Stories behind stories

ON May 25, Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem launched the book titled ‘The story behind the villages in Lundu District,’ written by former Lundu District Officer Azmi Bujang.

The Chief Minister’s encouragement to District Officers to document the history and origin of the areas they served for future references was fitting for an occasion to acknowledge Azmi’s efforts in coming up with a well-researched book.

In his address, Adenan mentioned that Kuching could be the only city in the world named after an animal. That remark did surprise me.

Well, you could argue that he was not saying “Kuching is the only city in the world named after an animal” but rather that it “could be.”

With over 45 cities named after animals in the US alone, the lack of definitude as to the origin of the name Kuching – that it could only be assumed to have come from an animal and that the State Capital could be the only city in the world to take the name of an animal (in this instance, a cat) – is quite hard to ignore or to not talk about.

Flamingo in Florida, Deer in Arkansas, Fox and Chicken in Alaska, White Horse in New Jersey, Buffalo in New York and Wolf in Wyoming are all “animals’ towns.”

My friend Johnny who lives in Tasmania Down Under says a town there is called “Penguin.”

Adenan also quoted from the text of historians who apparently made the assumption that “the name Kuching could have been derived from a fruit called Mata Kuching or from the Malay word for cat (Kuching).”

You can call me a “Porcupine” from South Dakota for being so particular about the veracity of such assumption. But I am not the only “Porcupine” around. My colleague Francis Chan has written about the origin of the name Kuching amidst much speculation and wild claim.

He allows me to quote his findings in an award- winning article published in The Borneo Post on October, 28 2007:

“I wrote on this subject in a feature published in The Borneo Post on October 28, 2007.

“Now that we are on this subject gain, I will touch on it briefly. It is imperative we realise Kuching has nothing to do with cats.

“One of the most popular myths is that the city got its name through a communication breakdown between Sir James Brooke, the first White Rajah, and a local Malay man who mistakenly thought Brooke was referring to a cat which happened to be passing by when Brooke asked him the name of the town.

“Thinking Brooke meant the cat, the Malay man answered “Kuching” which is cat in Malay and the Englishman took it for the name of the town.

“The fundamental error in this claim is that Sarawak Malays call cats ‘pusak’ not ‘kuching’ which is a peninsular Malaysian word for the feline.

“Kuching is actually named after an old well located at Upper China Street near the St Thomas’ Cathedral. It was the well where the locals got their drinking water from back then.

“It was only in 1895 that Kuching was supplied with treated pipe water with the completion of the town’s reservoir at the present Reservoir Park along Jalan Budaya.

“With its redundancy, the old well was covered up and a row of shophouses built over it.

“The well may be forgotten but before it was covered up, it lent its name to the capital of Sarawak.

“The area where the old well was located was referred to by the Chinese as ‘ku-ching’ (which means old well in mandarin).

“Before 1872, Kuching was known as Sarawak which must

have created a lot of confusion because James Brooke named his Raj carved out of the Brunei Sultanate as Sarawak after the Sarawak River which runs through the town.

“So there was a time when Sarawak was the capital of Sarawak and compounding the situation, the state’s main river at that time was also called Sarawak.

“Perhaps to clear this confusion, Charles Brooke decided to name the whole town Kuching which, at that time, was merely a section of the present capital of Sarawak.

“I believe there is no stronger claim to the origin of the name Kuching than this story of the old well. But we have been wrong in associating the city with cats for so long we thought we were right!

“We even have a Cats museum to back that claim and the city has endeared itself to cat lovers all over the world.

“The old well is an inconvenient truth and let’s face it, cats have a greater appeal than an old watering hole!

“I am all for Kuching the ‘Cat City’ – sometimes it’s better to let a sleeping cat lie.”

Of course, there will always those who are hesitant to accept the authenticity of the foregoing account and will come up with their own version of how and where Kuching got its name.

Yes, we do assume a lot.

For many years, Sarawakians and Sabahans accepted August 31 as the National Day and even the shouts of “Merdeka! Merdeka” led by the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman as cries of our independence.

But thanks to the many dedicated journalists, some of the mislaid assumptions – and assertions – regarding the date of independence for Borneo states have been put into perspective – and rightly so.

Now we know August 31 has no meaning to us and that September 16 is the date when Malaysia was formed and Sarawak is one of the four equal partners which formed Malaysia (Malaya, Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore) on September 16, 1963.

Adenan has somehow rightly declared July 22 as the Independence Day for Sarawak – the day the British began the process of giving up the governing of Sarawak symbolizing self-government days to pave the way for the formation of Malaysia.

Probably the next thing Kuching city should get it right is to stop celebrating City Day on August 1.

Francis Chan in the same article wrote:

“If you dig deep into the annals of the State’s history, you will find that the second white Rajah, Sir Charles Brooke, officially named the capital of Sarawak Kuching on August 12, 1872.”

The most recent open declaration by the Philippines’ president-elect Rodrigo Duterte to re-stake his claim on Sabah, saying  Sabah was leased, not ceded, is worrying. We can only hope (or assume, if you like) that good sense will prevail in resolving the issue and peaceful negotiation is the way to go.

In any case, now is an opportune time as any for the government and all parties concerned to take stock of the situation and view the issue from the right perspective in order to defuse a potential power keg.

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