than what it is today. How the floors were installed with vintage mosaic tiles, or how the old signboards were hung. When he closed his eyes, he could imagine the streets in the evening, with birds resting on the trees and swarming during the twilight hours.
He sees a difference between Padungan’s streets today and how they were in the 1960s and 1970s. It would be busy in the morning as people visit the area to get their daily necessities. At night, the sounds of the typewriter tapping from the first floor could be heard — as classes for those interested in learning the skill began. Also, there were evening classes that taught skills in shorthand, secretarial work, bookkeeping, accounting, electronics, and dressmaking.
He recalls that when his parents walked down the street, everyone knew each other. There was always a familiar face, whether it was the shop owners or the friendly guy seated for breakfast at a Kopitiam. When his mother went to the tailor in the afternoon, junior Yong would wander the streets. He often found himself watching a movie at the nearby cinemas — Odeon or Capitol.
Back then, the vibrant Padungan area was more than just the two blocks of shophouses we see today. Padungan was alive with smiles, cheers, food, and an array of commercials and classes. There were even buskers, snake charmers, and koyok salesmen contributing to the voices of Padungan.
“I miss the buzz of activity, the hustle and bustle of the area. It was a lively place. There were a lot of people around, and you could always run into friends,” he said as he reminisced about the past.
A book about his memories
As he clung to memories of places and activities that no longer exist, Yong was asked to write an article about Padungan, a street he grew up frequenting.
“I thought it was an interesting topic. Looking back on my Padungan memories, the more I dug, the more I jotted down. The list grew too long. In the end, the article was never written, and instead, a book was manifested.”
The book, ‘Padungan: History & Humanity in a Heritage precinct of Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia,’ has over 300 pages and will take readers back in time, while instilling a sense of pride in the younger generation. This book emphasises on the importance of preserving heritage through memories. Without such documentation, what has gone will be lost.
Having met many people while working on the book, Yong recalled an interview with an elderly man who was once a champion jockey in his day.
“He recalled his time at the old Padungan racecourse, the Sarawak Turf Club. It was an exciting time, and he was enjoying fame and glamour. He told me that he sometimes felt sad that everything was gone,” said the former president of Sarawak Heritage Society (SHS).
On one end of Padungan, buildings with cinemas and shopping arcades, as well as food stalls, were sprouting up. On the other end was the Sarawak Turf Club. Everyone who had been to Padungan during this era appreciated how busy it could be, how long the activities could last, and how late they could go.
“This ecosystem was taking place in Padungan and other parts of the area. This impacted many people and made it worthwhile for shop owners to stay open late. Now, the cinemas, racecourse, and commercial schools are no longer in operation. Shops start closing as early as 5.30pm.”
Rejuvenating the streets of Padungan
When he wrote the book, Yong hoped to see the once-popular area revived.
“Although sprawling developments are beneficial throughout Kuching, areas such as Padungan and Main Bazaar have historical significance. Efforts should be made to revitalise the area,” he opined.
In the interview, Yong praised the efforts of Kuching South City Council (MBKS) Mayor Datuk Wee Hong Seng in bringing activities to Padungan and its surroundings. Nonetheless, there is still much work to be done.
“We have a chicken and egg situation. The shopkeepers do not want to open late because they believe there will be few customers. Customers are hesitant to visit Padungan because they believe there are few shops open.
“That is one of the reasons I put so much effort into this book. People who read it would see the place in a different light. They would understand what occurred previously and why it is significant,” said Yong, who is also a member of the Sarawak Heritage Council.
Yong added that when he first started working on the project, he frequently visited Padungan to reacquaint himself with the vendors and community there. As he explored the streets, he realised that Padungan’s charm extends beyond the two blocks of buildings in the bazaar area. The Greater Padungan includes Ban Hock Road, Abell Road, Petanak Road, Blacksmith Road, and many others.
“When I was young, when someone said Padungan, they would refer to the whole area as the Padungan umbrella. Padungan refers to the entire area, not just the streets we know today.”
Whispers from the past
Yong, a history enthusiast, fears the inevitable. Even though the book is well-described and well-researched, he has many regrets.
“I used to wonder what would have happened if I had started this project 10 years earlier. During my field research, I discovered that many of the older generations had passed away. I would visit a shop, and the owner would tell me that his father had passed away six months ago.”
Thus, Yong encourages the public, as well as tour guides, to continue sharing their memories of the area. Every memory of the place can be a significant piece of history. What happened before cannot be traced back without such an effort.
‘Padungan: History & Humanity in a Heritage precinct of Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia’ is a collaborative effort with John Soo. Together, they scour Padungan and its surroundings for hints to what makes Padungan, Padungan.
Those interested in learning about Padungan’s history through the eyes of James Yong can purchase the book at the Borneo Cultures Museum, Kuching gift shop or the Telang Usan Hotel, Kuching bookshop. The book also includes a detailed history of Padungan since the 19th century, as well as acclaimed names of those who made significant contributions to the area’s development.