The Malaysian city of Kuching loves its cats. I purred at the sight of artefacts in a cat museum, and learnt a thing or two about feline history. By Khursheed Dinshaw
A cat’s head forms the entrance of the museum in Kuching, Sarawak. I enter through its mouth. On my left side is a souvenir shop selling feline knick-knacks, key chains, and fridge magnets. In fact, everywhere I look, a cat stares back at me. I am not being catty; this is the world’s first cat museum. With almost 4,000 exhibits spread across 1,035 square metres, the museum purrs its way into the hearts of its visitors.
Looking at posters of people hugging their cats, I wonder if the adage of a dog being a man’s best friend has got it all wrong. But such ideological dilemmas can wait—cats in all their avatars, sizes, and moods beckon. Shy, small ones; big, ferocious ones; and those happily playing with gnarled balls of wool. A hand fan with a cat embossed on it gets the approval of a feline lover who is visiting from the US.
An article at the museum explains that the bond between cats and humans dates back centuries to the time when man began farming and had to stock his produce. Inevitably, rats attacked the grain with gusto. This is when cats came to man’s rescue. Through the ages, in some cultures, cats were considered good omens, in others they were massacred over superstitions that proclaimed them to be the devil’s accomplice. There was also a time when people believed that witches could turn into cats, and hence, burned the poor animals.
In ancient Egypt, though, cats were credited with bringing wealth and fortune. Bastet, or Bast, was the feline Goddess of protection. From Egypt, cats meowed their way to Italy and the rest of Europe. By the 18th century, it was common to see cats in homes. Sarawak itself has had a long association with felines. Dayak of the Orang Ulu tribe—which hails from Borneo—carried babies in a woven basket embellished with colourful beads and cowries that formed cat motifs. These designs were believed to protect the baby and repel evil spirits.
Another article in the museum narrates a story of Lord Buddha. It says that all the animals were present when it was time for Buddha to attain nirvana, all except the lazy cat that had fallen asleep. She lost her shot at nirvana, however, over centuries, the feline charmed her way back to such an extent that she came to be worshipped in some parts of the world.
Cats and superstition seem to go hand in hand. In Japan, if a cat enters your home, then not only is it unlucky but the event also signifies impending poverty. In India, of course, it is said to be a bad omen if a black cat crosses your path. The Chinese believe that if they see a cat washing its face, it is a sign that a stranger will visit them soon. Many fishermen traditionally believed that cats carried the souls of shipwrecked sailors, who could predict challenging weather at sea. Chinese paintings depicting cats with butterflies denote longevity. But there are practical reasons for the exaltation as well—in the Chinese silk weaving industry, cats are held in high regard since they kill vermin, which would otherwise eat silkworm larvae.
Kuching’s cat museum has no guides, but the museum is easy to navigate. There are paintings, children’s play things, advertising material, and textiles with design centred on cats. Mugs, slippers, wallets and purses, and teapots wear feline symbols and pictures. If you’re someone who stalks cats on YouTube, this is your Disneyland.
It’s not just the museum, though; the city of Kuching loves its feline residents. There are three prominent cat monuments in the city. A solitary white cat at South City Hall is clothed in traditional outfits during festivals like Chinese New Year and Ramadan. The second monument is on the border of the North and South City Halls, while the monument of Kuching North City Hall has nine felines.
The waterfront market offers various cat souvenirs, while the old courthouse has a wire structure as a tribute to their favourite animal. I have also noticed cat tattoos peeking from arms, shoulders, calves, and thighs of the locals. But it’s the cat museum that deciphers the provenance of the city’s name for me: the Malay word for cat is kucing. In olden times, cats were often spotted along the banks of the Sarawak River. Another river called Sungai Kuching flowed through an area overgrown with fruit trees locally known as Mata Kuching, or cat’s-eyes fruit. We all know the fruit as rambutan. It was Sir James Brooke, the first white Rajah of Sarawak, who first called the town Kuchin in 1839, and in 1876, the city officially became Kuching. The cat museum then is not just a feline-lover’s haunt, but a short history of a remarkable city that loves its cats.
Malindo Air has flights to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur from major Indian cities. The cat museum is located on the ground floor of the Kuching North City Hall building.
Entry to the museum is free; camera charges are INR 68. It’s open from 9 am to 5 pm every day.
The months from June to September are ideal.
Stroll along the waterfront, and take an evening cruise on the Sarawak River. Visit the Tua Pek Kong Temple, Kuching Old Courthouse, Square Tower, which is now a restaurant, and Fort Margherita, which houses the Brooke Gallery. Also, visit Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, home to rehabilitated orangutans, and Bako National Park, where the endemic proboscis monkey resides.