Travel Features > Arts & Crafts
The Cat Museum
Mike Reed spends a happy afternoon with some feline friends.
Kucing (or Kuching) is the Malay word for "cat" - a rather incongruous
name for a city that was home to three generations of White Rajahs
and is now the capital of Malaysia's largest state. There are
a number of stories as to how this came about. My favourite is
the tale of James Brooke's arrival in Sarawak in 1839, some years
before he became the first White Rajah. Apparently, spotting a
friendly local on the river bank, he hailed him and pointed to
the nearby township, shouting "apa nama itu?" (what's that called?).
The local, thinking he was referring to a small animal prowling
nearby, answered "kucing" (cat), and thus the town got its name.
It's fortunate for all concerned that Brooke wasn't pointing to
a public latrine at the time.
Other authorities claim that the word derives from cochin, a Chinese
word for a port or harbour, but the most likely explanation has
to do with the fruit of a tree growing by a small stream. The
mata kucing (cat's eye fruit) is a relative of the lychee, and
its transparent flesh and black kernel give it the appearance
of a cat's eye when peeled. In Brooke's day, a clump of these
trees grew next to a small river, the sungai mata kuching, which
entered the Sarawak River opposite the township, and hence the
town, originally known as Sarawak, eventually took its name from
Whatever the explanation, Kuching is commonly referred to nowadays
as Cat City, and various statues and monuments are dotted around
paying tribute to the city's favourite animal. The biggest surprise,
though, is just how seriously the city fathers of Kuching take
their association with cats. In fact, Kuching is home to the world's
very first cat museum.
Not being a cat person, I was quite sceptical when I set out for
Kuching North City Hall, where the Cat Museum is located. After
all, how much is there to know about cats that could interest
anybody but a zoologist or a raging cat lover? When I arrived
I was greeted by a scene of organised chaos. As part of the Pesta
Meow (Meow Festival), about thirty schoolchildren were spread
around the lobby creating model cats out of papier mache. It appeared
to be a model-making race of some kind, as their teachers were
constantly urging them on, but despite the haste some of the cats
looked pretty impressive.
Gingerly stepping over piles of wet newspaper, I made my way to
the entrance, to be greeted by blaring heavy metal music and a
lurid neon sign that would have looked more at home outside a
night club, all guarded by an enormous plaster tabby as large
as a man. Not what I expected, certainly, but my appetite was
Once through the entrance, I was in an atmosphere of relative
calm. Soft lighting and elegant wooden display cases demonstrated
that this wasn't just any cat museum it was a designer cat museum.
Examples of feline art were everywhere posters, paintings, album
covers, sculptures, porcelain figurines, etchings, bas-reliefs
you name the medium and somebody has used it to portray cats.
The Cat Museum certainly caters to all ages and tastes. Small
children were having a great time clambering over a giant statue
of Walt Disney's Aristocats, while elderly ladies were fussing
over door-sized photographs of cute fluffy kittens. I was here
to round out my education on cats, however, so I went in search
of some facts.
Cats, obviously a superior species to man, have been persuading
humans to do their bidding since the time of the ancient Egyptians,
but the extent to which humans have played along with this strategy
is simply staggering. Homo sapiens has pandered to the whims and
fancies of cats throughout recorded history, but the Cat Museum
really brings home what an important role cats play in human culture
(or is that the other way round?).
Cats are cultural icons for almost all human societies, although
the connections are not always positive. Black cats, for example,
are believed to be an omen of bad luck in Western Europe. As the
display explains, they were certainly unlucky for the elderly
women who owned them, who were burnt alive or drowned as witches
in the late middle ages and again during the English Civil War.
Some rather macabre old woodcuts illustrate this delightfully.
On a more positive note, cats have frequently provided inspiration
for artists and musicians, and even for writers and poets. Interesting
cat literature (or cat-litterature?) is to be found throughout
the museum, along with antique folios of sheet music singing the
praises of cats. It seems the Japanese have a particular affinity
for this most enigmatic of creatures; there is a splendid display
of Japanese porcelain beckoning cats, whose left paws are raised
to attract good fortune. This is next to a great exhibit devoted
to a remarkable Japanese advertising photographer, who spent years
of his life teaching a bunch of motley strays to pose in human-style
costumes for ads and posters. My favourite was the leather-jacketed
Marlon Brando clone with the white whiskers, dragging on a cigarette.
From what I read about how cosseted these media stars are, I'm
surprised it wasn't a Davidoff No. 1 Havana cigar.
Cats also figure prominently in Chinese art, and there are some
absolutely exquisite ink and brush drawings and lacquer painting
of cats playing with butterflies and mantises. They don't show
them ripping their wings off or biting their heads off though.
Cat icons are on display, in fact, from just about all over the
world, including some lovely woodcarvings from West Africa and
some great 19th Century French woodcuts of cats displaying a wide
range of human vices.
The number of different cat breeds is simply staggering, and most
were on display here. One I definitely didn't like the look of
was the Bengal Cat. Despite the praises sung by adoring owners
and the Bengal Cat Club, this beast doesn't look like a domestic
cat to me. A Hollywood remake springs to mind Honey, I Shrunk
The Sabre-Toothed Tiger. The owners claim they are boisterous
and affectionate, just like dogs. Just like paranoid schizophrenic
pit bull terriers, I'm sure.
Just to put this in perspective, my front yard is inhabited on
and off by about half a dozen cats. I don't know where they come
from, and I don't know who feeds them, but they seem to enjoy
using my porch for social gatherings and just chilling out. I
don't bother them, and they certainly don't bother me. But if
one of these miniature tiger lookalikes turned up, I'd probably
barricade myself in the house and call the police, or more likely
As well as the exhibits in the museum, there is also a small shop
where you can buy all manner of cat souvenirs, ranging from real
tack to some very nice pieces indeed. In my opinion, the nicest
items you can buy here are Arthur Liaw's witty and unusual stone
paintings of cats. Arthur has obviously spent months trawling
through river and stream beds looking for smooth but irregularly
shaped stones of various sizes. He has then breathed life into
them by expertly painting cats feature onto them in the most remarkable
detail. They're not exactly cheap, but you don't have to feed
them or change their litter, and they don't leave hair on the
I've got to admit that, even though I'm not exactly a cat person,
I really enjoyed the cat museum. It's presentation is stylish,
humourous when necessary and serious when not. The collection
really is very comprehensive, the descriptions are more than just
catalogue listings, and its central theme the importance of
cats in human culture comes across perfectly. If you are indifferent
to cats, you can still spend a fascinating afternoon here. If
you're a cat lover, this is a place of pilgrimage, and it's free.
Note : The Cat Museum is located at Dewan Bandaraya Kuching Utara
(Kuching North City Hall), Petra Jaya, Kuching. Tel : 082-446688.
Opening hours are 9 am to 5 pm daily (closed Mondays). There are
no entrance charges but if you want to take pictures there is
a fee RM 3 for still cameras and RM 5 for video. Commercial
photography or filming is by prior arrangement only.