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 KINO SPECIAL HERITAGE 
KUCHING'S TREES OF LIFE
BY EDGAR ONG

+100 YEARS, The Kapok Tree Ceiba Pentandra, Merdeka Padang

This unique kapok (false cotton) tree is the largest standing tree in Kuching.

History behind the majestic green giants

Trees are the monarchs of the jungle. All other jungle life shelters under them, scrambles up them, stands alongside them, rests against them. They live and breathe and hold the ground beneath our feet together. In the concrete jungle, their status is undiminished. Kuching, from a visitor’s point of view, is a green, clean and very liveable city, thanks in large part to the many old and historical trees scattered throughout it. There’s a lot of history behind these majestic green giants and it would be a shame if their stories are never told. The single, most iconic giant of a tree stands proudly at the edge of the Merdeka Padang (formerly Central Padang) facing the Merdeka Palace Hotel (formerly the Aurora Hotel). This unique kapok (false cotton, Ceiba pentandra) tree is the largest standing tree in Kuching. Its pods produce a fibrous, white ‘fluff’ that is buoyant and resistant to water, traditionally used to stuff pillows and even for hydrophonic cleansing of polluted materials in the seas and oceans! It can grow to 75 metres in height with a trunk exceeding 3 metres in diameter. This particular tree is reputed to be over 100 years old, which means that it has seen the reign of the Brooke Rajahs (1841-1946), the rule of the British Colonials (1947-1963), the Japanese occupation (1941-45) and the coming of independence under Malaysia (1963-present day). The stories it could tell indeed!

Walking eastwards from the kapok tree towards the General Post Office area and into the old Courthouse buildings barely 200 metres away, one comes across the enchanting raintree fronting the Courthouse, facing the Kuching waterfront. The Albizia saman, a very old and unique species of flowering tree in the pea family, is wide-canopied with a large symmetrical crown, usually growing to a height of 25 metres (82 feet) with a diameter of 40 metres. Its leaves fold in the rain and at evening time, hence it is known as ‘pukul lima’ (five o’clock tree) in Malay. The name ‘raintree’ was given by Indians in Bengal, to describe its ability to create moisture on the ground due to the honeydew-like discharge of cicadas feeding on the leaves! Research conducted in Indonesia has shown that a mature tree measuring 15 metres can absorb up to 28.5 tons of CO2 annually –  a perfectly environmentally friendly species of tree indeed.

For the next tree, one needs to take a tampang (a small river boat,usually rowed, but nowadays with a small 8HP outboard engine) to get to the other side of the Sarawak River – to the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak, the Yang di-Pertuan Negeri (TYT) – the Astana. There, on its undulating palatial grounds, stands another majestic specimen, the buah saga tree (Adenanthera pavonina) which is commonly known as the red lucky seed, and after which Malaysia’s first home made car was named – Proton Saga. The bright red seeds of the buah saga have been a symbol of love in China and its Chinese name is ‘mutual love bean’. Its Malay name has been traced to the Arabic for ‘goldsmith’ as the beauty of the seeds has seen their use as beads for jewellery and in India as units of weight for fine measures of gold. The tree is fast growing with a very attractive and widespread canopy making it suitable as a shade tree – however it also produces a lot of falling leaves, twigs and seed pods which actually crack open while still on the branch, releasing the seeds to fall onto the surrounding grounds. The buah saga tree has been on the grounds of the Astana since the early days of the Brookes – as shown in paintings by Victorian artist Marianne North (1830-1890) done during the era of Rajah Charles Brooke (1829-1917), probably around 1870. That would indicate that this tree is more than 150 years old today. The remaining two trees are further into the suburbs of Kuching, the Maxwell Road area and the Golf Links (now the Kuching Civic Centre) near Malaysia’s second oldest family club, the prestigious and exclusive Sarawak Club. Along Maxwell Road stands a one of a kind tree – the cannonball tree! Its Latin name is Couroupita guianensis

 + 100 YEARS ‘PUKUL LIMA' TREE Albizia Saman Courthouse forecourt

Albizia saman is a unique species of flowering tree in the pea family. Its leaves fold in the rain and at evening time, hence it is known as ‘pukul lima’ (five o’clock tree) in Malay.

