The central part of old Kuching represents an important heritage precinct. The area, stretching from the old State Mosque and Rumah Batu, past the Central or Covered Market, along India and Gambir Streets, with the latter’s view of the Astana and the adjacent Malay kampongs, along Carpenter Street and Main Bazaar, with its view of Fort Margherita and more kampongs, along Tabuan Road until Ting and Ting and extending to the far end of Jalan Padungan, represents one of the largest surviving streetscapes of traditional shop-houses in southeast Asia.
Until recently, the survival of this important precinct seems to have been largely fortuitous, with commercial developments being constructed at its margins. The formation of the Sarawak Heritage Society (SHS) in 2006 and the resurgent interest in heritage issues, which the formation of the SHS represented, give rise to optimism that this internationally important streetscape will be preserved for future generations.
One the greatest challenges to heritage conservation is a financial one. For buildings to be preserved and conserved, they need to fulfil economic purposes if they are not to become a drain on the public purse. Thus the sympathetic insertion of a sympathethic restaurant into the Square Tower is to be welcomed. The Square Tower now hosts a commercial business that has not compromised the Tower’s heritage value. Indeed, the Tower’s present role in the hospitality industry even has precedents in its own history. During the time of the third Rajah, Vyner, the Tower’s upper floor was used for weekly dances. Magenta’s occupation of the Tower therefore recalls one of its previous uses.
The various and, mostly, relatively short- lived uses for which pavilions in the Court House complex have been used are evidence of the difficulties which can be encountered in finding contemporary commercial uses for historic buildings of high heritage value. It is to be hoped that the forthcoming opening of another restaurant and an associated events centre succeeds in establishing long-term commercially viable uses for the old Court House buildings. One of the advantages of the shop-house form in commercial precincts is, precisely, its utility. The ground floor shop space is versatile, readily transformed into a coffee- shop, cocktail bar, gold-smith, tin-smith, apothecary, grocery shop, souvenir shop or antiques gallery. Similarly, the upper level residential quarters provide accommodation for the towkay and his family or, more recently, affordable rental accommodation for workers who wish to live centrally.
Carpenter street is, after Main Bazaar, the oldest street in Kuching.
Although the preservation of the built environment is a central concern to heritage conservation, so too should be conserving the social and commercial character of a heritage area. The few precincts in Singapore where rows of shop-houses have been preserved host top end boutiques, restaurants and bars. Over- restored to a glory that they probably never knew, they represent a severe case of ‘façade-ism’, which radically disconnects them from their social and commercial history. A similar process of gentrification is occurring in Penang, where the old uses of shop-houses are being replaced by up- market bars and restaurants, which are rapidly destroying the character of the island.
Until recently, the character as well as the street-scape of central Kuching has been preserved. Upmarket bars and restaurants have been established on the periphery of the central heritage area, on Jalan Tabuan, for example, and Jalan Padungan. These areas are close enough to the centre to be convenient while far enough from the centre not to transform its essential character. Moreover, in their décor, some of these bars make clever references to Sarawak’s cultures and history. Though up-market, they are proudly local. You could not imagine them in Madrid or London. They add to the diversity of Kuching’s nightlife, without detracting from the city’s essential charm. Indeed, many of the venues along Wayang Street and stretching up to Ban Hock Road road, substantially add to the charm of their surroundings and of the city, more broadly.
During the past two years, however, so many bars have been opened in Carpenter/Ewe Hai Street, in the very heart of the heritage precinct, that the Street itself is in danger of being transformed into an entertainment and tourist precinct. The sudden and numerous replacement of a range of businesses with a large number of businesses of the same type is not necessarily a problem in a heritage area. After all, it is only during the past 40 years or so that Main Bazaar came to host so many craft and souvenir shops and top end antiques galleries.
