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Full Circle

Day 113: Kuching

Michael Palin - Full CircleThe noonday heat burns like a blow-lamp as I stand, unprotected, in the grounds of the Istana, the palace from which Rajah Brooke ruled Sarawak.

I'm talking to Stephen Young, a lawyer, prominent member of the Chinese community in Kuching and father of Philip, our fixer, about the rule of the White Rajahs. Because of their tolerance of all the different customs and ways of life of their subjects, he thinks they left a valuable legacy of racial harmony in Sarawak. One major fault, if local tradition is believed, is that they didn't pay enough attention to local superstition. It was foretold that if the tower of the Istana Palace was ever re-painted, bad luck would follow. In 1941, the last Rajah, Vyner Brooke, decided that the whole place should be re-decorated to celebrate a hundred years of Brooke rule. The paint had barely dried when the Japanese army swept up the Sarawak River in armour-plated barges. The country was plundered and Vyner Brooke fled to Australia. He never returned.

Stephen Young thinks that their influence survives and certainly, looking across at the immaculate river front, Kuching glows with the civic pride of an overgrown English market town. But rising in the distance and for some reason strangely segregated from the rest of the city, are grandiose corporate towers with more echoes of Seoul and Shanghai than Cirencester. This is where the future lies, and it won't be quaint.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 113
  • Country/sea: Malaysia
  • Place: Kuching
  • Book page no: 163

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