German business on India Street

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Jutta Kelling

THIS is another historical episode about Sarawak’s global entanglement.

India Street in Kuching is a popular pedestrian shopping mall today, but it is also a place with a long history.

The street gets its name from the fact that many merchants from India set up stores along this street. Until 1928, it was called ‘Kling’ street which was a common term for people from India in 19th century Southeast Asia. When James Brooke came to Sarawak, Indian traders–Muslims from the Malabar Coast–were already living in the place. They had close trading networks within Southeast Asia.

However, there were not only Indians running businesses on ‘Kling’ Street in Brooke Sarawak over time. It is well known that there were Chinese traders, but did you know that there were also German shops on India Street at the beginning of the 20th century?

At the turn of the 20th century, German companies were actively participating in trade in Southeast Asia. The German trading communities founded import-export houses and shipping companies in port cities like Singapore, Penang or Hong Kong. They saw the great opportunities to sell German products abroad and provided a major share of the Straits Settlements’ Asia-Europe trade.

Thus, it was not unusual that German merchants from Singapore increased their focus on business opportunities in Kuching.

The Sarawak Dispensary

On 7 November 1912, Mr Th. E. Giese arrived in Kuching to make enquiries for the Singapore dispensary called Medical Hall.

This large dispensary was founded at the end of the 1870s by the German Dr Christopher Trebing. The Sarawak Gazette announced in September 1912 that Medical Hall Singapore planned to set up a branch in Kuching. Two months later, the proprietor of Medical Hall Singapore, the German Karl Struve, obtained a site at 2/4 ‘Kling’ Street at the corner of today’s Jalan Barrack to build a new dispensary. Some qualified Chinese dispensers assisted Struve.

In May 1913, the Sarawak Gazette was looking forward to the opening of the new dispensary within two weeks. Struve connected the two houses into one and made extensive alterations and repairs. He put in plate glass windows and a tiled floor. The building was described as having a very smart appearance and people in Kuching were astonished about the venture.

The dispensary was finally opened on 2 June 1913 for the public under the name Sarawak Dispensary. The Sarawak Gazette reported that it was a pleasure to go in and look around. There were well-made show cases and customers would be tempted to buy all sorts of useful articles apart from drugs and patented medicines.

Fig 1: No.2-4 India Street in 2018 © Jutta Kelling

Karl Struve left for Singapore after the opening of the dispensary. He seemed to have had some financial problems. In the same year, Medical Hall was converted into a liable company and Struve’s property was sold by auction.
He was followed by Th. E. Giese in July 1913. As there was now a private dispensary in Kuching, Rajah Charles Brooke announced that the Government dispensary would be closed to the public from September 1913.

The Kuching Emporium

In 1913 a young man from the town of Bremen in Germany came to Kuching. Johann Rohrmann was a former employee in the shipping department of Behn, Meyer and Co., the German shipping company in Singapore. There he had been living with his brother’s family for some years. He was only 25-years-old, and he had come to Sarawak to start a wholesale and retail business on his account. It is said he was full of energy and hopefulness for the future.

Giese and Rohrmann knew each other well because they were members of the Singapore Boat Club and the German Teutonia Club in Singapore.

Two months before his arrival in Kuching, Rohrmann had just returned from Germany. There he had married his wife Anna Maria Paula Lara in Munich. She was the daughter of Luisa Herbold and the merchant Emil Mueller. Anna Maria was expected to arrive in Kuching by the end of November 1913, and Johann had already taken/rented a house on ‘Kling’ Street for three years.

There he opened his business, and the store was called the Kuching Emporium. An advertisement in the Sarawak Gazette informs us that people could buy milk, hams, butter, Chinese New Year cards and “a large assortment of fancy goods in the shop”.

Fig 2: Advertisement, Sarawak Gazette, 16 January 1914

Rohrmann was supported by a shop manager, D. F. Flanagan. Unfortunately, Rohrmann became ill with bacillus dysentery after two-and-a-half months. As his health worsened, he was brought to Sejijak, to the house of Dr Christie and his wife. He died on 17 November 1913 and was buried the same day at St. Thomas in Kuching. Many people attended the funeral.

A few days later, his young wife arrived in Singapore where she heard about his death. She immediately travelled to Kuching, to visit the grave and to thank the people of Kuching for all their sympathy. In the following months, Flanagan conducted the business of the Kuching Emporium which was finally sold to B. Feinberg from Singapore in May 1914. However, Feinberg gave up the Kuching Emporium after 18 months due to ill health and went back to Singapore.

Mrs Rohrmann returned to Singapore after she had sold the business and lived there with her husband’s family. When World War I broke out, she and other relatives were transported to Australia and initially interned at Bourke, New South Wales before being moved to the Molonglo Concentration Camp in the Federal Capital Territory. There Anna Maria died on 30 November 1918 of pneumonia and heart failure. The Australian War Memorial still has a photograph of her funeral.

Jutta Kelling is a Ph.D. candidate in history from FernUniversität Hagen in Germany. Her study explores the history of indentured labourers who were brought from South India and Ceylon to Sarawak in the second half of the nineteenth century to work on the plantation at Mount Matang.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily