Singapore has the Merlion – mythical and majestic as it dominates the view of the bay. In Kuching, our equivalent is the cat, significantly more domestic and marginally less majestic. But what Kuching loses in size and symbolism, it makes up for in sheer numbers. No visitor can come to Kuching and miss the connection with more than twenty cat statues littering the town centre, made in almost every material. They sleep, they wave, they prowl, they play around almost every corner. Some are wonderfully kitsch and some downright terrifying; there is a series of robotic cat statues which slink around the edge of the open air market, seemingly intent on world domination.
In fact, all of Sarawak’s cities have some giant animal or fruit familiar. Sibu has its swans, Miri its seahorses and Serian an enormous durian, all carefully carved and proudly erected on a roundabout somewhere in their town boundary. But none have embraced theirs quite like the capital, and the obsession extends beyond the statues into every name association imaginable. From airport to city centre, the theme continues. Cat city tours, Meow Meow cat café, Alley cat hotel, CATS FM – a huge range of cat-related options in accommodation, food, drinks and even education – Kuching is truly a city of a thousand cats. There is also a museum dedicated to all things feline which, according to Lonely Planet, is the third most interesting thing to do in Kuching (it isn’t, though it is worth a trip!). But why is the city apparently so cat crazy?
What’s in a name?
The usual explanation is that Kuching is kucing in Bahasa Malaysia, the national language – same pronunciation, different spelling – which translates to cat. Of course, the obvious question then is why a city would have been named after such an everyday animal, let alone have placed a cat effigy on every street. One story invariably pops up: that James Brooke, the first Rajah, saw a cat on his arrival in Sarawak in 1839 and decided to name the town in its honour – hardly the most inspiring memorial. An alternative version is that he asked the name of the settlement and, as he did so, a cat strolled past. The mistake stuck and kucing became Kuching.
The word association
of the name has
a ‘cat’-chy ring
It is a story very like the myth about the name of the Australian kangaroo in which Captain Cook is supposed to have mistaken the Aboriginal phrase ‘I don’t know’ for the name of the animal. Both these tales have the added joy of poking fun at the awkward and linguistically-challenged English visitor, particularly sweet in a place like Sarawak where bilingualism is standard and many locals speak up to four languages fluently and often interchangeably. The kucing story, of course, doesn’t quite convince, not least because the Sarawak Malays speak their own dialect in which the answer to James Brooke’s question, if indeed he ever asked it, would certainly have been ‘pusa’ and not Kuching, or even kucing.
In the end, the town was most likely named for the river – Sungei Kuching – which once flowed from Reservoir Park, though now under the tarmacked streets past the Tua Pek Kong temple in the centre of town and into the Sarawak River. The practice of naming rivers and settlements after surrounding natural features has numerous local precedents, perhaps the most famous of these being the naming of Melaka for the tree of the same name by Parameswara, its founding father. Here too, this river probably took its name from a tree. Rising through the centre of Kuching is Bukit Mata Kuching (Mata Kuching Hill) which once was lined by numerous Mata Kuching trees. These bear longan fruit, with gelatinous white flesh around a shiny black seed – the cat’s eye, as mata kuching translates. So, in a roundabout sense, the town might well have been named after a cat, albeit via a fruit, its tree, a hill and a river, though it is entirely unlikely James Brooke ever had a hand in it.
Seriously, what’s with all the cats?
In reality, the excitement about cats in Kuching, particularly the giant variety, is a relatively new phenomenon. It has been an exercise in branding in a post-Malaysia world and an extremely effective one. In fact, our town officially became Kuching City and the Cat City at exactly the same time. On 1st August 1988, Kuching’s elevation to city status coincided with the unveiling of the first, the one and the only Great Cat Statue of Kuching.
This was the first of Kuching’s crop of cats, created by local artist Yong Kee Yet and donated by Telekom Malaysia. It stands a magnificent 2.5 metres tall, though still much smaller than the mighty Merlion’s 8.6 metres, one paw raised in a greeting reminiscent of the Beckoning Cat statues that stare glassily from the cashier’s desk in so many businesses around town. That statue originated in Japan but has spread throughout Asia as a good luck charm to invite prosperity into the premises – see the gold coin clasped in its plastic paw!
