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Sarawak Museum


A hoof up over the hump of tellingly named Jalan MacDougall brought me to the city Padang (grass square) from where it was just a short hop across to Kuching's primary drawcard amongst many, the Sarawak Museum. An initial pottery section concentrated on numerous archaeological sites which had been disovered over the years in Sarawak but it was finds from Niah Caves which were the most important contribution. The famous "Deep Skull" discovered here in 1958 by Tom Harrison who became long term custodian of the museum belied human inhabitance here some 40,000 years ago, a revelation which initiated a radical reassessment of human history in Asia. It makes it the most important insight into past human culture in all the islands of South East Asia (so it was claimed), though I would contest that surely the discovery of Java Man beats that. Revealed amongst the finds were changes in ceramic technology, and insights into burial practices and
trade links. Pottery urns of "Double Spout" and tricolour design are unique to the area at that time. Surprisingly the present day Dayak population has no pottery tradition, they use bamboo vessels for cooking etc., but that said vessels were still being manufactured using traditional techniques by women of East Kalimantan until the 1990s.

Onto the beastie section, many snake species were represented, including tree snakes which can "fly" by flattening their bodies and gliding between branches. Crocodile skulls here were absolutely monstrous, so large that you might struggle to fit them into the boot of your car. One, a known maneater, was caught and dissected in 1993 to reveal a gold watch and a perfectly round ball of hair the size of a football attached bizzarely to a human dental plate. A surprising number of Tortoise species also inhabit here, and a display of fish crescendoed into local sea species the size of a man, including Tuna, Marlin and Giant Mackerel. Mangrove crabs the size of dinner plates also reminded me why I didnt like paddling. Amongst an overwhelming array of bird species the Hornbills were the most impressive, with the Rhinosceros and Helmeted Hornbills renowned for their distinctive calls. Very large birds with mammoth sized beaks, they are the official symbol of Sarawak and before their protection were prized for ivory carving, especially for trade with the Chinese who favoured their use to make snuff boxes. They display the unusual nesting behaviour of the male shutting the female inside a tree burrow behind a wall of shit, with just a small hole left unplugged through which he feeds her. Onto the mammals, the first were local stars the Proboscis Monkies, very weird looking in general never mind the nose, and there were also Macaques, Gibbons, Langurs and Leaf Monkeys. The Squirrels were very diverse, some presenting super bushy tails and ears, and there was an assortment of flying species. A personal favourite was the Tarsier, absolutely tiny with big bulging round eyes, they are only the size of a fist. The remarkably large Tree Shrew and the enigmatic Moonrat only served to add to the otherworldly character and the Bat species were massive flying foxes. A contrasting Lemur was a flying wonder halfway between them and the Squirrels.

The ethnological collection proved much more colourful and inspiring, with especially exquisite textile and rattan work, more scary wood carvings of totems, "Blum" (sickness images) of the Melanau, and deity figures such as the "Aso" (Dragon-like dog) of the Kenyah and Kayan tribes. Carvings of spirit figures were used as charms by the Iban people to lure game into their traps, planting a small spiked totem by the trap and reciting a spell. There were models of traditional boats varying from Sampans similar to Chinese junks to long slender "Dragonboats". Photos and models of longhouse architecture revealed them to be more rudimentary unelaborate affairs than Sumatran architecture for example, though some were very long indeed. The longest existing example today stretches a mindblowing kilometre, with over 100 doors. They are stilt elevated and generally sport a wide open verandah to one side. A walk-in model of one revealed that hung pride of place over the central fire was a "decorative" mobile of human skulls, status symbol of headhunters. Gongs were important additions to a predictable musical menagerie and other common diversions are cock fighting (a symbolically appeasing act of the warrior gods) and spinning tops. Most important though were the exotic local quirks of holing and elongating the earlobes by both men and women, painful application of geometric body tattoos, the supposedly beautifying head flattening practiced by the Melanau, but most incredibly the piercing of the penis glans by Iban men so that a Palang or rod might be fitted through it. This commonly becomes fixed in situ through deposition of calcium deposits from the urine. Other adornments include long spiral bangles worn around the calfs, similar ringed corsets and war charms such as boar tusks and deer horns. It was at this point that I came across that even more exotic of rarities in these parts, another Scotsman. Recognising him from the hostel, the Scotland top gave the game away immediately but Craig from Montrose was a tad charmless it had to be said.

A sideshow presenting Malaysia's oil industry explained interestingly enough that a 19th century trading company set up here in Sarawak by Englishman Marcus Samuel found kerosene so profitable it began to concentrate on it away from the likes of spices and polished shells for example, it subsequently became known as Shell. The mining of Antimony is also another important local industry. A few black and white photos gleaned insight into the now defunct Sarawak Government Railway which ran south from Kuching until 1961, though sadly I was unaware of any surviving remnants. Another old print related how the first aeroplane to arrive in Sarawak was a large 3 engined Dornier seaplane in 1924, on the wall was hung one of its wooden 2 blade propellors.

A quick detour to the adjacent Art Museum was useful if nothing else in explaining that local cave paintings around here date back 1200 years, depicting beasts and warriors in boats. Some fine carved statuary looked too fine to be authentic, but a sword and shield wielding Kenyah man and a pattern skirted woman figure in wood typically serve to guard either end of a longhouse against evil spirits and enemies. Some more genuine looking door carvings were bizarre anthropomorphous depictions Picasso would hae been proud of. Outside in the pleasing gardens a Heroes Monument had been erected to those of "the Sarawak Constabulary and the Malaysian, British and Commonwealth Armed Forces 1948-1966".

From there I continued the colonial theme in tracking down the Bishop's House, an English country manor associated with the very large Anglican cathedral here, before searching out an associated cemetery. I had actually stumbled across this graveyard by chance in spying it from the other side of a fence at the museum, yet it was a convoluted circuit perhaps a kilometre long through the heat before my guesswork had me enter its sorry looking grounds. Here I came across the last resting place of John Mackie Culross "of Tayport, Scotland, who died at Kuching 18th October 1908 aged 22 years", though sadly most of the inscriptions of colonial civil servants and missionaries were too badly eroded to glean much insight. A double check of the guidebook proved this to have been a fortuitous discovery however, since it was not actually the cemetery recommended within it. That lay stranded in an equally unlikely corner the other side of the cathedral, which I finally traced to reveal more colonial legacies. One to an Honorable Henry Skelton was remembered "by the Rajah, his brother officers and friends in Sarawak", and a much older one commemorated George Miers "late master of the schooner Julia" who died in 1846 aged 38. Sadly most of the inscriptions had weathered badly here too, and a very grand obelisk could not betray its significance beyond the words "HMS Leven". 2 adjacent stones bore the same name Channon, and careful consideration revealed that the wife Suzanna must have lost her husband aged 30 whilst pregnant, only for the fatherless son to follow the same fate in infancy. The same symptomatic colonial tragedy I had witnessed all over Asia. A Hispanic name was another unusual discovery here, and I later learned that Domingo de Rozario had arrived here as James Brooke's chef. His son became destined for an important role in the early development of Sarawak.

With that the best of the day was done, and so I searched out an Indian cuisine cafe in deference to the crap loaded propensity of Chinese and pretentious Western eateries, happy that the rain only now prevailed, a full on tropical storm. Later it was a quick splash dash through the torrent to my newly discovered niche of a relaxed hybrid Chinese cum Western cafe boasting a rare shady outdoor area, mustering cold Heinekens and supercheap and generous curry, right across from a good net cafe and 24 hour shop. Perfect.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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