Main Bazaar – the oldest street in Sarawak

THE OLD: The Main Bazaar in 1952. — Picture by Ho Ah Chon

KUCHING: Main Bazaar was the centre of Kuching before the city expanded to its present boundaries and as its name implies was the nerve centre of trade in state’s capital.

It also  is the oldest street in Kuching and by virtue of the fact that Kuching is the oldest urban centre in the state, it is also the oldest street in Sarawak.

When James Brooke first arrived in Sarawak in 1839, the cluster of shops made of wood and attap (nipah fronds) sitting on the edge of mudflats he recorded as his first impression of Kuching in his diary was actually  the Main Bazaar.

It occupied the prime trading area then, facing the river just a stone’s throw from the wharves and jetties where goods were loaded and unloaded.

After James Brooke established his Raj, business activities in bazaar picked up dramatically but it was only in 1872 under the reign of the second Rajah Charles Brooke that the rows of wooden shops facing the river were replaced by brick shophouses.

Main Bazaar is the first street to have brick shophouses in Sarawak when a few rows of wooden shophouses were torn down and replaced by concrete structures.

These shops were the first to have a five-foot way at their front for shoppers to walk. Interestingly the locals must have found the idea of a pedestrian mall in front of the shops novel and was lost for words in translating them into their languages.

The Chinese seemed quite lost in searching for a proper translation for it and settled for an awkward combination Chinese and Malay words for it, calling it ‘go ka ki’ – ‘go’ is five in Chinese while ‘kaki’ is  foot in Malay.

This outlandish translation possibly stems from the literal Malay translation ‘jalan kaki lima’ for ‘five-foot way’ but for ease of conversation it is simply called ‘kaki lima’.

In 1884 Main Bazaar was ravaged by a fire which razed all the wooden shophouses of the street and only the brick shops were left standing. The whole area was quickly rebuilt with brick shophouses which still stand today.

As the city developed the business transaction began to decentralize and combined with the development of new commercial centres , Main Bazaar is no longer the business hub of Kuching.

Today it has turned into a tourist centre with its quaint old shops and vestiges of Sarawak’s past.

One such reminders of Sarawak’s past is a side street of Main Bazaar with a strange name – Bishopgate Street. Was there a Bishop in living on the street before? Not quite but almost.

The Anglican Mission is located just behind Main Bazaar and a small road connected the church compound to Main Bazaar but as the town expanded  shops were built on either side of the road that actually led to the gate of the Bishop’s house – so what better name to call this new street than Bishopgate Street?

The gate was opened daily at dawn for the Mission staff and clergy to go to town and for the faithful to go to Church and closed at dusk.

Perhaps the Bishop was not too inclined to receive guests at night or was it to keep undesirable characters out and the Mission staff in at night?

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