Preserving the Malay heartland


Kuching is divided into north and south by the Sarawak River. The divide is so strongly etched into the local culture that the reference to Petra Jaya area or anywhere north of the river is “seberang sungei” or in Hokkien “tui bin kang” (“across the river”) and the south as “pasat” (town).

In a way, it is a reference to the north as outskirts of town.

The southern part of the city has always been the hub of business and commercial activities, the town centre. Earlier government buildings were generally set up there.

Northern Kuching was always seen as the Malay kampung. This is Malay heartland. The kampung houses hug the more recent signs of modernity, the DUN building, and some earlier Brooke-era buildings such as the Fort Magherita and the Astana.

Only since the 1970s and 1980s has the Sarawak Government actively shifted government activities to the north of the river with the construction of Wisma Bapa Malaysia and the old DUN building but they were all further north, more inland (from the Sarawak River).

The construction of the Satok Bridge allowed the setting up of larger mixed zone residential estates over the north shore starting at the Matang area.

Thus the development of the north bank can be said to be stymied by the lack of road infrastructure, the Sarawak River being the hindrance.

The numerous Malay kampungs along the north bank of the river such as Kampung Tupong to the west, Kampung Istana, Kampung Bedil and Kampung Surabaya right to Kampung Pulo in the east next to the Salahuddin Bridge have maintained their kampung character and old-world charm.

However, projects are underway to modernise and shift them out of their haphazard and disorganised lifestyle by the government. Like all kampungs, they have, over the ages, sprung up organically without the proper planning for infrastructure and in some areas the houses are clustered too closely without  fire safety in mind. Roads are narrow and houses are crammed.

This new relocation project, named Desa Ilham will change the way Kuching will be seen as the kampungs will be demolished all the way from the Satok Bridge in the west to the Salahuddin Bridge in the east. Perhaps Kuching will never be seen as the idyllic city with its casual ambience again.

The Kampung dwellers will all be housed in a new area further inland from the Salahuddin Bridge. They will be housed in apartments.

Currently, there is not much of an objective to take the ride to the north shore, save to go to the Orchid Garden.

While interesting, it is sedate. The Police Museum, housed in the Fort Magherita was until recently closed for renovation. The DUN and the Astana are off-limit buildings anyway. Perhaps a tourist may go to the SEDC hawker centre but food there is more for locals.

But what has caught my eyes is not these modernity but the Mira Cake House and the My restaurant. These are housed in the old Malay houses. In the vicinity are also other houses making Sarawak kek lapis. Mira Cake House is housed in a well decorated double storey building and lit up nicely at night.

These are the kind of tourism products that are character-building. They create the Kuching ambience. They should be preserved.

In fact, the cluster of houses located at Kampung Boyan and Kampung Gersik should all be preserved. It slopes uphill from the riverbank. The kampong houses nestle on the gentle hill and are all within walking distance of each other. It could well be a Malay tourism village.

This is opposite of the generally busy and commercial heart of the south shore. The Grand Magherita, Riverside Majestic Hotel as well as the Hilton on the south bank directly overlook these villages of the north shore.

There are other hotels such as Pullman and Harbourview, and the Kuching Waterfront are also located along the south old city area.

The views from there are superb. Just bring in some more tourist products, such as a few high-end Malay restaurants to the other houses. Even a Malay heritage museum from a cluster of the houses.

Then bring in a Starbucks and a KFC or a McDonald’s. Of course, add a dash of tourism trinket-shop.

Some of these houses can be converted to homestay houses or small motels. Expose the tourists to the genteel Malay character, “the greatest gentlemen in the world,” was how the British once described the Malays. Expose the kampung Malays to worth while commercial activities.

Along  the north bank, tourists can have a dinner at one of the restaurants there. Along the way, they can also buy kek lapis over at the north and do some shopping at the trinket shops there. That would be the ultimate Kuching tourism experience.

Just imagine, seeping a cup of coffee or having a dinner from a second floor of one of these Malay houses, overlooking the Sarawak River with Kuching CBD in the front on the other side of the river, the lights of Riverside Majestic Hotel, Pullman and Hilton on the hill. The tambang lazily bobbing in the light wave,criss-crossing the river, to and fro the Kuching Waterfront.

It is almost a Nescafe moment! Going into Kampung Boyan-Kampung Gersik Malay Tourism Village, now that will be a different tourism experience!

The houses are fairly well maintained and with great heritage value. They can be easily converted for the touristic purposes.

Then there is the other strength of Kuching, her tambang. It is the ubiquitous water crafts, that ply between the two banks of Sarawak River. It may be the icon of Kuching but without help, it may not last that long.

Over the years the tambang operators have faced competitions in many ways to the extent that many of the operators have abandoned their business.

Roads and bridges are their competitors. This has resulted in the Kuching city operators moving to other jobs and they have been replaced by operators from the poorer outskirts of Kuching.

The fee for each ride is cheap, at 50 sen a ride, and takes not more than five minutes. The ride is so cheap it is almost indecent.

Organise the hotels and link up the hotel guests to get a tambang ride across to the north shore. It is such a short ride so it is a must-try for every tourist. Perhaps even an embarkation point at Magherita Hotel.

This project will enliven the tambang operators. Most of them are from outside of Kuching city and they are making meager income. There is a need to assist them by revitalising the economics of the Sarawak River, hence increasing the number of tambang passengers crossing the river, and increasing their income.

Certainly, this plan needs organisation, but the best part of it is that it does not cost much as it is using what are generally all there for utilisation. It does not need displacing all the kampung folk but engage them to reorganise themselves and to re-orientate their usage of their premises.

It is a real shame that we have not seen the potential of our own city. The past administration has been wont on demolishing, first the Gambier Street Market and now the whole of the north shore Malay Kampungs.

The replacements for the Malay villages are more concrete jungles. More high-rise buildings. So when the new phase of the Kuching Waterfront gets underway, voila! we will have more high-rises at the south shore and high-rises at the north shore. Concrete jungles, is that how we envisage the new Kuching?

Or do we dare to make the kampungs and the tambang the icon of the new Kuching? And push more economic value to the kampung dwellers. If we want to preserve heritage, then this is where we begin.

Write Straight, Write Sharp!