Kuching’s colonial heritage

Kuching – Explore the narrow streets filled with Chinese shophouses, the Astana and Fort Margherita in Sarawak’s most beguiling city.

The most populous city and capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, Kuching is a beautiful and clean city with an intriguing history and a captivating character.

Known as “Cat City” due to the similarity of the city’s name with the Malay word for cat (kucing), Kuching residents have embraced their home’s feline association, with several cat themed sculptures and even a cat museum.

Malaysia’s historical multicultural character is alive and well in Kuching, with the traditionally ethnic neighbourhoods of Little India and Chinatown as well as customary Malay houses and colonial-era architecture. One bonus is that the city centre is unusually pedestrian friendly and many sites can be covered on walking tours. If you’re like me and enjoy exploring on foot, you will appreciate this feature.

Here is a list of some of the colonial-era heritage buildings Kuching has to offer.

The Bishop’s House – The private residence of the Anglican Bishop of Kuching, and therefore not a building generally open to the public, this colonial gem features the classic white walls and exposed woodwork associated with Tudor England. Completed in 1849, the Bishops House is thought to be the oldest European-style dwelling in Sarawak. Read more here.

The Astana – The official residence of the governor of Sarawak, the Astana or “istana”, meaning palace, was built in 1870 by Charles Brooke, the second White Raja, as a gift to his bride Margaret Lili Alice de Windt. Though the building itself is not generally open to the public, its gardens are accessible via a boat ride across the Sarawak River. The Astana is made up of three buildings and resembles a castle with its square towers and long sloping roofs.

Astana. Pic: jinym1st (Flickr CC).

Kuching Courthouse – Built by Charles Brooke in 1883 on the waterfront to house government offices and ceremonies, the courthouse incorporates Ancient Greek columns, wooden walkways, large sloping roofs and a baroque clock tower into a pastiche of colonial styles. It is now home to the Sarawak Tourism Complex.

Fort Margherita – Also built by the second Raja in 1879 to protect Kuching from pirate attacks from the Sarawak River, the fort resembles an English castle. Located near the Astana, Fort Margherita is now a tourist attraction.

Форт Маргерита. Рис: Aron Paul (Wikimedia Commons).

Round Tower – Resembling a fortress with its round turrets and white walls, but in fact used as a town dispensary after a fire ravaged the area, the Round Tower was constructed in 1886. It is home to the Sarawak Handicraft Centre and is open daily 9am-6pm with free admission.

Sarawak State Museum – Established in 1888 and sponsored by Charles Brooke at the behest of naturist Alfred Wallace, this is the oldest museum in Borneo. The museum features a Queen Anne style of architecture and houses ethnographic exhibits and items documenting the natural history of Sarawak.

Pavilion Building – this three story architectural gem is located within the Old Courthouse complex and houses the Sarawak Textiles Museum, which showcases local ethnic costumes and information about Sarawak’s textile process. The building was constructed as a medical centre in 1909 in a mix of English Colonial and Renaissance styles.

Pavilion Building and Round Tower. Pic: Rachel Lee (Flickr CC).

St. Joseph’s Boys School (1894) and St. Thomas’s Boys School (1886) – A pair of religious schools, the first Catholic and the second Anglican, document the missionary history of Sarawak, which began in 1848.

Kuching General Post Office Building – The most recent example of colonial architecture, this imposing Neo-Classical structure dates from 1931 and features Corinthian columns, a facade composed of many arched openings and a central cornice. The Post Office stands opposite the Textile Museum (Pavilion Building).

Tua Pek Kong Temple – One of the city’s oldest temples, this elaborate Chinese structure dates from 1843 and is located right smack dab in the middle of Kuching’s historic centre.

Chinese History Museum – Built in classical-colonial style in 1912 as the Chinese Chamber of Commerce on the instructions of Charles Brooke, this museum showcases the history of the different Chinese communities in Sarawak. Admission is free and opening hours are 9am-6pm (closed Fridays).

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