The cats of Kuching, Malaysia
Kuching is the sound of one ringgit landing in a sampan driver’s money pouch on the languid banks of the Sarawak River. The largest city in the Malaysian chunk of Borneo, Kuching is a word with a colour of its own: Christmas bauble gold. It is the tint of the water when the sun reflects off glass, and the glow of misty rain is backlit by neon yellow shop signs. Every evening as the blood-orange sun dissolves in the tropical haze above the roofs of river shacks, the word comes to mean glowing lanterns on the promenade and air so sticky it leaves a residue of fried chicken and wok-burnt peanut oil on your skin.
Kuching is the sound of your head in a bell, the reverberating clang of a colonial hangover as it rings out the familiar toll of British bureaucracy. Booking accommodation at Bako National Park means taking a number at the visitor centre and having a solemn, face-to-face interview with an official who will fill in a form documenting your request and fax it to head office, then receive a confirmation that is photocopied and signed in triplicate, authorised by a superior, stamped and handed back to you. All so you can spend two days holed up in a wooden hut in the jungle while crazed mobs of macaque monkeys launch sustained and fearless attacks.
Slow, mooching, a city window-gazing in a tropical stupor, Kuching most definitely doesn’t sound like political unrest. Malaysia’s ruling party has been in power since independence from Britain in 1957 and Prime Minister Najib Razak has been unflinching in staring down allegations he siphoned more than $US1 billion from a development fund into his personal bank account. Ku-ching.
Some say Kuching is derived from the beautiful Malay word for “cat”. You quickly learn why.
Kuching is the sound of a cat nudging its head through a coffee shop’s flyscreen bells. The alley cats of Kuching give the city its soul. They slink furtively behind parked car tyres or crouch low under tables, shoulder bones sticking up like camel humps. They are fed but not kept as pets; they roam at will like furry, community free-range chickens, poking whiskers into cafes and butcher’s, hanging by the back doors of restaurants, driven mad by wafts of chicken and fish.
Mangy, skinny, flea-ridden, they still conform to the natural law that all cats are beautiful. But Kuching cats have a special badge of distinction: no tails. Where tails should be are stumpy, twisted appendages with a knobby tip, like an amputation gone wrong. Some locals say their tails got chopped off with an axe, others claim it’s a genetic mutation from inbreeding. It gives the cats an unfinished look, like they’re in the middle of an evolutionary stage. I’ve come to love them.
Every morning we wake to the sound of the local ginger bouncing across the tin roof. He slips down a roof post, slinks over to a puddle under the carport and laps it up. The little girl next door brings out a can of tuna and drops a dollop at his paws. After breakfast he does what cats the world over do every day: buggers off to somewhere unknown. It’s a stately life for the cats of Kuching, with no obligation to uphold the Western requirement of companionship. No collars, no cages, no trips to the vet. A lot of sex. No wonder they’re gods.
Kuching is the sound of camera shutters snapping at ornate cat statues around the city. My favourite is of a tall, slender white cat, as commanding as the queen on a chessboard. She holds up a fearless paw to traffic, her face washed with the yellow of car headlights and her kittens basking and frozen in play at her feet. The statues follow you like a friendly stray, jumping out round every corner, so you learn to expect cats wherever you go. Nothing, though, can prepare you for the city’s crowning glory.
Planted on top of the hill a way out of town is a huge, dome-topped building, presidential in appearance, with a Malaysian flag speared into its head. Surrounding it are lush palm-tree gardens, glistening, fat-tongued orchids and manicured lawns. But it’s not a presidential residence or an opera house, it’s a palace of cats, otherwise known as the Kuching Cat Museum.
Entry is free but there’s a charge if you want to take photos. I hardly put the camera down. The museum opened in 1993 and clearly hasn’t been updated, or dusted, since. You enter through a giant cat’s mouth, which sets the tone. The exhibits are as bad as cats’ breath. Eight-foot-tall ceramic cats with unconvincing eyes are set on plinths in every corner. They look like oversized doorstops, with whiskers made from straightened coathangers. A sign in front of one typical sitting cat reads, “Please do not sit.”
The taxidermy cats are a thing of hideous wonder, gutted roadkill skinned then shaped into an approximate cat shape with chicken wire, their teeth bared and sunken eyes like windows to hell. Children recoil to their mothers and adults circle cautiously.
Most unfathomable of all is a model made from wire and cling wrap, with a plastic water bottle nose – feline surrealism. Could this piece have been inspired by the suffocated cat in the Australian cult film Bad Boy Bubby?
The walls are hung with hokey images of cats playing guitar or wearing silly clothes and serving beer. It evokes the man cave of a suburban dad who’s taken his interior decorating theme too far.
I’m just getting used to the B-grade horror of the place when I turn a corner and see a giant stuffed cat sitting outside the window in the rain, as though waiting for someone to open the door and let it in. Its stuffing is pecked and torn loose by birds; some of it dribbles from its chin. It begs to be put out of its misery.
But my favourite exhibit is perhaps the cat food display. It’s as if the curators had hung their last novelty cat painting and found there was still some space left. Behind a locked glass cabinet – the sort you might expect to house treasures of the ancient world – are tins of Friskies turkey and giblets, chunky chicken, seafood sensations and that classic, 1970s-inspired cookbook classic, jelly meat.
The Kuching cat museum is an engagingly bad drawcard, much like our own Ned Kelly animated puppet show in Glenrowan. That makes it an absolute must-see.
Disappointments remain, however. In its failure to update the collection, the museum has missed the chance to document the global craze for “LOL cats”. Were they courageously refusing to bow to fashion? Or are LOL cats less a global phenomenon than thought? More likely the curators either haven’t noticed or haven’t cared.
And never mind the prime minister’s alleged indiscretions – perhaps the biggest scandal of all in Malaysia right now is the cat museum’s failure to either notice or honour the one feature that unites Kuching’s iconic feline denizens. Every cat statue displayed in the museum, and for that matter every toy cat and cat painting that clogs Kuching’s souvenir shops, has a long, handsome tail.
On my last night a tropical downpour pummels the Sarawak River and the water boils over as though a cauldron was lit from beneath. Tethered sampans cower under their thatched cabins, helpless as seedpods in a puddle, looking like they might dissolve into the seething steam. And at my feet a sodden, tailless ginger cat appears from nowhere, looks at the water and sneezes. The sound of Kuching.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 14, 2017 as "Purred lines". Subscribe here.