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Notes on the Geography of Malaysia: Colonial Kuching (Official)

For almost exactly a century, from the 1840s to the 1940s, Sarawak, now part of Malaysia, was ruled by James, Charles, and Vyner Brooke, the so-called White Rajahs. James was the conquering swashbuckler, Charles the taskmaster, and Vyner the charming misfit who, returning after the Japanese occupation, walked away from his kingdom and handed it over to the British. They, in turn, walked away in less than a generation. Sarawak seems not to have suffered much by the loss, and the Brookes would almost certainly be astonished by Kuching today.

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Malaysia: Colonial Kuching (Official) picture 1

Kuching has spread out for miles, but its core, the triangular main bazaar seen clearly here, remains fundamentally unchanged from the form it took when it was rebuilt in brick, by order of Charles Brooke, after a disastrous fire in 1884. It is a district of shophouses--retail down, residential up. A few decades earlier it had been... well, let James Brooke describe it as it was in 1842: "A little town with brown huts and long-houses made of wood or the hard stems of the nipah palm, sitting in brown squalor on the edge of mudflats." The mudflats on the banks of the Sarawak River are still there at low tide. (Brooke is quoted in Alice Yen Ho's Old Kuching, 1998.)

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Charles Brooke inserted into the triangle of the main bazaar a government quarter. Its core was this courthouse with an adjoining administrative office. Over the decades, a cluster of similar buildings was added at the rear. It was handsome, if severe. The clocktower was a much later and rather pompous addition, as is the Brooke Monument, which stands here front and center. It was erected in 1924, after Charles' death.

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The monument has stylish sculptures of the main ethnic communities of Kuching, in this case the Chinese.

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The designer of the monument, as well as the sculptor of the four images, was Frederick J. Wilcoxson. He had seen very active duty in the First World War and, in addition to this monument, designed two war memorials at Hale and Ripon, back in Britain. They bear a considerable similarity to this one.

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Charles Brooke, on the river-facing side of the monument, was the model of a martinet, absolute and absolutely rigid. His wife Margaret described him as "the most punctual man alive," but a better description comes from Sylvia Brooke, his daughter-in-law and the wife of Vyner Brooke. Sylvia was a daughter of Reginald Brett--Lord Esher, poet, musician, statesman, soldier, aristocrat among aristocrats--a man, Sylvia wrote, who turned down invitations to be Under-Secretary for the Colonies, Under-Secretary for War, Governor of Cape Colony, Secretary of State for War, and Viceroy of India. He did serve as royal trustee to the British Museum, governor of the Imperial College of Science, and Governor of Windsor Castle. "Nobody," she wrote, "who was not SOMEBODY meant a thing to my father." Sylvia's own childhood, though intensely lonely, could not have been more privileged, with Prince Edward among her playmates. Come her wedding to Vyner Brooke, the White Rajah himself came to Orchard Lea, which was close to Windsor Castle and was the summer home of Sylvia's family. She writes, "Among the throng of guests was Vyner's father, the old Rajah, who had been dragged unwillingly to the marriage of his son, didn't know who his host was, loathed the whole affair, and only wanted to leave as soon as possible. He turned to the first man he saw, and said, 'How the hell can I get out of this damned house?' The man happened to be my father, who was so astonished that he meekly showed him the door." From a distance, it's hard not to like the old buzzard. (Sylvia, who enjoyed her quasi-royal status, wrote a lot; the quotations above come from her Queen of the Head Hunters, 1970.)

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One of the later courtyards to the rear.

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Charles Brooke always had security in mind, perhaps because James Brooke had come to power by quelling a rebellion against the then-distant ruler, the sultan of Brunei. Perhaps that's why Brooke in 1886 built this dispensary, called the Round Tower, in the shape of a fort. The present use hints at the effort to make Kuching a tourist magnet.

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Next to the Round Tower, from 1909, this is the so-called Pavilion, a hospital for Europeans. The structure seems to owe much to contemporary structures in India, particularly in Simla.

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Now it's a museum and air-conditioned, but once, without air conditioning, it must have relied on superabundant ventilation.

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Detail of interior column.

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Almost all the government buildings in Kuching were built by Charles, but here, on the site of his stables, is the one major exception: the post office, built on Vyner Brooke's watch and surprisingly formal, given his abhorrence of formality.

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It's big, too, but like many of these buildings is devoid of the inscriptions and inaugural plaques so common in India. It's probably the tightwad aspect of Charles Brooke shining through.

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The police station of 1931, with colors chosen at a much later date.

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Charles Brooke did have one indulgence, said to have originated with the time spent in Sarawak in 1855 by Alfred Russel Wallace. Picking up on Wallace's enthusiasms, Brooke decided to start assembling a collection of anthropological materials. The result, opened in 1889, was the Sarawak Museum.

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Originally it was just half the present building, and the exterior was plain stone. It's changed since then but is still in business with plenty of stuff gathered by Charles Brooke's men in the field.

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Since 1924, the museum has also had this tower.

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It's called the Klirieng. It's a tomb post, intended to commemorate a dead chief.

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Behind the museum is the Kuching Reservoir, built after a devastating cholera outbreak killed a thousand people in 1888. By 1895, Kuching was drawing piped water from this pond, now instead part of a city park.

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Across the river is the Astana, the palace built by Charles Brooke. Begun in 1869, it was the first brick building in Kuching and was apparently built with an eye to security. Arthur Ward, who made a career in the rajah's administrative service, dared to describe it as "a bit of feudal England pitchforked into an Asiatic setting." The building is now the governor's house and is closed to the public; the sign is presumably a modern addition for the benefit of tourists.

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About as close as the public can get. The river serves as a palace moat, although it's only on one side of the palace.

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A few hundred meters downstream stands Fort Margherita, named for Charles Brooke's wife. It commands a strategic view of the river but was never put to the test.

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The entrance bears the date 1890 and the Brooke shield, now the shield of Sarawak State.

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The interior of the tower consists of three large rooms, one atop the other, and despite the medieval ornament relies on modern materials, including steel I-beams.

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