But the Great Cat of Kuching, despite any similarities, has been decidedly localized and is now, for better or for worse, among our most famous landmarks. It is Kuching royalty and even has its own civil servants to see to its every need. Robert is in charge of maintaining all the properties for MBKS, the city council for Kuching South. But within his more mundane duties comes the responsibility for tending to the Giant Cat, and all its brethren within the Council limits. His staff has patched its holes, repaired its whiskers and given it regular paint jobs.
First among the Great Cat’s needs are the wardrobe changes, celebrating the numerous seasonal and special occasions in Sarawak. It wears traditional dress for Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Gawai and even a Santa suit at Christmas, all newly tailor-made as custom dictates for all Kuching residents. According to Robert, the most common question he hears is whether the Cat is male or female. Effortlessly modern, as he points out, the cat is gender fluid, appearing in male dress for Gawai Dayak but in a sari for Deepavali. In his own words: ‘Sometimes boy, sometimes girl.’
Throughout the year, it rings the changes. For the Kuching Marathon it donned a sporty little headband; for the Kuching Festival it was cool with a pair of shades and an acoustic guitar. On occasion, it is even naked! In 2013 it appeared in a totally untropical hat and scarf combo, a yarn bomb courtesy of a local knitter’s circle. The Mayor for Kuching South apparently advised the public: “You are welcome to come and take photos but don’t disturb it. Do not take it away.” Though what he thought anyone would do with a giant hat for a giant cat is anyone’s guess.
Far from robbing the Great Cat, Kuching residents give to it willingly. Many of the cat’s costumes are donated by local businesses or associations, not an advertising opportunity but rather a gesture for the city they live in and perhaps a wish for prosperity, both for themselves and also for everyone else in the Great Cat City. Its servants too are willing. Robert himself is proud to be involved in ‘something iconic’. Zakariya Tasing, who does most of the costume changes, doesn’t even work for MBKS. An outside contractor, he happily comes down several times a year to outfit his charge, climbing a rickety ladder to hammer a Gawai hat onto the Great Cat’s head. For Deepavali, however, Zakariya stands aside as the Cat gets dressed by a volunteer force of the Hindu staff at MBKS. It seems everyone wants in on a piece of the Great Cat action.
A Tourist Essential
Of course, the connection between Kuching and its furry inhabitants is more for the benefit of the visitors to the city than for the local residents. The word association of the name has a ‘cat’-chy ring and the city is now permanently branded. Whatever it wears, the Great Cat is now a tourist essential – the Instagram equivalent of an ‘I heart Kuching T-shirt’ – and the various statues have become the ultimate photo op. Tourists can regularly be seen scuttling across one of the busiest roundabouts in town or blocking off entire lanes of traffic to take their obligatory picture with the statue as evidence that they’ve visited the Cat City.
Meanwhile, for most Kuchingites, they appreciate the humour in the Cat City shtick and give their most famous monument a wave as they whizz by on their way to work. It might not be as impressive as the Merlion, but the cat is certainly Kuching – approachable, quirky and inclusive. In further homage, the city has played host to an international cat show and is apparently the holder of a Guinness World Record, set in May 2017, for the largest number of people dressed in cat costumes, after more than 250 enthusiasts dressed up and rubbed feline shoulders for more than five consecutive minutes at Kuching’s Amphitheatre. Where else on earth would even make such an attempt?
In the end, it seems foolish to try resisting the powerful pull of the cat in this city. You might as well get down there, strike a pose and enjoy the memento. The cat – cute, kitsch, occasionally creepy and now inextricably Kuching.
The Sarawak connection
The Borneo cat itself – the original pusa – is worthy of note with its distinctive bobtail. The island used to be full of short tailed cats, common throughout South East Asia. In fact, their tails are not the result of some hideous torture but are short from birth, a result of a recessive gene which apparently controls cat tail length, possibly something of a throwback to their wild cat ancestry. This unusual characteristic, however, is dying out, bred into memory by increasing numbers of increasingly dominant long-tailed colonists – Persian, Siamese and beyond.
Operation Cat Drop
In another probably apocryphal story which circulates about an event enticingly entitled ‘Operation Cat Drop’, a poorly planned malaria control operation saw the cat population of 1950s Sarawak decimated by the effects of DDT. Evidently, while the cats were away, the rats had a field day. As a result (and here is where the story takes on the elements of a children’s book) the UK’s Royal Air Force was forced to parachute in a number of cats – reports range from 14,000 spread across the state to several dozen confined to a series of highland villages – to control the exploding rodent population. Whether these were long-tailed or short-tailed is never mentioned but, without doubt, the cat is an inextricable part of Sarawak’s narrative.