Kuching revamp: How Australians rescued a heritage gem

It wasn't so long ago when the words "Australian-owned and managed" in reference to any bar, cafe, restaurant, hostel or hotel overseas, inevitably with the name of a marsupial somewhere in its title, was the most shrill of warning signals for the discerning traveller.

But then Australian chefs, such as David Thompson and Brett Graham, began to conquer the restaurant world, collecting Michelin stars like stamps, followed by the likes of Bill Granger who introduced the nation's breezy flat-white-fuelled breakfast and coffee culture.

And then there are the quieter, lesser-known antipodean achievers, like Narelle McMurtrie, an Australian who helped transform George Town, the capital of the island of Penang, Malaysia, from a crumbling backwater into one of the coolest small cities in south-east Asia.

George Town's renaissance was driven by a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2008 in recognition of its historic colonial-era town centre. But it was McMurtrie, along with another expatriate Australian, Christopher Ong, who recognised the city's tourism potential.

They set about transforming the George Town's distinctive though dilapidated  shophouses (retail below, residence above) into boutique accommodation, cafes, restaurants, shops and cultural centres.  Now McMurtrie has turned her attention to the even lesser-known city of riverside city of Kuching, one of south-east Asia's most pleasant and relaxed cities.

It's also another urban heritage gem, in Sarawak, one of the two Malaysia states along with Sabah on the island of Borneo. McMurtrie had been visiting Kuching for a decade and had noticed the potential of the city's remarkable under-utilised heritage courthouse complex. It dates to the days of the White Rajahs and was once the World War II headquarters of Kempeitai, the feared Japanese secret police.

It's just one of Kuching's many surviving buildings from the 100-year rule between 1841 and 1941 of the so-called White Rajahs, founded by James Brooke, a former soldier in the East India Company's army. He was installed by the Brunei viceroy as Rajah of Sarawak, beginning an extraordinary and wholly unorthodox dynastic reign.

McMurtrie, originally from Junee, NSW, investigated the possibility of leasing the buildings as an off-shoot of ChinaHouse, her highly successful restaurant, cafe and cultural complex built inside a series of narrow shophouses, back in George Town. Two years ago she found a Sarawakan business partner, Datuk Jason Tai Hee, with the same vision for the buildings.

After winning the support of Sarawak's state government, members visited George Town to see for themselves what McMurtrie had created and achieved there. Impressed, the second ChinaHouse was soon set to emerge a few thousand kilometres away, finally opening earlier this year.

"They were looking for someone to revitalise Kuching's downtown area," says McMurtrie, "and as we'd played a part in George Town's turnaround, they hoped we could do the same in there. For us it was a challenge that involved not just the most iconic buildings in Sarawak but also the country. These buildings really are a national treasure."

McMurtrie's contribution to the preservation and revitalisation of Malaysia's rich and underrated built heritage began in Malacca, which itself earned a World Heritage listing at the same time as George Town in 2008.

It also includes a resort complex, Bon Ton and Temple Tree, on the tropical island of Langkawi, at the northern tip of Malaysia, near southern Thailand. The expatriate Australian acquired a collection of antique kampong-style Malay villas from the mainland and rebuilt and restored them on the site of her Langkawi resort. 

Not only did the indefatigable McMurtrie introduce the Australian-style cafe culture to Malaysia, having begun in Malacca, another World Heritage listed colonial city several hundred kilometres south of George Town, she also incorporated cultural elements, such as art galleries and performance spaces, into her properties.

"Sarawak has always been one of the most interesting states in Malaysia though, of course, we all went initially for its famous rainforest festival that was many people's first but not last introduction to the place," she says. "Kuching for me, feels like the Georgetown of maybe eight years back, which was around the time when we first set up in Penang."

Kuching's downtown area is on a smaller scale than George Town, and for that matter, Malacca, which makes it immensely walkable for a visitor. But, as McMurtrie points out, what really distinguishes Kuching and Sarawak is the fact its indigenous Dayak tribes still represent the largest proportion of the population.

"This in itself is what gives Sarawak amazing culture," she says. "The arts, crafts and food belonging to the many different tribal groups is huge and unending. Sarawak has the potential to be a world leader for indigenous crafts and to go to artisanal level on the international market." 

