Kuching For Me Is…
Kuching for me is about origins, roots and the diversity of peoples who make it the melting pot that it is today. Where else is the world has there ever been a British rajah distinct from the British monarch? Who else in the world can say that they are Malay, Iban, Chinese, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu, Indian and still declare themselves true blue Sarawakian?
Kuching for me is the story of family. Of how my ancestor arrived from Singapore, a young established businessman looking to expand his reach. The year was 1846. The first Rajah had just been in power five years.
Kuching for me is about the roots that he established for the generations to come, for me, so that I will never doubt who I am and the diversity of this place where I come from. If I stood on any sandy shore on any beach off the coast of Kuching, I would feel those roots anchoring themselves firm on Kuching soil.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in the old quarter, where Electra House is situated. Grandad owned a retail business smack bang in the middle of town. There used to be a little fountain on the external wall of Electra House. Every Saturday, I would see people from the rural areas traipsing out of the buses, milling about the fountain waiting for friends or just taking in the sights of the ‘big city’. Many of them would be wearing traditional garb. Many were tattooed and some had elongated ears weighed down by heavy brass rings. I was captivated, fascinated and hooked. They were so cool. Best of all, I grew up accepting that I was part of their society, even though we were from different cultures.
I went to a Chinese language school where my Malay and Iban classmates could speak Mandarin to me, or I could speak Malay or English to them. Race did not define us. Childhood and friendship did. And so, Kuching to me is about harmony and tolerance. Being different from one another was normal. Nobody passed judgement about each other’s culture.
Kuching for me is about the kindness of stranger and the strong fabric of society its community built. I have travelled the interior of Sarawak and have gone from Green Road to Germany, Kanowit to New York, Ulu Baram to the land Down Under. When it comes to the kindness of strangers and the spirit of giving, I would still come back to Kuching to see it in action at its best.
Kuching for me is about keeping the best of the old and finding the nicest in the new. I can sit in an old school kopitiam and watch old men talk kopitiam politics, sipping at their coffee with one leg raised, knee almost to chin. I can walk into the latest hip coffee joint and drink my double macchiato, skinny, no syrup and watch the watch the barista dance around the imported coffee machine and steamer. Or I could do both and sip a cup of local kopi in a refurbished cafe made to look like an old style kopitiam, upscaled and vamped up, of course.
Over the years, this little old town has spread out quite a bit. We have suburbs now – . We have satellite areas with new fandangled shopping malls, imported brands, supermarkets, hypermarkets and 24-hour shops. That’s a great convenience to the 21st Century Kuchingite. But I am so glad that the old mom-and-pop grocery stores and what I call ‘magic everything-in-one’ stores still exist. I hope they will continue to exist in one form or another, for these are the elements that make up the building blocks of what makes Kuching unique. Walk into any town in Malaysia. It will not be a duplicate of Kuching. It can’t be, because they lack the elements of soul that came together just right to form the spirit of Kuching.
I have a great fear, though,…that Kuching might one day lose its character, its soul, because we are not careful enough to preserve the unique elements. New development in commercial construction is often dull, plain, repetitive and boring. Modernisation does not need to be stark and soulless. There is redemption, and salvation for this place, in the creating of new things while standing on the shoulders of old giants.
And so I can say with great finality, that Kuching for me is so many things, such a plethora of emotions, memory, family roots, friendships old and new, joy in all its form, so much so that I can only say Kuching to is a great big love – love I have for my life, for people around me, for the place I live in, for the very core of who I am. I love this place fiercely. I want it to thrive and grow into its own, an original masterpiece and not a poor imitation of some other monster metropolis in other lands. It shouldn’t be like any other big city in the world. There are too many places that have lost their identities because they could be any big city in any country. Kuching needs to be Kuching. A better version? Assuredly. A bigger version? Not necessarily. Who says bigger is better? A version that retains its history and essence? Definitely.
Ask anybody born and bred in Kuching. I’d wager they would not disagree much on the way Kuching makes them feel. It is a big town with identity. It is a little city with soul. It is old meets new in the best of ways. It is where all who live here call home.