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Kuching, The Cat City

The city of Kuching, in the state of Sarawak in Malaysia, is full of cats. There are cats on the sidewalk, at traffic signals, in parks, inside roundabouts and on rooftops. But unlike other cities, most of Kuching’s feline population is in the form of statues and sculptures, installed by the city’s cat-obsessed folks.

The obsession stems from the city’s name. “Kuching” is thought to be a derivative of the Malay word “kucing”, which means cat, but it is equally likely that the name came from “cochin”, a Chinese word for port. Others believe that the name was derived from a fruit called "mata kucing" that grows widely in Malaysia and Indonesia. Local history also suggest that the city was named after a small stream called "Sungai Kuching" or Cat River in English, that ran through the town. The stream has since been filled in and built over.

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Photo credit: JKT-c/Wikimedia

The state of Sarawak was once part of the Sultanate of Brunei, about 200 years ago, but as a reward for help in putting down a rebellion, it was ceded to the British adventurer James Brooke who ruled it as his personal kingdom. The Brooke Administration was given the status of Protectorate under Rajah Charles Brooke's rule and was placed behind the Indian Rajas and Princes. Brooke ran his kingdom admirably, providing improved sanitation system to the dwellers, and completed several developments including a hospital, a fort, a prison and many other buildings. The Brooke family ruled Sarawak until the Japanese occupation in December 1941.

According to a frequently repeated fable, when James Brooke first arrived in Kuching, he asked his local guide the name of the town. The guide thinking that James Brooke was pointing towards a cat, said "Kuching". That the story is fabricated is evident from the fact that ethnic Malays in Sarawak call cat "pusak" instead of the Malay word "kucing". Besides, the name of "Kuching" was already in use for the city by the time Brooke arrived in 1841.

Cat motifs can be found all around the city. As CNTraveller describes:

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—Kuching seems to be suffering from cat fever!

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 for 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!

A college in Kuching is named I-CATS—the International College of Advanced Technology Sarawak, and the local radio station is Cats FM.

Kuching’s most famous cat attraction is the Cat Museum, containing over 4,000 artifacts including paintings and memorials related to cats. Exhibits include a mummified cat from ancient Egypt, a gallery of feline-related advertising, and the five species of wild cats found in Borneo.

There is a story that once in the 1950s, people in Borneo were dying of malaria. So the authorities spread a lot of the insecticide DDT, which although helped combat the malaria-carrying mosquitos but also killed a large number of the island’s cats. The consequence of this was the rat population flourished and they brought in plague. To solve the plague problem, the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force air-dropped 14,000 cats into rural Malaysian Borneo in a mission known as ‘Operation Cat Drop’. Although the cat story is probably another fabrication, the story was published so many times that it’s believed to have played a role in getting DDT banned by the US Senate in 1972.

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Photo credit: Colin Charles/Flickr

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Photo credit: Colin Charles/Flickr

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Photo credit: sarawakborneotour.com

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Photo credit: Fiona Forsyth/Flickr

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Photo credit: Adamina/Flickr

Sources: CNTraveller / Wikitravel / BBC / Wikipedia / www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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