Cat Lovers Come to Malaysian City
Apr. 15, 1998
KUCHING, Malaysia (AP) _ Europe has its City of Light. America has the City of Angels. Asia has a City of Cats.
Kuching's tiled walkways and riverside promenade bear almost no trace of scruffy, stray felines, however.
It's the cityscape itself of 19th century Chinese temples, British colonial-era shop houses and towering new luxury hotels that is swarming with renditions of cats.
Bronze cat sculptures perch on the Sarawak River esplanade. Stone obelisks encircled by larger-than-life cat statues stand like shrines at major intersections.
The celebration of cats, both artistic and kitschy, is practically an obsession in this city on the northwestern coast of Borneo.
``Every place has a mascot _ this is ours,'' says Bahtir Haji Affandi, curator of a museum just outside the city center that is devoted solely to the role of cats in society around the world.
On a literal level, the ode to felines is clear. Kuching means ``Cat City'' in Malay.
There's no agreement on where the name came from.
An exhibit at The Cat Museum says Kuching was likely named for the wild cats that roamed the banks of the Sarawak River in the days of the ``White Rajah,'' the late 19th century ruler from Britain, James Brooke.
Before 1872, the city was known simply as Sarawak, indistinguishable from the state of which it is now capital. Some people believe Brooke named the city Cochin, an old Indian word for port, which then evolved to Kuching.
Mohamad Andi Dollah, a resident who owns 17 cats, speculates the name comes from Cat's-Eye Hill, or Bukit Mata Kuching, which was leveled long ago and is now the base for a Holiday Inn, a Hilton and one of several giant cat monuments.
Cat lovers from around the world are attracted to The Cat Museum. For instance, Indonesia's environment minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, recently ducked out early from a United Nations conference in Kuching to tour the exhibits.
The museum has five spacious galleries that trace cats in art and folklore throughout the centuries around the world.
The contemporary collection showcases boxes of Friskies cat food, a Cat Stevens album cover and an entire section devoted to Garfield the temperamental cartoon cat.
An exhibit on ancient Egypt, with a cat-size sarcophagus, traces the first domesticated cats to 3000 B.C. In Egypt, a plaque says, when a domestic cat died the entire family shaved their eyebrows out of respect. The mourning period lasted until the eyebrows grew back.
Locals just chuckle when asked about their city's love of cats.
``This is cat city,'' proclaims Francis Tan, a taxi driver whose windows are decorated with cat decals and dashboard has a bobbing ceramic cat miniature. ``We are cat people.''