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 the river.

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 whetted.

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 the army.

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 carpet.

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.

[ Top ]