Walk down Main Bazaar and there is a strange sense of energy permeating every worn tile. Maybe it’s the wind, roaring down the Sarawak River in a thunderstorm as hawkers and vendors run for cover or as a breeze gently kissing skin on cheeks, a reprieve from the tyrannical afternoon sun. Maybe it’s the noise, at times bustling with buskers, tourists, locals, and at others, quiet as a mouse. Or maybe, it’s the history, the weight of time recording the growth of Kuching as a city, tempered by fresh breaths of discovery.
Duality is an apt word to describe the waterfront. Connecting the past and the future, symbolically and almost literally, it stands as a testament to Kuching’s storied past. When James Brooke first stepped onto the shores of Sarawak in 1839, setting foot on what was to become the Main Bazaar, it was little more than a cluster of mud flats and atap shophouses. The walkway you see today was built in 1993 in an effort to revitalize the economic environment of the city. In fact, less than 30 years ago, you would have seen nothing more than a few landmark buildings, shophouses, grass and dirt lining the shore of the river. Perhaps heralding a new chapter in Kuching’s life, the now famous waterfront continues to grow and change along with the city, and its people.
Like many Kuchingites, I’ve been up and down this street countless times, but as the saying goes, “the eye cannot see what the mind does not know”. Beneath the cobbled steps and behind each wayward whisper is a plethora of stories, subtle and hidden. For example, my grandfather used to walk day in and day out, to the sprawling produce market now long-forgotten, buying and trading meat, fish and vegetables, carrying them in baskets dangling precariously on thick wooden poles to trade with haggling housewives in the city. Hard work and sweat now leave naught but echoes in the rebuilt and renovated spaces lining the waters.
Across the river, Fort Margherita stands in brilliant white. Now serving as a gallery for the Brooke Heritage Trust, Fort Margherita invites strangers in, where it once was a bulwark against pirates, recruited soldiers keeping them out of the Sarawak River. How many sleepless nights must have been spent, lonely on the ramparts of that old fortress? Further down the old road is the Chinese Museum, chronicling the journeys of the Malaysian Chinese that made their way across the South China Sea. Close your eyes and you can feel their trepidation as the Kuching coastline drew closer, their relief tangible as they stepped off their craft onto terra firma once more. They survived the journey, their dreams realized in their children, the young men and women of today.
Often, we miss the bigger picture. It’s so easy to walk past these places, read a guidebook and move on, or even, as a local, either forget or simply neglect to understand the stories behind them. The Waterfront is teeming with life, an energy that ebbs and flows with the river it faces. It is very much part of the DNA of this city, and it has seen it all, every road paved, every brick put in place.
In the middle of the waterfront is the amphitheatre, converted from an old godown (a term used to describe the warehouses in Kuching). The structure is used mainly for dance and music events. Listen closely and you can still hear the laboured breaths and heavy footfall of workers carrying goods to and fro, in time to the rhythm of the song and step performed centuries later. The courage of the old labourers transcends time, brazenly carried on by young performers, each bold movement and chord struck honouring the sacrifice of those who came before.
Further down, the Steamship Company building stands stoic, rejuvenated. Built in 1930 and used as a hub for sago traders, it still handles the business of buying and selling goods, but on a far smaller scale. Rich merchants and businessmen no longer ply their trade within, and yet you can’t help but see the ghost of charters and shipping logs in maps and pamphlets, as trinkets and oddities replace sago and goods. The Sarawak River served as the veins and arteries of commerce, pumping resources through the waterfront, and the Steamship Company building was the heart of trade; its ventricles and atria the halls and rooms within the structure. In stark contrast to its quaint historicity is the Dewan Undangan Negeri (DUN) building directly across the river. Built in the shape of a giant Melanau tribal hat, it crowns the head of Sarawak’s Legislative Assembly, casting decisions and rulings that change Sarawak little by little. Its modernity is striking, viewed from across the river.
A book by photographer and author Ho Ah Chon entitled "Kuching in Pictures 1840 – 1960s" included this photo and caption."This picture shows the main centre of the town on its water front. There were three wharves for vessels to berth, and the river was used by big and small vessels. Government offices, an Anglican Cathdral, Aurora Hotel, Sarawak Museum and many other buildings could be seen quite clearly".
As with any history, it would be unfair to focus solely on the good and leave out the ugly. Be it skirmishes with armed pirates during the Brooke era, or the hungry maw of raging fires that consumed the wooden shop lots in 1884, to the Japanese occupation, taking over the Square Tower and turning it into a torture chamber. Originally a prison, the Brooke coat of arms, displayed proudly, was stained red with the cries of helpless victims during World War II. Despite the suffering inflicted, Kuching did not falter, picking itself up and shouldering the burden of rebuilding after the war. As brick buildings were constructed after the wooden structures turned to ash in the great fire, so did Kuching refuse to be broken by the haunting wrongs of its past, and instead, looked to the future.
Often, we miss the bigger picture. It’s so easy to walk past these places, read a guidebook and move on, or even, as a local, either forget or simply neglect to understand the stories behind them. The Waterfront is teeming with life, an energy that ebbs and flows with the river it faces. It is very much part of the DNA of this city, and it has seen it all, every road paved, every brick put in place. The history of Kuching is written on every inch of that street, walk from the city side of the road to the end of the pier and climb the tower of steel and stairs, up to the top and view Kuching from above. You’ll see the sampans, going to and fro across the river for less than a Ringgit, generations of boatmen ferrying people to the other side, and back. Nearby, recent construction is still ongoing, building a new bridge that links one side of the river to the other. A fitting metaphor perhaps, bringing the future and the past together, so we may continue to build on the shoulders of those who came before, and those who come after can build on ours.
Derek Kho is a writer, dancer and performer who has adopted a style of intense, visual and vivid storytelling to bring life to his work. As a Kuchingite who’s been away and is rediscovering his home town, he aims to bring engaging and intelligent work that explores cultures both contemporary and traditional.