A woman in a blazing orange and green batik-print gown and embroidered head scarf examines a pair of sunglasses bearing a designer label. A stout matriarch, floppy hat perched on her head, presides over her display of fresh bok choy and taro roots. A shop-keeper rolls out a bolt of shimmering brocade for a couple of teenagers and two little girls giggle shyly as I stop to take a look at the array of fresh fish set out on green plastic trays.
I am on Jalan Gambier street in the heart of the city of Kuching (capital of Sarawak, Borneo) on a humid December afternoon. My T-shirt has been reduced to a soggy dishrag and my hair clings in Medusa-like coils around my temples.
If I had any sense, I’d retreat to my air-conditioned haven at the Crown Plaza Hotel, but I’m a junkie when it comes to inhaling the smells, sights and sounds of street bazaars — and this one has me hooked.
I look wistfully at carved Iban blow-pipes and darts. They’d be a wonderful conversation piece back home, but airport security might squirm. There’s no knowing what havoc an elderly grey-haired woman might cause on board with a tribal blow-pipe and darts sticking out of her hand-baggage.
I move on to peer at an exquisitely crafted hornbill and a blaze of silver jewelry — both beyond my means.
But then, oh my. Look at that — a gorgeous blue silk batik skirt and tunic painted with a swirl of orchids. I succumb, deciding to worry about my MasterCard bill later.
Across Jalan, Gambier Street is a produce market where housewives, like flocks of fussy hens, peck at flame-coloured peppers, purple eggplants and chubby little yellow bananas. The air smells of papaya, mango and durian mingled with spicier aromas of coriander, chillies and roasting peanuts.
I pass on an offering of sago worms, but toy with the idea of buying a jar of sambal (shrimp paste embellished with a fiery chilli sauce). It is early evening now and a breeze has sprung up, dissipating the afternoon’s humidity. I stroll toward Kuching’s Waterfront Esplanade and come face to face with the city’s unique historical heritage.
Just beyond the dignified old courthouse and clock tower, a stone obelisk honours Rajah Charles Brooke. Sarawak is the only state in the world to have been ruled by three generations of white rajahs.
The astonishing thing is they weren’t representatives of Britain’s colonial power — they were independent administrators who held sway as absolute rulers for three generations.
The first rajah, a swashbuckling adventurer, James Brooke succeeded in quelling a rebellion against a local governor. As a token of gratitude, the Sultan of Brunei who owned vast territories in Borneo, proclaimed him Rajah of Sarawak in 1841.
His nephew Charles Brooke and Charles’s son, Vyner Brooke continued the white rajah dynasty — although Vyner Brooke and his family were forced to take refuge in Australia after the Japanese occupation in 1941.
On his return to Borneo, he decided to cede Sarawak to the British Crown in 1946. It wasn’t a popular move. Anti-colonial sentiment erupted into violent demonstrations and, eventually, Sarawak became part of the federation of Malaysia in the early 1960s.
An interesting footnote to this is that a branch of the Rajahs Brooke family reputedly now live in Canada and that a small town (25 square kilometres) called Sarawak near Owen Sound in northern Ontario pays tribute to this connection.
As I emerge onto the Waterfront Esplanade, the sun is setting, turning the sky to burnished copper. The cityscape glimmers with firefly lights, their reflections fractured in the Sarawak River.
People stroll, chat and munch on peanuts.
Across the water, the magnificent Astana — once the Brooke family’s palace — is a white ghost against the encroaching dusk.
I am regretful at the thought of leaving Kuching the following morning. It is a charming town and not the least of its appeal is that it pays whimsical tribute to its nomenclature.
Kuching means cat in Malay. No one is quite sure how the name originated but perhaps it was derived from the cat’s eye trees that grow abundantly in the area.
Be that as it may, Kuching boasts the only cat museum in the country and statues of playful felines — in the main town square and at the Waterfront Esplanade — are oft–photographed icons of a city as graceful and beguiling as its namesake.