Vanishing old Kuching

People tend to believe that to be modern you have to disengage from your heritage, but it’s not true.

— Moza bint Nasser, chairperson of Qatar Foundation

While most countries have a long history of old buildings and famous places, newly-formed nations like Sarawak are still struggling to discover who they are.

In the half a century I have enjoyed romantic Kuching, I have seen the city grow and then watch it disappear before my eyes.

I was barely 17 and had just completed my Senior Cambridge at Kedah’s elite Sultan Abdul Hamid college (SAHC) when I stepped foot in Sarawak in 1967.

Armed with a Grade 1 and an impressive result of three distinctions in English, History and Geography, I had arrived in a country better known for swashbuckling buccaneers, pirates and headhunters.

As a Malayan, I had never read anything about Sarawak which at that time had just ended Confrontation with Indonesia.

When I arrived in Kuching, a shanty town of 50,000 where there were more bicycles than cars, I was surprised with the town’s backwardness.

But I loved it — I had gone back in time because Sarawak was at least 30 years behind Malaya.  
After three years in Old Kuching, it was time to seek my fortunes in modern Kuala Lumpur, so like Dick Whittington (the character in the English folklore) I left Kuching with my cat. Ten years as an acclaimed reporter with the News Straits Times, I was back to Kuching in 1981 on a personal crusade — to tell the world about my beloved Sarawak.

However, I was overawed with Sarawak’s rich heritage and history, so I joined the Sarawak Tourist Association under business tycoon Tan Sri Leonard Linggi.

With the arrival of new Chief Minister Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, the door to Kuching began to open with an influx of business and economic activities.

In the meantime, Kuching grew when the timber barons and towkays chipped in to develop the tourism industry.

But the gates of development had sprung open wide, bringing in the good and the bad!

In 1988 Bukit Mata Kuching — a hill which was occupied by Brooke’s Borneo Company (1856) — was acquired by the Hilton Group, the year Kuching was declared a city on August 1.

In the early 1990s, the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) was tasked with promoting Kuching as a modern tourist attraction. 

Sadly, history and modernisation don’t mix — so the old had to give way to the new.

In 1993 the muddy southern bank of the Sarawak River in front of Main Bazaar, had to make away for a spick and span 900-metre walkway with safety railings.The Brooke-era Sarawak Steamship godown which was built in 1930 and taken over by the Sarawak Constabulary in the 60s, was renovated into a restaurant-cum-souvenir shop.

The old fish market where the locals shopped for freshly-caught seafood, was flattened.

A year later, the Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) was incorporated and the face of old Kuching continued to be transformed.

While this was a sight to behold, the nostalgia of the old Kuching I knew has slowly disappeared — piece by piece!

In the early 2000s a Sarawak Heritage Association was established and headed by an old Melanau friend Datuk Aloysius Dris — a former deputy director of the Sarawak Information Services.

The iconic northern bank where Fort Margherita stands and where ghosts were said to have roamed, is all but gone.

My playground in the 60s included the police training complex comprising a colonial office, parade ground where thousands of former rangers and policemen were groomed but now had been bulldozed.

The parade ground was where a massive artillery gun boomed at 6am as police recruits prepared to march.

At 8pm the “canon” fired again, signaling the end of a long day, to prepare for the new day tomorrow.  

My last visit to the police commissioner’s abode was in 2000 when SAHC schoolmate Datuk Yusof Jaafar became Sarawak’s police chief.

Soon after his retirement, the police complex and my old home was flattened to make way for the adjoining golden-colored State Legislative Assembly building.

With that the era of the glorious past every man must forego, had vanished as we leave to join our ancestors.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.