Tuesday, January 19

Missing Kuching’s heritage and the old days?


I MUST admit that the rather overused term ‘the good old days’ means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?

For me, it’s the fond memory of Kuching and its many poignant historic moments as well as what used to be everyday occurrences and things we all took for granted back in the days of yore, as recently as the year 2000 and for us baby-boomers, of which I am one, the wonder days of the 1960s and 1970s.

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, it was very safe for a teenager to walk or cycle to school if he lived within a few miles of town; there was not much traffic on the road – a few hundred cars and a couple of dozen buses.

Even trucks didn’t carry more than three or four tons of load and one couldn’t really speed on the narrow roads then. The popularity of motorbikes didn’t catch on till after the 1980s. As such any accidents on the roads were few and far in between.

School-going students who lived some distance from the schools in town were lodged in boarding houses; many have very fond memories of their time and experiences there – I know that both St Thomas’s and St Joseph’s boarders from this period between 1946 and 1980 have organized big reunions in recent years.

These days urban boarding houses are virtually extinct as better roads have enabled ease in transportation and more affordable housing have been built near to schools everywhere. All this coupled with the fact that more people can now afford to own cars, thus traveling by land, air, and rivers is now so much easier than ever before.

I grew up just about a mile and a half from what is Kuching’s Ground Zero – its starting point at Mile 0 (which has been disputed between the landing at Pangkalan Batu just a stone’s throw from the Square Tower, which Dino Bidari’s Magenta now occupies; or the ‘ku-ching’ well site facing the end of Ewe Hai Street in front of the Chinese temple).

My personal memories include the nightly firing of the 8 o’clock cannon from Fort Margherita. The fort itself was built in 1879 in the style of a British castle and took its name from Charles Brooke, the second Rajah’s wife, Margaret Alice Lili de Windt. The history of the 8 o’clock cannon fire is rather interesting – it had served as a signal for all guests to leave the Astana as the Rajah and his family were about to have their dinner.

The tradition stopped around the 1960s during the time of the Indonesian Confrontation; it was said that it was to prevent the local citizens from fearing that it was the sound of an Indonesian attack. For me personally it meant it was time for bed as we all slept rather early in those days.

Every Sunday at around 4pm, the Sarawak Constabulary Police Band in all their uniformed regalia with shining musical instruments, drums and trumpets and all that jazz, would perform for an hour or two at the round Gazebo Bandstand at the Sarawak Museum Garden Grounds, near to the old canteen with its ornate Chinese looking roofing.

The very popular The Royalists too would perform there as well. Families from all over Kuching, from as far as across the river, now called Petra Jaya, would come and listen and spend time with their younger ones running around the hilly slopes of the grounds, usually ending up having ang-tao peng (iced red bean with milk) at the canteen or across the road at St Michael’s Canteen, which had a jukebox and thus was very popular with the teenagers. St Mike’s as it was fondly known, had also served great laksa, satay, and kolo mee.

Downtown Kuching was well known for its many festival processions in honour of some deity’s birthday or other religious occasion, for instance the processions held every Prophet Mohammad’s Birthday, Christmas, and Hindu festival and many others.

People would drive into the town from the outskirts and park their vehicles by the side of the roads just to watch a procession snaking by at a snail’s pace; with traffic police in front, at the rear, and also helping with crowd control.

Carpenter Street is well known for its annual Ghost Month festival when on the Hungry Ghost Night (15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar) there would be worshipping and offerings of goodies at the temple situated there; and at a certain time it’s free for all when all the goodies on display are snatched up at random by the impatient crowd. However, this ritual has been changed in recent years to a more regulated and orderly lottery and auction system.

In recent times, a specially constituted committee has organised the Kuching Intercultural Mooncake Festival, which started in 2001 and has its venue of operations within the Carpenter/China/Bishopsgate/Ewe Hai streets area – usually lasting a week, culminating on the actual festival night, which falls on the 15th night of the eighth month of the lunar calendar.

It has been very successful and has attracted both locals and tourists and has on offer numerous food stalls, varied entertainment, cultural, and traditional attractions of all sorts.

We also applaud the organisers of What About Kuching (WAK), another vital and heritage-themed event lasting about a month, which first began in 2017 led by founding festival directors Donald and Marina Tan. It is not on this year due to Covid-19, but we hope to see it back even stronger next year in 2021! WAK celebrates the vibrancy of Kuching in all ways cultural and traditional, in all forms of entertainment and its many attractions include shows, food fairs, and mini music festivals etc.

I have left the best till last – a heritage and tradition still very much alive in Kuching, but slowly dying elsewhere around this region. Yes, you guessed it – the way we celebrate our differences through our own racial, cultural, and religious festivals.

Every Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Gawai Dayak, Deepavali, and other festivals, it is still a sight to behold to see the long traffic queues on the road on their way to visit each other’s homes, or specific venues, to greet their family, friends, and neighbours the best of the season – be it on Christmas Day, Ramadan, Gawai, or Festival of the Lights – and children and womenfolk dressed in their best; all bearing good wishes for their hosts and in return a visit from them in due course. A reciprocity of abundant goodwill and continued friendship.

Unfortunately, this coming festive season(s) for all of us will have a new norm and a new SOP to follow and adhere to, and we may have to most likely give this Christmas and the coming other festivals a miss as we reduce or even curtail altogether our visits to both family members and friends to ensure that we all keep safe and stay well.

But never fear, many successful vaccines have been announced in recent days and weeks, and we can all look forward to a time, not too far off, when everything will be back to normal and we can continue to live our lives the way we used to. We pray to the good Lord that it will be sooner rather than later. Amen.


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