The Curious Case of Cat City Kuching

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go on a feline trail in Malaysia’s Cat City Kuching, home to the world’s first cat museum

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There’s something about cats that has captured human imagination more than any other animal. Why else would we have so many cat idioms in English? Cat nap, cat’s whiskers, cat’s pajamas, cat burglar, catcall, copycat, hell cat, fat cat, bell a cat, raining cats and dogs (or fighting like them), curiosity killed the cat, a cat has nine lives, cat o’nine tails, cat on a hot tin roof, let the cat out of the bag, set the cat among the pigeons, grinning like a Cheshire Cat, not enough room to swing a cat, looks like something the cat dragged in, when the cat’s away the mice will play, there is more than one way to skin a cat… or use it in a phrase! And there’s no place in the world where cat mania is more apparent than Kuching in Malaysia.

The story of Kuching, capital of Sarawak state on the island of Borneo, is inextricably linked to British adventurer James Brooke. After a stint in the Bengal Army, Brooke fought piracy in the Malay Archipelago, quelled an uprising against the Sultan of Brunei and was crowned Rajah of Sarawak in 1841. The dynastic reign of the ‘White Rajahs’ lasted till 1946 when it was ceded to the British. As per folklore, when Brooke first arrived in Kuching on his schooner Royalist, he asked his local guide the name of the town. The guide thought that Brooke was pointing towards a cat, and replied ‘kucing’, Malay for cat.

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It was this miscommunication that is believed to be the origin of the city’s name. Other theories derive the name from a tributary of the Sarawak River or a local fruit called mata kuching (cat’s eyes). Some even draw a strange but bizarre connection to Cochin in India, which possibly shares a link with the Chinese kaci or harbour. Whatever be the root, Kuching acquired the sobriquet Cat City in 1988 and there are ample visual reminders dotting its urbanscape.

The legendary riverfront is lined with historical sites like Astana, Fort Margherita, the Square Fort, the Courthouse, Charles Brooke Monument and the new legislative complex, but it’s hard to miss the feline motif across the city. A Cat Fountain (opposite Hotel Grand Margherita Kuching), a Cat Column capped with Rafflesia flowers (on the roundabout at the corner of Jalan Padungan and Jalan Chan Chin Ann), statues of a Cat Family at North City Hall (at the intersection of Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, Jalan Padungan & Jalan Abell); Kuching seems to be suffering from cat fever!

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The lone 2½ m tall, waving cat statue at the city boundary of Kuching North and Kuching South (on a traffic island outside the Chinese ceremonial gate) is hailed as the Great Cat of Kuching. The white cat with wire whiskers called Nick is dressed up in traditional attire during major festivals – red during Chinese New Year, green during Eid ul Fitr, Santa clothes during Christmas and a traditional Iban vest during the local harvest festival!

There’s cat graffiti sprayed on the walls, shops lined with cat souvenirs, catty t-shirts on sale, a Quiik Cat B&B and even a Meow Meow Cat Café! And just when you think Kuching might have taken the cat theme too seriously, along comes Cat Museum, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world… Located on the ground floor of the Kuching North City Hall on a 60 m high hill, it’s literally perched like a cat on a high wall.

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At the officious entrance, you wonder if you’ve come to the right place until a tiny line of pugmarks on the floor leads you into the yawning mouth of a cat. Entering through the weird gateway past a souvenir shop and a giant feline photo cutout, you feel like Alice about to meet the Cheshire Cat as you go around the bend.

The museum’s four galleries are a tribute to the species with everything you wanted to know about cats. From their lifespan to veneration in ancient civilizations, famous cat owners, private collections of cat figurines and 4,000 cat artifacts! The museum also showcases cats as a theme in art, sculpture, literature, music and film.

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Posters, stamps, greeting cards, folk tales, games like cat’s cradles, Garfield, Felix, Hello Kitty, Puss in Boots, TS Eliot’s Macavity: The Mystery Cat, Andrew Llyod Webber’s musical Cats; you’ll find them all here. Even if you are not a cat lover, it’s worth a look for its quirky appeal. And if you’re overwhelmed and at a loss of words, maybe the Kuching cat got your tongue!

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Fact File

Getting there
Kuching International Airport, 11 km from the city, has direct flights to Kuala Lumpur connected by Malaysia Airlines Berhad. www.malaysiaairlines.com

Kuching Cat Museum
Ground Floor, Kuching North City Hall (DBKU Building), Jalan Semariang, Bukit Siol, Petra Jaya
Timings 9 am – 5 pm, except Monday. Admission Free. Camera fee 4RM.

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Where to stay
Hilton Kuching
Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
Ph +60 82-223 888 www3.hilton.com
Located on the historic riverfront overlooking the Sarawak river, Fort Margherita and Legislative Building, the 15-storied hotel is the best place to stay in Kuching with excellent local spreads and ‘live’ laksa counter

Hotel Pullman Kuching
1a Jalan Mathies, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
Ph +60 82-222 888 www.pullmankuching.com
A cosmopolitan stylish 5-star hotel in the heart of the city atop Mathies Hill

For more info, visit www.tourism.gov.my and www.sarawaktourism.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 21 September 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/curious-case-kitten-town-kuching/

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