Determining exactly when the Kuching area started to be inhabited and when it became ‘a place’ is a daunting task. There are, however, existing data and records that can be used to examine the situation in Kuching 200 years ago.
Records About the Old Bazaar
According to Elizabeth Pollard in her book “Kuching Past and Present” (1972), some ancient Belian wood tombstones found in 1830 in the area behind the Astana provide evidence of the presence there of Brunei nobles around the 1820s.
The Kuching Kwong Wai Siew Association’s record mentions a Cantonese pioneer Lau Chek and his compatriots arriving in Kuching around the 1820s and engaging in farming and small businesses for quite some time. Lau Chek was also officially recognised by the colonial government as the first Chinese to have arrived in Sarawak. He used to trade at the Old Bazaar and was one of the founders of Kwong Wai Siew Association.
When the British explorer James Brooke and his crew arrived in 1839, they noted that in addition to the Malay villages, there were also some 20 Chinese residing in Kuching. They also noted the existence of an old temple on the riverbank, although there was no explicit evidence regarding which “old temple” this was. Historians generally believe this may have been a reference to the Tua Pek Kong temple and if so, this may be the earliest written record for the Tua Pek Kong temple. However, the actual year the temple was constructed remains an unsolved mystery.
When the Anglican bishop, Reverend F. McDougall arrived in Kuching in 1848, his wife Mdm. Harriette McDougall described the situation of Kuching in detail. Her impression of Kuching at that time gives an indication of its size. She reported, “The town of Kuching consisted in those days of a Chinese bazaar and a Kling bazaar, both very small……”.
Chinese Arrival in Kuching
Kuching was, however, growing. By the time Madam Harriette arrived in Kuching, Sarawak was already under the rule of James Brooke and this also coincided with increased emigration of Chinese to Nanyang (or the South Sea). The Chinese migrants sailed from China to Singapore and upon learning about the newly established White Rajah kingdom, they crossed the South China Sea seeking new opportunities in Sarawak.
The Chinese bazaar mentioned by Mdm Harriette was undoubtedly the “Old Bazaar”, while the Kling bazaar was a combination of Gambier Street and India Street, which later became known as the “New Bazaar”.
During that time, two major Chinese settlements had formed in Sarawak. One was located on the upstream portion of the Sarawak River, beyond present-day Batu Kawa. While the other, downstream settlement, was located around the present-day Kuching Old Bazaar. The upstream settlement extended to the Bau Bazaar and was controlled by Hakka miners. In the beginning, there was peace and harmony between the Brooke government and the upstream Chinese, but the situation deteriorated in the 1850s. The culmination of the dissent ended with the eruption of the famous Bau Chinese Revolt, which ended with thousands losing their lives.
Upstream and Downstream Chinese Influence
A good question is whether the two groups of Chinese, in Kuching and Bau had any historical contacts. With the limited historical records available, the relationship between upstream and downstream Chinese cannot be ascertained in much detail. However, since the Rajah maintained good relationships with Chinese traders in Kuching, it is believed the Rajah also initially forged similar relationships with Bau Chinese and this kept the relationship of the two groups of Chinese in good stead.
In relation to this, there are two relatively important records unrelated to trading which are worth mentioning. These records are important as they indicate that there was some sort of relation and communication between the two groups.
In 1856, when the Kuching Tua Pek Kong temple was renovated, a contingent of Bau miners came by boat to Kuching and prayed at the temple to express their wishes for good fortune. Another record tells of a woman by the name of Ah Si Mei who suffered beatings from her husband and who subsequently fell in love with a young miner. The woman and her new lover left Bau and eloped to Kuching where they apparently settled.
Whatever the prior communications were, after the Bau Uprising, it appears there was a clear distinction made between the Kuching Chinese and the Bau Chinese. When the Rajah’s forces massacred the Bau miners, the Kuching Chinese were not affected. Following this incident, the Rajah’s government became more cautious when dealing with the Chinese, but still relied on them for their trading skills and diligent work attitude. Indeed, the reliance on Chinese traders and labour led to a mass migration of Chinese to Sarawak especially during the second Rajah’s reign. This trade and labour was a driving force for the economic development of Sarawak.
Recognizing the contributions of the Chinese on more than one occasion, the second Rajah, Charles Brooke in 1883 publicly pointed out that, “Without the Chinamen we can do nothing.”
Old Bazaar vs New Bazaar
The name of the Bazaar comes from the Malay term “Pasar” for market. Ever-adaptable, the Chinese migrants adopted the usage of “Pasar” (巴刹bā shā) into daily language. The century old Kuching Old Street area was divided into the “Old Bazaar” and the “New Bazaar” with the two divided by the Old Court House.
The original bazaar started with the Main Bazaar located along the river and then spread with the formation of other streets and alleys in the 1860s. In the 1880s, under the second Rajah, development began on the other side of the Old CourtHouse where Indian Moslems and Javanese settlements were originally located. This is when the names of Gambier Street, India Street started to appear. The wet market was also moved to the riverbank side of Gambier Street.
People started to call the area around India and Gambier Streets the “New Bazaar” with the area along Main Bazaar remaining as the “Old Bazaar”.