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India Street: A Heritage Rediscovered

IN THE HEART OF KUCHING lies a destination fond to many who call this city home. Between two parallel shophouses is a street lain with textiles and fabric; a street for cheap and affordable goods; a street once bustling with locals, now joined with the occasional tourists snapping away with their cameras. Walls painted with vibrant colours of all sorts, shielded by its latest addition – an arch-like roof structure, guarding its people regardless of rain or shine.

As one of the busiest streets of Kuching Old Bazaar, India Street remains a heritage treasure for the books, boasting a history of over 140 years. It was where many of Kuching’s first Indian settlers have, literally, called home. Many entered Kuching grounds in the mid-late 19th century via the Sarawak river and made residence in the shophouses of India Street (then known as Kling Street), and started trading from then on, mainly textiles and fabrics, which caught up to the neighbouring Chinese community. The street then converted into a pedestrian mall in 1992 – the first of its kind in Kuching, and the whole of Malaysia.

That was the story told by Dr Shajahan Haji Sayed Ahmad, who runs one of India Street’s oldest and renowned shops, Salih Ahmad. Salih Ahmad was Dr Shajahan’s grandfather, the original owner of the shop who like many early Indian settlers, shared the same story.

Dr Shajahan on the other hand, grew up at India Street, and holds on dearly to the memories of his childhood. He recalls walking back and forth from St Thomas school, and getting along with his Chinese neighbours – sharing meals, spending time, and even learning bits and pieces of the language. Now, he tends to the shop in the afternoon, and works his mornings as a doctor at Polyclinic Jalan Masjid.

Dato’ Wee Hong Seng, India Street pedestrian mall committee chairman

Salih Ahmad is just one of the 14 shops with Indian-Muslim operators, among a total of 74 shops along India Street. Some shops have been in business for more than 60 years, while others have closed and made way for newer ventures. Regardless, side by side, these neighbours present the true essence of Malaysian unity. All pedestrians therefore, get to experience all walks of life, flourishing at the hands of India Street.

Overlooking the development of the mall since its beginning is Datuk Wee Hong Seng. Dato’ manages the mall and remains adamantly passionate about it, and about bringing change – building it better through time without changing its meaning or underlying heritage. “In this old city, if you’re not going to change, in the end of the day you’ll leave behind all the heritage,” he says. Since then, he has introduced events – performances in music, fan meetings and many more. When comes dawn and the shops lay to rest – annual night markets bring the street back to life again.

The Sarawak Heritage Street Food is one of these events to bring the street back to life, held by the Sarawak Heritage Culinary Committee as part of the Rainforest Fringe festival.

“The committee is for the promotion of old recipes – our culinary heritage – it’s also to encourage people to keep practicing some of the older methods of making these. Sometimes some cakes are very difficult to make, but a lot of people are still very reminiscent, very nostalgic about the memories that this food brings back to them,” – Datin Dona Drury

This July 6-8, pop down to India Street for a heritage street food adventure! With fifty stalls of food and crafts to discover, entertainment of our multicultural music on stage plus if you’re feeling adventurous, get your ‘hands up or hands-on’ workshops by KINO Live Heritage Kitchen, following the theme “Snacks Alive”!

Shannon is a recent graduate in journalism and media communications, returning to Cat City from the land down under. Now in the industry, she makes a promise to herself to grow, learn and make a difference every day – be it big or small. Kuching has never failed her, nor does she plan to fail Kuching. After all, this is home.

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