|My father came from Jamaica in the late 1940s to work in the Colonial Service in Kuching, bringing his wife, Sybil, and their baby daughter, Patricia, with him. He became Financial Secretary, serving on the Council Negeri, before being invited to Kuala Lumpur in newly independent Malaysia as one of the three Deputy Chairmen of the Malaysian Tariff Advisory Board. I was born in Kuching General Hospital on what was then called Rock Road.
Kuching was home for my sister and I before being sent to boarding school in England in 1956, making visits in the summer holidays until 1963. We spoke Malay but never learnt to spell it, so please forgive any horrendous spelling mistakes: words like ‘barang’, ‘suca,’ ‘trimakasse,’ ‘makan’ and ‘scarang’ are part of the family vocabulary still. So my memories are a child’s and then a young teenager’s of what was, and remains, a very special place in my heart.
First memories are of the shelves in Joo Chan and Tan Sum Gwan. Our mother would walk to the counter at the back of the shop, carrying me on her hip, and order the groceries. When we were older my sister and I would buy ‘somboi’, ikan pusuk and other delicious salty snacks from their shelves. Of course, Pangkalan Batu nearby where we would get sampans to go “across river” (the only way over) – I can still see and feel my fingers in the warm river water; the bustling bazaar nearby where we would buy chicks; India Street for material and Carpenter Street for laksa.
First memories are of the shelves in Joo Chan and Tan Sum Gwan. Our mother would walk to the counter at the back of the shop, carrying me on her hip, and order the groceries.
Then came nursery at St Mary’s. A few wooden planks separated the playground from the road I seem to remember and we could buy snacks from a man with a cart. My favourite was a box of two sugary roosters; it always seemed a shame to eat them. I did, of course, but not before admiring their beautiful colours. The main hall at St Mary’s was open and airy and our weekly Brownies group met in there. I remember feelings of disappointment that I did not continue there as a new school was founded called The Lodge School and that’s where my sister and I were sent. Lessons were in English and we were taught to do sums with pounds, shillings and pence – something so totally abstract (since shopping was dollars and cents) I decided not to bother with it. Just as well the UK joined the rest of the world in the 1970s and went decimal! When our mother couldn’t collect us, Rashid came on his bicycle and I loved riding home on the handlebars. There were very few cars and we had the hazy afternoon road to ourselves.
Sunday afternoons were spent in the Museum Gardens, with many other Kuching residents walking and enjoying the stone tanks full of lilies and manicured lawns.
We went to Sunday School in the old wooden St Thomas’ cathedral on the top of a small mound: it was replaced by the current cathedral. Sunday afternoons were spent in the Museum Gardens, with many other Kuching residents walking and enjoying the stone tanks full of lilies and manicured lawns. A small menagerie behind the library had a wire cage around an enormous tree where orang utans and other monkeys looked at us while we looked at them. Baby crocodiles hatched there too and I was amazed how little and sweet they were and what big and ferocious beasts they grew into. There was also a snake pit with a couple of snakes in it.
Hari Raya was always a magical time, visiting people at homes lit up with coloured lights; Chinese New Year exciting, listening to the night filled with fire crackers; looking out of the window and seeing the sun setting behind Matang and Penrissen; the 8 o’clock gun firing in the evening – a signal for us to stop reading and go to sleep; Kuching General Hospital with nurses in their white canvas shoes on the long, open veranda at the back; the Rest House and the Library. Visits to the Rex or Sylvia cinemas were always a treat: once, when my father was away in Singapore, my mother took us to see Vincent Price in The House of Wax and the three of us spent the night huddled together in one bed we were so scared! Steve McQueen and Horst Buchholz are forever associated in my mind with the craze of brightly coloured flexible plastic (which you could buy in stalls outside the cinemas) and weave into baskets, animals and jewellery. (Does anyone remember that?) And the glorious, new, pink Aurora Hotel by the padang was a wonderful place to go for a special dinner or dance as we grew older. (I wonder if it is still there).
Occasionally we would take a launch (there were no roads) to Santubong, journeying down the river past kampungs and isolated houses, but mostly green trees full of the cries of gibbons or other creatures. Canoes from the kampung at the river mouth transported us to the shore and we walked up the hill to a two-storey house with a large oval porch and balcony on its top. The tide went out a long, long way leaving myriad crabs to discover and small sausage-shaped jellyfish in amongst the sand and boulders.
Later we went to Talang Talang and saw turtles laying their eggs. We stayed up late and had to be very quiet in case we scared the turtles away. Eventually someone came with a flare and led us to where ancient mothers laid hundreds of eggs deep in the sand; once begun they would not stop until they covered them and set off back to sea, leaving their distinctive trail in the wet sand. On land they were heavy and plodding but once in the water they became elegant and graceful.
Judy Hepburn lives in London and has had a long career as an actress and writer. She has worked at The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal National Theatre, West End and national and international tours. She co-wrote Sitting in Limbo which played at The Tricycle Theatre in London before being abridged for the BBC World Service and going on tour to Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. She has also written theatre in education plays for London schools. Judy worked with Tanzanian actors in Dar es Salaam on a British Council project to develop theatre in education there. She graduated in 2013 from Birkbeck with an MA in Creative Writing and is now working on a novel. Judy has two daughters and twin grandsons.