Carpenter Street is, after Main Bazaar, the oldest street in Kuching. Ida Pfeiffer, who visited Sarawak in 1851, recorded that “The town of Sarawak has neither streets nor squares; but consists of a throng of huts, crowded together without any order or symmetry. They are constructed out of the nipa palm, and stand on piles eight or ten feet high”. Pfeiffer’s description probably refers to the various Malay kampongs, rather than to Main Bazaar or Carpenter Street. At the time of Miss Pfeiffer’s visit, the Chinese population was still living in Malay style houses, rather than the shop- houses. The Chinese must have begun to built shop-houses shortly after, however, since a photograph of Main Bazaar taken in 1864 (and published in Alice Yen Ho’s Old Kuching) clearly depicts them.
...on 20 January 1884, all of the shop-houses on Carpenter street, China street and Bishopsgate street, 135 in number, were destroyed in a great fire, which began in a house on Carpenter street and quickly spread.
There are two excellent food courts in Carpenter Street, one beside the old Post Office which serve good Malay food and the other opposite the small temple which is famous for, among other things, its fish soup and chah kueh.
Another of the new bars has a sign on its five foot way reminding its patrons that Carpenter street is a residential precinct and asking them to respect the comfort of residents by not being loud and rowdy.
In April 1868, Charles Brooke ordered that the shop-houses on Main Bazaar be demolished and rebuilt in brick and mortar. Charles’s order appears to have been ignored by the towkays, however. In 1871, therefore, he re-issued it. Since he also considered the houses near the Bazaar, presumably in what is now Carpenter Street, to be “unsightly and insecure”, he ordered them to be “rebuilt in a more solid manner and on a larger scale”. As a result, in October 1871, the Sarawak Gazette reported that the order of Government that the houses facing the river should be rebuilt, brick being substituted for wood, and bilian ataps made compulsory, is being gradually carried out...
The transformation which has taken place in Carpenters' Street is still more wonderful. The old tumbledown abodes, inhabited for the most part by the poorer artisans among the Chinese have given place to neat plank houses roofed with bilian, and built with the same approach to regularity.
Only 13 years later, however, on 20 January 1884, all of the shop-houses on Carpenter Street, China Street and Bishopsgate Street, 135 in number, were destroyed in a great fire, which began in a house on Carpenter Street and quickly spread. Although two of the brick shop-houses on Main Bazaar were also destroyed, further damage was prevented by what the Straits Times of 20 February described as “an opportune downpour of rain, which fell in torrents”.
The danger for Carpenter Street is that the large number of bars will transform its night-time character and destroy its amenity as a residential district. Some bars are more careful to preserve the street’s character than others. The Drunk Monkey looks and feels as if it belongs in Sarawak. Despite it unpromising name, neither its music nor its clientele are intrusively loud. Another of the new bars has a sign on its five foot way reminding its patrons that Carpenter Street is a residential precinct and asking them to respect the comfort of residents by not being loud and rowdy. The Speak Eazy, which pioneered the opening of bars in Carpenter Street, provides a rare and much welcome (to non-smokers) smoke free environment.
But can Carpenter Street host so many bars without losing its character, especially when not all of the bars are so considerate? There are two excellent food courts in the street, one beside the old Post Office which serves good Malay food and the other opposite the small temple which is famous for, among other things, its fish soup and chah kueh. The amenity of the first has been destroyed by the loud music which blasts from a bar which recently opened nearby. The music is so loud that it is impossible to hold a conversation in the food court. I am aware of recent occasions when people intending to eat there have left without doing so, driven away by the music.
Inside the bar, itself, the music is head- splittingly loud, making it impossible to hear people even when they shout into your ear. Although, on one occasion, the staff obligingly turned the music down when asked to do so, the following night the loud music was back. The dangerously high volume of the music is a powerful deterrent to anyone thinking of drinking in the bar. More importantly, however, the volume of the music is destroying the character of Carpenter Street. It is adversely affecting the businesses of the vendors in the food court and it is making the adjacent residential area virtually uninhabitable.
The danger of so many bars opening in such a small area, which already hosts a number of hostels catering to back- packers, is that we might be witnessing the ‘Balification’ of Borneo. I hope not.
John Walker has enjoyed a love affair with Sarawak and its history, on which he has written extensively. From December until March you can find him at his ‘office’ at Green Hill Corner, or in a coffee shop in Carpenter Street. He is seriously addicted to Kolo Mee.