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Notes on the Geography of Malaysia: Kuching: Religious Elements

Since the arrival of James Brooke, Kuching has been socially diverse, which is why the central bazaar is punctuated by temples, mosques, and churches.

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The main Chinese temple is called Hong San Si. It was built no later than 1848 but was rebuilt in 1897, 1985, and 2003. Step inside?

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The host deity is Kong Teck Choon Ong, who hails from southern Fujian. The story is that he began as a poor villager named Kuo Chung Fook. He became a geomancer and, aged 16, climbed a tree where he chose to die. Miracles followed: epidemics ended, floods were prevented.

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His image is carried around the city on his birthday, the twenty-second day of the second lunar month.

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The main Malay mosque was rebuilt in 1967 and replaced one from 1847. Many of the tombstones predate the rebuilt version.

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Another view.

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There's an Indian mosque, too, the Masjid Bandar Kuching, entered through the green doorway.

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The prayer area, deep within a block of shophouses.

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The St. Thomas Church was rebuilt in 1956 and replaced a structure from 1847.

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Interior of the new church. The original was built by a German carpenter and was a marvel in unpainted wood. Perfectly shaped columns supported Gothic arches wrapping the nave and supporting upper walls of wood with lancet clerestory windows. The original church fittings were partially salvaged and recycled into the Church of the Holy Cross at Sungai Tanju, about ten miles east of Kuching.

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Near the church, the so-called Bishop's House was originally a Chinese-owned private home. It later became a boarding school and is now the diocesan center. The first Bishop of Kuching, by the way, was James McDougall, chosen by James Brooke probably because McDougall was also a surgeon. McDougall stayed in Sarawak for 20 years but returned to England in failing health in 1868. He recovered enough to serve later as bishop of Ely and, later still, Winchester.

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There are several Christian cemeteries in Kuching, but this is the oldest, on the edge of the church grounds and across a street from the main bazaar.

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The broken gravestone of Henry Skelton, who died in 1873, aged 30, two months after his appointment by Brooke as Resident of Kuching (here called Sarawak Proper). The cause of death was listed as "dynamic and intermittent fever." Malaria?

Three years earlier, Skelton had had a very narrow escape. "On May 13, 1870, an attack was made on Sibu fort by a force of some 3000 Kanowit Dayaks.... Sibu fort, which is situated on an island [about 100 miles east of Kuching], was then in the charge of Mr. H. Skelton... and was manned by a force of about thirteen Sepoys. Mr. Skelton had been frequently warned of the impending attack, but gave no credit to these warnings, and would allow no extra arms to be loaded. That very evening, during dinner time, a noted Dayak chief, Unggat, had come in to inform Mr. Skelton that the place was to be attacked. Mr. Skelton was angry at bring interrupted during his meal, and vowed, that if no assault was made, the man should be imprisoned. When the place eventually was attacked, the chief paced up and down in the fort and would take no part in the defense." As it happened, the Sepoys saved the day by paying attention to the warning and, contrary to their usual practice of stepping outside to wash at dawn, stayed inside the fort. Unable to gain entry, the attackers were driven off. Whether Skelton thanked the Sepoys for saving his life is unrecorded. (S. Baring Gould and C.A. Bampfylde, A History of Sarawak under Its Two White Rajahs, 1839-1908, p. 323.

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Master of the schooner Julia, 1846.

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Crymble had perhaps won the respect of James Brooke, the first White Rajah, six years earlier, in 1856. "Crymble was a hot-headed Irishman, who feared nothing. He saw the Chinese massing for the attack, led by a man holding torches in both hands... Crymble fought desperately. One of his Malay soldiers was killed, another seriously wounded, and then there was nothing to do except try to escape. He swung down into the ditch, and fought his way through a Chinese mob. He was stabbed at once, but he was wearing a thick coat and was unharmed. He succeeded in making his way to the house of the Datu Bandar [the second in command], where he joined Crookshank and the Rajah...." (Robert Payne, The White Rajahs of Sarawak, pp. 120f.)

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Brereton was ambushed near Skrang, lost a colleague in that attack, and survived only to be killed by dysentery. He had been in the country six years.



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