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Observations of Kuching, circa 1904

Among the many, long forgotten writers I’ve been reading lately is Miss Ella Christie, a Scottish Edwardian traveler who wandered all over the east, it seemed. She briefly visited Sarawak in May 1904 when she was in her forties. Her notes of her visit were so wonderfully descriptive that I had to share it. The following are excerpts from an excerpt of her diary, which was published in the Sarawak Museum Journal in 1961.

Upon arrival from Singapore, Miss Christie seemed charmed by the exotic architecture and the sampans

Kuchin [sp] is the chief town of Sarawak, and is one of the most picturesque places I have ever seen. In the time of Rajah Brooke I it was only a collection of Malay huts rising out of the mud banks of the river, but it now presents the features of a Dutch town and Venice combined. A curious old-looking whitewashed jail and pillared court-houses and a a row of quaint houses all along the shore, boats like gondolas flit about paddled by one man who sits at the prow literally spooning the water; if greater speed is required more spoons are placed about indiscriminately, like the picture of the sheep in “Through the Looking Glass”.

From “features of a Dutch town and Venice combined”, I get a picture of a place with tall narrow buildings, built over water or by the water. I also get an impression of canals all over town. But as far I am aware, at least on the south bank of the Sarawak River, there was only the Kuching River (now covered) running past the Chinese temple, the Tua Pek Kong on Main Bazaar, into the Sarawak River. The “pillared court-houses” describes the Old Courthouse complex, the administrative heart of Sarawak for the greater part of the 19th and 20th century. But I wonder which was the “curious whitewashed jail”?

A few days after her arrival, she was invited to stay at Government House (now called the Astana), the Rajah’s residence. The Rajah wasn’t in residence at the time – she was invited by Mrs Deshon, wife of the Resident of the area, the Top Dog in the absence of the Rajah or the Rajah Muda (the Crown Prince). The Deshons, it seemed, lived at Government House in the Rajah’s absence. Miss Christie provided a rare description of the insides of Government House, and a personal tidbit about Rajah Charles, the reigning Brooke at the time.

There is a fine dining-room hung round with trophies, and large drawing-room, also an interesting library, with contents and binding much like ours even to Blair’s sermons and Chalmers’ lectures. A large collection of French novels, as the Rajah reads an hour every day in French which he has taught himself and has a French valet to talk.

It sounds very English, doesn’t it? A French valet, to boot!

She described commerce in town, the smells …

Kuchin [sp] itself is a most curious town, a row of shops all along the quay, or rather river side, all kept by Chinese, every shop sells the same, and the only distinction is perhaps a silver shop or a watch-maker. Every shop sells food and salt fish of every kind as well as Chinese goods, and the stink of each is so great that once really accustomed to it I don’t think it would be possible to live without it, the blank in life would be so great. The shops are arcaded, but one walks along the arcade threading one’s way between goods and foods of all kinds; alongside the path muck runs, the only smstem [sp] of drainage, and each shop door has a plank across which one has to step to get to the road.

… and something that pointed to an early example of commerce resulting from tourism, when she visited “the ladies of Borneo quality”.

The ladies of quality were not above selling their clothes, so I bought a very fine “sarong” (the Malay petticoat) crimson silk woven with gold thread, they dressed me up in one and also the black gauze veils they wear embroidered with gold, but as the veil was 20 dollars I refrained and Mrs Desbon [sp] kindly got me one for 8: the sarong I eventually got for 55 dollars (10 reduction).

The drainage system doesn’t sound too unusual (the drainage systems in Australian settlements twenty – thirty years prior, were similar to this), though perhaps by 1904, there ought to be a proper pavement in place, instead of just a plank. But the selling of the sarongs was a surprise. I naively thought that commerce of this nature hadn’t been in place then. I assumed that there oughtn’t be much of a market to make it the norm. The bargaining, though, made me think otherwise.

Miss Christie seemed to be a bit of photographer too.

This morning, Sir Percy kindly provided a show of Dyaks [sp] for me to Kodak. All in their war-paint, really savages. I do hope they will come out. I did Sir Percy beside them in one, as a contrast.

The strangeness of the native tribes – in the way they dressed, the way they interacted with one another, their religions and beliefs – rendered them somewhat like curious objects to be exhibited to Europeans. This, I thought, is a little uncomfortable to see on paper. I hysterically thought that my great grandfather might have been one of these “Dyaks” on show before common sense prevailed. It probably was not so – he didn’t live in Kuching, and he was probably too prominent a local leader to be subjected to this.

The BEST holidays

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