History enables us to understand events from the past. It helps us understand the way things are and may serve as a lesson for the future. The Great Fire of Kuching that happened in 1884 was among the many events that largely impacted the city today.
A tragedy that serves as a lesson
In present day Kuching, Carpenter Street, China Street, Bishopgate Street and Ewe Hai street are known bustling business hubs. While the streets feature past architectures blended with modern ones, there are remnants of over a century old that had witnessed a bitter tragedy from the past.
Exactly 137 years ago, a huge fire blazed through Carpenter Street (known as Attap Street at the time), which spread towards Main Bazaar, China Street, Bishopgate Street and Rock Road due to strong winds.
According to ‘Sarawak Long Ago’ by WJ Charter, just a little after 1am of January 20, 1884, the whole town woke up to an emergency alert. A raging fire broke out from a wooden house with attap roof at the very spot of a present-day goldsmith shop in Carpenter Street.
Back then there were no specialised firemen, only policemen with the tasks of one. It was during a time in Kuching when modernisation was not yet in full effect, and the surrounding area was still full of forests and traditional villages. As the water system was not yet built, city dwellers — including prominent European figures — had to assist the firemen in putting out the fire by passing buckets of water from a nearby well.
The fire raged towards the Main Bazaar where new shophouses were built in 1872 — paving the way for modern buildings in Kuching as the shops were the first in town to have five-foot ways. Here, businessmen and traders were seen scurrying to transfer goods from their shops to the street by the riverside before the fire reached them.
Eventually, looting began. It was said that the looters would pretend to assist fire victims by carrying their valuables, however, it was immediately brought into their boats and they paddled away as fast as they could.
In a newspaper report by The Strait Times, Singapore dated on February 1, 1884, a private advice from Captain Joyce of the SS Ranee stated that during the incident, the coolies who disliked their bosses stood by looking at the fire, not only refusing to assist but also devoted their entire attention to looting.
Before the fire could consume Main Bazaar, a strong change of wind swayed the fire to the opposite direction, spreading steadily towards Carpenter Street and Bishopgate Street. Apart from the houses in the vicinity, a prominent building at Carpenter Street — the ‘Hiang Tiang Siang Ti’ Temple was also burned down during the Great Fire. It was later on rebuilt in 1889 and stood till today.
It must have been dawn but the fierce fire had not given up. By then, there was even consideration to blow up a house in Carpenter Street to draw a gap and stop the fire from spreading. However, at 6am, it was reported that torrential rain began pouring, gradually slowing down the fire from spreading around the whole city.
The buildings that were destroyed were mostly wooden. After five hours, it was said that the Great Fire of Kuching devastated 190 shophouses and wooden houses, with six other partially damaged.
A chance for new beginnings
A snippet taken from the Sarawak Gazette dated back to May 1, 1884, writes, “Rebuilding has already commenced on that portion of the town that was burnt down, and as a great deal of building material is being collected, all these houses destroyed will probably be soon replaced by more substantial and better-looking buildings.”
The second White Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke ordered the new buildings to be built with bricks, without the use of attap roofs. Meanwhile, the residents were moved to temporary attap houses as construction began.
The following year, 70 shophouses were rebuilt, and the remainder was completed in 1886. After the 1884 fire, a new street emerged — Ewe Hai Street — named after a famous Chinese merchant during the Brooke era. There, 40 shophouses were built, and they stood alongside the rest of the modern buildings at the area today.
Charles also reclaimed a tidal creek called Sungai Gartak, part of the Sarawak river which is known as present-day Jalan Gartak. The area housed the first fire station in Kuching in 1907.
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 to happen again.
The Rajah saw a need for fire and rescue services after the event but before he could continue his goals, he passed away in 1917. Nonetheless, his son, the third Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Vyner Brooke took over and brought in a coal-powered fire engine from England in 1917.
Bomba Sarawak’s public relations officer Tuan Mirza Miraj disclosed that back when the construction of the new fire station (present-day Tower Market, Jalan Khoo Hun Yeang) in 1926, it housed the fire engine and employed the service of eight to 10 firemen to oversee the safety of the town centre.
“These men, all hailing from around Kuching, were trained by European civil servants under Brooke’s administration,” Mirza added. And as the means of communication were scarce back then, a watchtower was built to watch over the small town. From the tower, it was easier to detect fire as the smokes can be seen from afar.
The little Red Boy deity
Located at the corner of Wayang Street and Ewe Hai Street stood the second oldest temple in Kuching, the ‘Hong Sang Si’ temple. It is said that the temple was rarely visited during the 1880s.
However, on the dawn of the great Kuching fire, WJ Charter documented a story told by Ong Kwan Hin, the great-grandson of Ong Tiang Swee, who were both prominent Chinese merchants and Chinese Kapitan.
“I was informed by my late grandmother that she and several people saw a young boy wearing a red bib and waving a black flag standing on top of the attap houses in what is now known as Ewe Hai Street; this was at the point when the strong wind suddenly changed its direction and the rest of the town was saved.”
Soon after, the witnesses, wishing to encourage the boy God to remain and further protect them, rebuilt the temple in 1897 and made the boy deity the principal god of the temple. Known as Kuek Seng Ong, there were two temple processions yearly to celebrate his birthday and his enlightenment day.
The processions still goes on up to this day. His birthday is celebrated on the 22nd day of the second month of the lunar calendar, while his enlightenment is celebrated on the 22nd day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar.
According to Sarawak Heritage Society member John Soo, the annual processions are only held in Kuching, Sarawak despite having several temples dedicated to Kuek Seng Ong all around Malaysia.