Wong shivered involuntarily, and raced up the last stretch to the top of the hill, pushing his bicycle. He reached the top, and looked back again. The man was gone. He knew he would be gone. He had seen this lonely man every time he cycled through this stretch of the cemetery, and the figure always disappeared once Wong reached the top of the hill.
Wong lived in 7th mile, and cycled to school in Kuching every day. He always tried to get home before 6pm, because he dreaded having to cycle through the cemetery, and past this spirit. Yes, the slim man was a spirit. Harmless though he was, frightening it was to have to cycle past him.
This is a telling of Kuching’s Spirit road. Wong, 73 now, recalls clearly those old days travelling the Spirit road. It is along this road that generation after generation of Kuching-ites have been placed in the ground, returning to the earth they came from. Some rest beneath simple headstones, some with magnificent tombs, and yet others in unmarked graves, forever lost to time.
Spirit road begins at Pangkalan Batu, the jetty opposite the Astana along Kuching’s waterfront. As was the practice in almost all British colonies, the main road leading out of a city was named according to the mile. 1st mile was St. Joseph’s Cathedral, 2nd mile was just past Kuching’s huge, dark maleficent rock, and 3rd mile was the old bazaar and railway station. And so on… 7th mile was the “end of the road”, beyond which the road stretched into the wilderness, heading south towards Serian. This road is called Rock road, named after the rock at 2nd mile.
This is also Kuching’s spirit road. Along its first seven miles lie the old cemeteries dating back over 200 years. The oldest graves lie in the compound of the Anglican cathedral in town, the St Thomas’s school ground, and the Sarawak Museum gardens. As Kuching grew, so did the graveyards, extending to Crookshank road, then at Batu Lintang, and eventually spreading outwards almost the entire distance of Rock road to 7th mile, and beyond.
The spirits of those gone before us rest amongst us today. It is a peaceful separation between the present world and the spirit world. Occasionally, for reasons unknown to us, these worlds cross, or merge, and some people get a peek into the other world – they see spirits. And along Spirit road is where this happens most often.
Wong’s experience as a young boy in the 1950s is not an isolated case. Even today, people still “meet” visual apparitions along this road. Just last year, a taxi driver picked up a mother and child at the bus-stop opposite Saberkas, wanting to go to 7th mile. It was only 10 minutes later that the driver realised there was no one in the back. His shock caused him to swerve and hit the curb, damaging his car.
In the mid-90s, numerous people visiting the museum gardens in the late evening tell of seeing a tall overweight woman with a pronounced limp walking past the old graves, dressed in a white gown with a slash of blood running down her back. She would then vanish behind the old summer house.
Older folks often retell of a soldier, dressed in full military uniform, standing in front of the old printing office. His long carbine, complete with bayonet, made people driving past take a second look, and he was gone.
Today, Kuching’s Spirit road is a much modified main thoroughfare. It basically still follows its original alignment, past the still present Fraser’s & Neave aerated waters factory. There are small stretches of the original road surviving. You can still see what the old road used to look like just before 7th mile, curving along the same hill that was so frightening to Wong over 50 years ago. Who knows, drive that old road in the late evenings and you just might see that slim man leaning on his staff, a shimmering apparition from the spirit world. Fear him not. Our spirits are also our guardians, and a memory of our past.
Tony Sebastian was born in Sibu, grew up in Marudi, Limbang and Serian. Nature his profession, history his passion, Kuching his home. A naturalist, traveller and writer, Tony’s love for Sarawak is evident in the way he brings its tales to life.