THERE is in Kuching an important building sandwiched between India Street and Gambier Road. It is not an imposing structure, as seen from the ground. You’d have to fly over it in a helicopter to see its roof, without the cupola.
Many visitors to the city do not even know it exists. But it is a place of worship, nonetheless – and one of venerable antiquity. According to written information so far available, it was built by the early Indian Muslim spice and textile traders from South and Northern India. They had come to Sarawak via Singapore in the 1830s.
In 1848, Harriette, wife of Francis McDougall (later Bishop of the Anglican Church in Sarawak) wrote regular letters to her son Charley. In one of them, she explained to the lad that the local Malays had their house of worship, and the Indian Muslims in town had a separate building of their own. “Some years ago, the mosque had almost fallen to decay, and the people were not at all disposed to give money to build it up again; but now the mosque is quite a good-looking building and they have lately surmounted it with a great brass ball, which glitters in the sun and draws all eyes to it.”
According to another source, the mosque was made of “…fragile kajang walls, and a roof made of ataps. In 1876, new timber walls were erected, and a new roof was made from belian shingles. The concrete floor was added at a later date”.
Whatever the structural details, the Indian Mosque now called Masjid Bandar Kuching, is a national heritage. The news that it is going to be repaired soon has gladdened the hearts of the history buffs in town. It is hoped that this is true because there was some confusion over the suggestion to build an entirely new mosque somewhere purportedly to replace it.
People in the tourism industry will be happy too about the news. One of the main attractions of the capital city for visitors from overseas is that part of the town bounded by India Street and Gambier Road; the mosque mentioned by Harriette is still there!
To see it, tourists are taken through an old narrow passageway between shops number 37 and 39, which is open day and night. Wiggle your way through that passage and as you emerge on Gambier Road, you will discover a new territory – the extension of the Waterfront project. Pretty sight but who would expose themselves to the hot afternoon sun on the benches?
The entrance of the mosque is actually on Gambier Road. Except for the two loud speakers jutting out from the windows and the name ‘Masjid Bandar Kuching (1834)’, it is indistinguishable from any shop there.
Spices at Gambier Road
The bazaar on Gambier Road is as busy as it was years ago. In the 1950s, you could buy almost anything: spices, live chickens and salted fish. Those who could not afford to get frozen meats from the only cold storage, Joo Chan, on India Street, would be able to get similar products, except lamb shanks or blue-vein cheese, at a reduced price at the wet market.
I used to buy spices to take home for my Gambier Road mother from the shop at the exit of the mosque, the best place to get a good selection – ketumbar, buah pahala, jintan manis, cengkeh, kayu manis, buah gadong, and kemenyan, the sort of stuff mother needed both for cooking and for medicine.
While waiting for my turn to have a haircut for one Straits Dollar by my favourite barber, Awang Pauzi, I would buy a weekly paper next door at Toko Mustafa. My favourite was ‘The Week Ender’. Beneath its masthead was written a beautiful expression ‘For Discerning Readers Everywhere’. I admit I had to look up the word ‘discerning’ in a dictionary, occasionally using it to attract attention of listeners during seminars.
The whole of this complex is a very valuable piece of real estate in Kuching, from both economic and aesthetic viewpoints. Sadly, the extension of the Waterfront project has wiped out the Bunker wharf and the Jetty Panjang, for many years busy landing places. The facilities had served the traders along Gambier Road and Jalan Gertak as well as those suppliers of various jungle products from the interior. Boats of all sizes from Moyan, Jemukan, and Nonok came to Kuching and went from there, bringing with them loads of fresh bananas, pineapples, rubber sheets, rattan, coconuts, gula apong, salted fish. You name them.
The vendors of jungle produce spent their money on pots and pans, fish hooks, porcelain, new clothes, bread (roti paun), perfumes, paints for their boats and houses. During the month of Ramadan, this was about the only place where Muslims could buy delicious dates for the berbuka puasa.
There must be a good reason why the road is called Gambier. In Santubong, Chupin and Gunong Selenggok, Chinese had planted gambir – a plant whose leaves were boiled in large iron wok (kawah) into brownish crystals, material good for tanning. There must have been a brisk export business in this stuff at the time; the spice traders at Gambier Road were the ones likely to handle its export through Singapore.
The Bunker wharf was for bigger vessels. In the past, it must have handled coal from Simunjan and sago from Mukah awaiting big steamers to collect them.
During school holidays in the 1950s, I made it a point to go home and the only means of transport to Lundu then was by boat berthed at the jetty. As the launch would normally leave early in the morning and I must not miss it, I preferred to sleep on board, while other passengers would sleep in the mosque.
Missing the old sights and smells
Alas, most of these facilities are gone – the bunker wharf, the markets, the bakery, and the jetty – to make way for the extension of the Kuching Waterfront project. The local history and heritage enthusiasts have no clout in the tussle between the importance of preservation of aesthetic beauty and heritage and the need for material development, consoling themselves in sentimentalism while hoping, perhaps, that the government of the day would spare the present buildings, the most valuable piece of real estate sandwiched between India Street and Gambier Road, for many more years to come for the sake of the next generations of Malaysians.
That lepak on Thursday would have ended happily had it not been for a sorry sight: the vegetable, fruit and fish vendors occupying the five-foot way of Gambier Road. These people are supposed to be trading at the new Stutong Market, but this inland facility is miles away to be of any use to the consumers in that part of the city as well as the people from across the river. They are important suppliers of fish. vegetables and fruits. If the old wet market was retained, these people would have found a decent space to trade.
There is a huge empty space, seemingly neglected, between the shop houses at Gambier Road. Why can’t this be used as a temporary measure for these traders? Perhaps, someone has a better idea for the gap, like one left by a missing tooth.
Such are the sights, smells and sounds that you may discover when you stroll or do window shopping in that part of Kuching.