Kuching's ChinaHouse in the old colonnaded courthouse with its high-ceilings  to circulate the often hot and humid air consists of nearly a dozen buildings. They now house McMurtrie's restaurant, cafe, gift shop and performance space. As is her trademark, she's managed to revitalise the complex without any major, if any, changes to the fabric of the building and she hasn't forgotten the historical significance of the complex. 

Fortunately for McMurtrie and her partners, the state government restored the buildings nearly a decade and a half ago, using quality materials and respecting the original construction by the White Rajahs. "The Brooke family story behind them is totally a one-off in the world," she says. "The White Rajahs of Sarawak ruled in a way that benefited the state and the people. The first few buildings in the complex were built by the Rajah to be the centre of administration for the state with all distances measured from the middle point of the courtyard.

"To be custodians of these beautifully designed and constructed buildings is more then a privilege but for me it's not only the history of them but the story behind them that makes them so appealing, it's the actual architecture of the buildings themselves.

"Now to see people from all walks of life in Sarawak walking these corridors and using the spaces again definitely puts a smile on our faces. We can feel the buildings coming alive and we're so happy for them to be filled with noise and movement again."

The ChinaHouses in George Town and Kuching not only share the same "creative hub" philosophy. They're also renowned (or should that be notorious?) in Malaysia for their cake tables, where more than three dozen cakes are displayed on a long table and in a glass-fronted fridge. They go perfectly with the copybook Australian caffe lattes served to the fledgling local and foreign clientele.

"I call it the Australian Women's Weekly cake table," McMurtrie jokes. "My mother, who was a great baker, would be proud of it. We also have two very different menus for the cafe and the restaurant. But it's the cakes that draw the crowd in and allow for a very low spend to enjoy the environment."

FIVE MORE THINGS TO SEE AND DO 

THE SQUARE TOWER

Built in 1879, this unusual white building now sits alone on the riverfront opposite the Courthouse complex and across the river from the modern state legislature building. It was once part of a wooden fort that was burnt down during a rebellion by the local Chinese in 1857. Used as a prison, mental asylum and even as a dance hall, it now houses a restaurant.

THE ROUND TOWER

Not far from the Square Tower and the Courthouse, the Round Tower, the former government dispensary, features walls that are, for reasons unknown, half-a-metre thick in sections. It's adjacent to the decorative, three-storey former home of the health department and one-time hospital, which in turn is next to an unlovely modern hotel.

CHINESE HISTORY MUSEUM

Built as a riverside courthouse for Sarawak's Chinese citizens in 1912, this attractive building now houses a small though impressive museum. It details the history of the local Chinese community. Straight across the street is the Museum Cafe & Shop which does great food and drinks as well as boasting a fine collection of books about Kuching and Sarawak.

SARAWAK MUSEUM

Built in 1891, the small, dusty though fascinating Sarawak Museum houses the ethnographical and natural history collection of the erstwhile rajahs. It features some fearsome attractions including head-hunter battle shields decorated in the hair of multiple victims. A modern annexe to the museum is being built across the road.

RIVER CRUISE

An easy 90-minute sunset cruise along the Sarawak River, which runs through Kuching, is a good way to get a sense of the city as well as a closer look at some of its main attractions, such as imposing Astana (or palace), the former home of Rajah Charles Brooke, and Fort Margherita, built in 1879 and named after his wife.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

sarawaktourism.com

malaysia.travel

GETTING THERE

Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia and Singapore Airlines all operate regular flights from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to Kuching. See malaysiaairlnes.com; airasia.com; singaporeair.com

STAYING THERE

The best place to stay in Kuching is the affordable 24-room Ranee Boutique Suites, right on the waterfront and a short walk to ChinaHouse and the city's main attractions. Doubles from Malaysian ringgits 285. See theranee.com 

EATING AND DRINKING THERE

ChinaHouse Kuching is at Jalan Tun Ababg Haji Openg, phone +60 82-417 601. It's open daily between 9am and midnight for breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks. See facebook.com; chinahouse.com.my

Anthony Dennis visited Kuching as a guest of Tourism Malaysia and Sarawak Tourism

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