No-one knows why Kuching was named after a cat, but residents of this Malaysian city can’t seem to get enough of fluffy felines
The Asian City obsessed with cats: Sitting in the taxi on my way into town from the Kuching airport, I could already see that I was going to get along fine in this Malaysian city. After all, I’m a cat person.
Everywhere I looked I saw felines. A giant white cat waved at me from a roundabout just outside Chinatown. A family of robot-like cats stared from the side of the road close to a mosque. Spray-painted alley cats slunk around the sides of buildings in the form of street art.
“The city’s cat obsession really stems from its name,” said Amir, who works at the city’s Cat Museum. “The word ‘kucing’ means ‘cat’ in the Malay language.”
Housed in the North Kuching City Hall, the Cat Museum is without a doubt the best place in the city to learn all about felines and their relationship with this city in Malaysian Borneo – a part of the world more commonly associated with orangutans.
Standing among a medley of objects – from mummified Egyptian cat remains to contemporary paintings to porcelain figurines – that traced the history of cats back 5,000 years, Amir explained several theories behind why his city was named after the cat.
Some believe that when the first Rajah of Sarawak, an Englishman named James Brooke, arrived in Kuching around 1839, he pointed to the settlement and asked what it was called. A local, mistakenly thinking he was pointing at a passing cat, told him it was called ‘Kucing’.
Others claim that the city was named after trees that once grew throughout the area, bearing small fruit called mata kuching, or ‘cat’s eye fruit’, that’s similar to lychee. The last theory is that the unusual name was chosen when residents discovered short-tailed cats living along the banks of the Sarawak River which flows through the city.
After visiting the museum, I was keen to discover more about the relationship between cats and the residents of Kuching.
I’d arranged to meet Harris, a local guide who could show me some more of the city’s more famous cat imagery. Kuching is home to a diverse population made up of Malays, Chinese and Indians, as well as local tribespeople such as the Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu and Melanau. As we walked, Harris explained that cats are significant to each group. To the Chinese, for example, they’re a symbol of good luck. And cats have been respected in Islam for hundreds of years. I even found out that the Prophet Muhammad had a cat named Muezza, whom he cared for greatly.
Meanwhile, Borneo residents have long valued cats because they help control pests. Harris told me that in the 1950s, authorities attempted to use chemicals to combat malaria-carrying mosquitos and rats. After the chemicals negatively impacted the region’s feline population, the British Royal Air Force parachuted 14,000 cats into rural Malaysian Borneo in a mission known as ‘Operation Cat Drop’.
We walked past a family of giant polychrome cats standing on top of a fountain and some playful felines cast in bronze down by the waterfront. Harris explained that references to the animal are everywhere: students learn at I-CATS – the International College of Advanced Technology Sarawak – and the local radio station is Cats FM. He showed me the city’s crest on top of a tall pillar: a pair of justice scales and a golden cat, with four white cats flanking the bottom. “You see, the cat is deeply ingrained into the fabric of our city, from our history to our modern-day culture,” he said.
At the end of our tour, I had amazingly yet to see a real cat, so Harris took me to meet his friends at the Meow Meow Cat Café, located just more than 5km south of the Cat Museum near the Sarawak River. The cafe’s owner and founder, Janet, felt that she had to open a cat cafe to pander to the residents who couldn’t keep one at home.
“We currently have six cats here of all different species,” she said.
I watched Janet’s other customers: A girl lounged on the sofa with Kiwi, a large white fluffy cat, stretched out beside her; a man sat on the floor playing with Suria, a regal-looking Bengal cat; and a young couple were waving a piece of string in front of Honey, a wide-eyed Persian.
I don’t believe felines bring me luck or have spiritual meaning. But as I sat there, a grey long-haired cat named April purring on my lap, I felt that I was getting along fine in Kuching.