Culture

Check out these rare photos of The Astana, Kuching

Patricia Hului

If the Tsardom of Russia had their The Winter Palace and the Chinese emperors had their Forbidden City, we Sarawakians have what we call The Astana.

Once called Government House, it is now the official residence of the Governor of Sarawak.

It was built in 1870 by the second White Rajah Charles Brooke as a wedding gift to his wife Margaret Alice Lili de Windt.

The former palace of the White Rajahs is located on the north bank of the Sarawak, opposite the Kuching Waterfront.

One of the early descriptions of the Astana

Meanwhile, Sabine Baring-Gould and Charles Agar Bampfylde in their book A History of Sarawak under its two White Rajahs 1839-1908 had this to say about the building.

“Something must be said of the Astana, the residence of the Rajah and Ranee, which had then just been completed. It is built of brick in three separate sections, with a roof of iron-wood shingles, in appearance closely resembling slates. The illustration will best convey an idea of its exterior appearance, which in the opinion of some has been sacrificed for the sake of internal comfort. However that may be, no more comfortable or cooler house exists in the East. On the first or upper floor of the centre section are the drawing rooms and dining room spacious and lofty, and surrounded by a broad veranda. The side blocks contain the bedrooms, the lateral veranda of which are connected with those of the central block by covered bridges. In the basement are the Rajah’s office, guard room, household offices, bathroom, etc. The entrance is in the tower, in the lower part of which is the main staircase, and above is the billiard room. In a separate building, connected with the main building by a covered passage, are the bachelor’s quarters.

“The well laid out gardens are extensive and contain many beautiful tropical plants. Behind the Astana is the old graveyard of the former Malay Rajahs, in which are some well-carved monuments of ironwood. Beyond the gardens are grazing lands. The Rajah has two cattle farms, and he takes a great interest in rearing cattle, importing pedigree bulls from England to improve the stock in the country. Kuching is almost wholly supplied with milk and butter from the Astana diaries.”

Over the years, the Astana has witnessed so many historical events including the rise and fall of the Brooke era, the Japanese occupation, the British colonial days and now as Sarawak under the Malaysian federation.

It was here that local chiefs and their followers would meet especially those who came from outside of Kuching.

Former British colonial officer Alaistar Morrison stated in his book Fair Land Sarawak: Some Recollections of an Expatriate, “Any prominent personality visiting Kuching, such as Temenggong Oyong Lawai Jau, would normally be accompanied by a number of followers and you would meet them at the Astana receptions. These were prominent people in their own communities and they were perfectly at their ease in the Astana even if they did not wear lounge suits.”

The first reception of the Ranee

Speaking of receptions, the dining hall of the Astana was where the former Ranee Margaret held her first reception back in 1870.

In her book My Life in Sarawak (1913), she wrote,

“The dining room of the Astana was large, and could accommodate about two hundred and fifty guests… Some days before the party, on looking out my sitting room window towards the landing place and the path leading up from it to our door, I saw a number of little boys staggering under the weight of numerous round, red lacquer boxes. These were very large, and I sent for Talip (the butler) and asked him what they were. He informed me that they were to be used for the various cakes and fruit in the same way as we use silver dishes. Talip arranged that on this great occasion we should all sit on the floor round the room, and that the place occupied by the chief’s wife, with myself in their midst, should be set out with piles of gorgeous cushions covered with gold brocade – also borrowed from the houses of my guests. A fortnight or so was occupied in the preparations, and at last the day came to which I had been looking forward so much. I glanced into the dining room in the morning and thought how pretty a meal laid out for Malay ladies looked – very much prettier that the table arrangements at our dinner parties in England. Great strips of white and red material, bought for the occasion in the Bazaar, were laid down both sides of the room with cross pieces at each end. The red boxes were put at equal distances on these strips and between the boxes were dishes with the fruits of the country – mangosteens, mangoes, oranges, pineapples, etc. The red lacquer boxes made beautiful notes of colour all round the room.”

Unfortunately, there is no photo of Margaret’s first reception in Sarawak. One could only imagine how it looked like through her description.

The curse of Astana’s tower

With a building complex that has a history spanning more than a century, it is bound to have its own old wives’ tale.

One of these stories were told by John Beville Archer. He was the former Chief of Section in the Sarawak Civil Service and one of many Japanese internees during the Second World War (WWII).

In a June 1, 1948 issue of the Sarawak Gazette, Archer wrote how Toshinari Maeda’s untimely death might be related to the curse of Astana’s tower.

Maeda was a Japanese general and the first commander of the Japanese forces in northern Borneo during occupation.

“The main entrance of the Astana is the imposing and rather ancient tower overlooking the chief door to the palace.
Now there is a Brooke tradition that the exterior of this tower must not be whitewashed or renovated.
If this should occur, so runs the legend, some disaster will take place.
The tower had therefore became covered by an ivy-like creeper, and parts of the original building were crumbling in venerable decay.
The Japanese, vainglorious and victorious, saw fit to put this ruin into apple-pie order.
The creeper was torn down, masons, plasterers and white washers got busy.
Shortly afterwards Field Marshal Prince Maeda, cousin of the Emperor Sun god and Generalissimo, fell miserably to earth in a crashed plane somewhere round about Miri.”

To be precise, Maeda’s plane crash somewhere off Bintulu when flying from Kuching to Labuan in September 1942.
The wreckage of the plane and his body were never found.

After the war ended, the state became the Crown Colony of Sarawak (1945-1963). The colony was headed by a British governor appointed by King George IV and later by Queen Elizabeth II.

The official residence of the Governor of Sarawak at that time was the Astana.

Here are the photos of The Astana taken during Sarawak colonial days in 1959:

The view of the ground behind the Astana where Santubong mountain could be seen in the background.
The swimming pool, tennis court and outside bar behind the Astana.
The fish pond in the Astana grounds.
Sentry outside entrance to the Astana.
Looking across river to Kuching from the tower of the Astana.
The back of the Astana from the grounds.
Another point of view of the former Rajah’s residence.
The front of the Astana, Kuching.
The back verandah.
The Governor’s private sitting room.
The hall.
The sitting room in the private secretary’s flat.
The Lady Rachel room.
Entrance steps in the Astana.
The dining room with round table.
The air conditioned library in the Astana.
The Governor’s bedroom.
The private secretary’s bedroom.
The Ranee’s room, Astana.
Round table (seats 9) in dining room.
The games room and comptroller of the household’s desk.
Office of the assistant private secretary underneath the Astana.
The Governor’s office
The Duchess room,
The kitchens.
The Governor’s office,
Bathroom of the Lady Rachel room.

All images are part of the Colonial Office photographic collection held at The National Archives, United Kingdom. There is no known copyright restrictions.

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