Living in quaint Kuching is living in amidst old things. Our heritage is not only confined to museums, but is all around us. We walk through it and drive past it. We live in it.
It surrounds us like a fond memory, a reminder that others before us walked these same paths, admired the same views, and left them for us to do the same. For some people, like me, old towns like Kuching are extremely attractive places to live in. I call this the attraction of antiquity, and it is perhaps Kuching city’s most valuable character. Some, like the old courthouse, are grand and plainly visible, whilst many others lie hidden in secret corners, unnoticed, and unknown even to locals. Let’s visit just one of these.
The word aqueduct usually conjures pictures of Roman aqueducts, enormous spectacular structures built 2,000 years ago to transport water to cities. Many of these engineering marvels still stand today. In Latin, ducere means “to lead”, and aqua means water. Put the two terms together, and we have the word aqueduct, describing a structure built to lead water from one place to another. Channelling water is the first feat of engineering that makes the growth of a town possible. By the 1880s, the thriving town of Kuching stretched about two kilometres along the southern bank of the Sarawak river. It had two streams flowing into the main river: Sungei Gartak and Sungei Kuching. Sungei Kuching (sometimes called Sungei Mata Kuching) was a small stream originating from the hill behind where the Sarawak Museum stands today. It flowed past St. Mary’s school, past what is now Harbour View Hotel, and entered the Sarawak river between the Tua Pek Kong temple and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce building. A sculpture stands there today, marking the stream’s path. This was the only freshwater stream in “downtown” Kuching then, and was used as a source of water to the town. Both of these streams exist no more, filled up and built over.
In 1887, a waterworks project was initiated in Kuching to supply water to the town, commissioned by the Public Works Department. Government reports record Kuching as the second town (in present day Malaysia) to initiate an urban water supply system after Penang. And they both built an aqueduct – the only two in Malaysia to this day.
In the old days, waterworks were not just functional systems to supply water. They were also places of relaxation, scenic spots where town folk came for picnics and evening strolls. Collecting (and storing) water in lakes or tanks inevitably begins in valleys where rivers or streams flow, with forested slopes above the impoundments which serve to “catch” the water, hence the term water-catchment. In this valley lies Kuching’s Old Reservoir Park, a time capsule preserving the city’s first ever waterworks.
Called Taman Budaya today, this park is the largest public garden in Kuching, about 15 hectares in extent. Its lake was created in 1928 to store water (reservoir), though has been modified over the years to its current layout. Explore this park a bit more deeply, and you will find the old water supply structures built in 1887. At its highest point, the old waterworks lie hidden amidst old trees, comprising two square shallow tanks, lined with brick embankments. At its lower end, its outflow still remains, with iron joints and piping. Stroll around the facility and see if you can spot circular stone arrangements. These were the flowerpots of old, very popular during the late 19th century across the British colonies, used to create circular beds where roses and other flowering plants were grown. One gets a glimpse of what these waterworks might have looked like back in 1890, with manicured gardens, lawns and… the aqueduct, which lies across the path. Most of it still stands, although overgrown and broken in some places. It crosses a small valley, and takes a turn on the far slope. Here, a section of the aqueduct has fallen, and lies next to the pillars. Try and trace the supply lines down to where the lakes are now.
Although not the most spectacular of aqueducts, Kuching’s small over-100- year-old aqueduct is an important remnant of Malaysia’s structural heritage. As a historical monument, it is even more valuable because almost the entire waterworks system still remains. Complete with big trees, serene lakes and quiet walking paths, it takes you right back to a bygone era. It is a beautiful and invaluable example of Kuching’s heritage that is still lived in, preserved as is, as all heritage monuments should be. And, it is enjoyed today as it was before.
Tony Sebastian was born in Sibu, grew up in Marudi, Limbang and Serian. Nature his profession, history his passion, Kuching his home. A naturalist, traveller and writer, Tony’s love for Sarawak is evident in the way he brings its tales to life.