– a deciduous tree, its leaves fall off at maturity or it sheds its petals and leaves after flowering or when the fruits are ripe. This cannonball tree grows up to 35 metres in height and its clustered leaves vary in length from 8 to 31 centimetres and reaching up to 57cm. The flowers are in large bunches up to 80 meters long and one tree can bear 1000 strongly scented and brightly coloured flowers per day! The large fruit, which is woody and spherical measuring up to 25 cms, falls to the ground when ripe with a loud explosive sound, thus giving the species its common name ‘cannonball tree’. The fruit is fed to livestock such as chickens and pigs, and is also edible for humans but due to its unpleasant smell is not popular. In India, the tree is sacred to Hindus, who believe its hooded flowers look like the naga, and it is grown at Shiva temples. According to Buddhist tradition, Maya held on to the branch of a blossoming tree while giving birth to the Lord Buddha – as such it is much revered by Buddhists around the world. This tree is over eighty years old and has seen young British colonial officers gallivanting around during the days of the Rajahs as many of them stayed in the old wooden bungalows scattered around the Maxwell, Rodway, Crookshank roads residential areas which for a time were their exclusive enclaves.

Saving the best and most important tree for last – there is the mata kuching tree. Dimoncarpus longan, which is more commonly known as the longan, is a tropical tree native to southern Asia which produces edible fruit, similar to the lychee. In Chinese it is known literally as ‘Dragon Eye’ because it resembles an eyeball when its fleshy translucent flesh is shelled. One version of the origin of the name ‘Kuching’ cites these very trees which supposedly were in season when they had landed and from there, the then riverside village was given this fruity name. Sadly to say such mata kuching trees are rare sights these days in the city, although they can still be found in abundance in the countryside, especially outside Kuching along the Kuching-Serian road and along the Bau and Matang outskirt towns. The mata kuching tree is a medium-sized evergreen that grows up to 7 metres in height, preferring sandy soil and temperatures above 40C to survive happily. The fruit is sweet, juicy and succulent and is eaten fresh, although the dried version is also used in Chinese cuisine and for desserts. It is an extremely popular fruit!

One prominent old specimen of the mata kuching tree exists very near where the Kuching Civic Centre stands today, inside the garden of a long-time resident of Jalan Ong Kwan Hin, Erwin Wright and his family. It was planted during the days of the second Rajah, Charles Brooke, when the Ong family patriarch Ong Kwan Hin owned acres of orchards along the road named after him. This tree has seen the days and nights of the famous Ong family parties, hosting the presence of the two White Rajahs as well as the last two colonial Governors of Sarawak, Sir Anthony Abell (1950-59) and Sir Alexander Waddell (1960-63).

+ 80 YEARS THE CANNONBALL TREE Couroupita guianensis Maxwell Road

The large fruit which is woody and spherical measuring up to 25 cms falls to the ground when ripe with an loud explosive sound thus giving the species its common name ‘cannonball tree’. 

 + 120 YEARS BUAH SAGA TREE Adenanthera pavonina The astana grounds

 Malaysia’s first home made car was named Proton Saga after this tree.  

These trees, through longevity alone, have earned their place as heritage icons. But their position in our history and culture ensures their status.

Perhaps it is a good time for someone to arrange for a mata kuching tree to be planted somewhere along the Kuching Waterfront, if only to symbolise, as a footnote to the history of Sarawak, for both tourists and locals alike, that it could have been the sighting of such a tree that prompted our city founders to name the town over a hundred years ago. After all, if history is anything to go by, it will still be standing long after we are gone.

 + 70 YEARS, MATA KUCHING TREE Dimoncarpus longan, Jalan Ong guan Hin

In Chinese it is known literally as ‘Dragon Eye’ because it resembles an eyeball when its fleshy translucent flesh is shelled.

Edgar Ong was born in Kuching, has worked and travelled throughout Sarawak and Sabah during his early career with British, Japanese and German conglomerates, and now as a fixer for his own company Borneo Film Locations. A social activist he also writes and co-produces films.

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