See Kuching Old Bazaar ‘Coolie Keng’ through Leonard Siaw’s brush strokes

Snippets of the "The Big Well and Coolie Keng" by Leonard Siaw.

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By Ling Hui

KUCHING, July 31: Sarawakian mural artist Leonard Siaw has brought to life Kuching Old Bazaar labourers’ quarters (‘coolie keng’) through his latest works — The Big Well and Coolie Keng.

In a painting of 50 human figures on a 40 x 10 foot wall, he vividly portrayed the scenery of a bustling shipping dock where labourers previously known as coolies gather for work and leisure in their daily lives.

Entering West Upper China Street, one could easily spot the mural opposite a red building, and going down the lane, the painting will catch any bypassers’ attention with lively actions of coolies having their meals, gambling, loading and unloading ships.

As the title of the mural implies, another emphasis of the illustration is on a well where coolies were depicted waiting in line to get water for drinking, washing and other daily needs.

The well, which has been demolished when Upper China Street was rebuilt, was the last out of five wells at Kuching Old Bazaar back in the days.

To spice things up, as Siaw described, he added scene snippets in the background with coolies arguing, some taking naps between work shifts and several others having a chat while admiring the scene.

“It’s overall an impression of a ‘coolie keng’ in the olden days. It may not be a hundred per cent presentation of what happened back then, but it is my perception of how coolies were,” he told DayakDaily over the phone today.

From the 1850s to 1900s, Kuching acted as a trading post between Singapore and the upper river, so coolies were in high demand at docks.

Not exactly a challenge to the experienced mural artist known both locally and abroad, Siaw said the coolie keng piece was more of a breakthrough as it contained the most number of human figures in one frame throughout his entire career.

To make this possible, he said he had to call up a few models to dress as coolies and pose under the hottest sun at noon for a photoshoot to capture the right highlights, contrasts and shadows of the portraits.

Siaw (in black) and a few models in a photoshoot for the coolie keng mural at Upper China Street. Photo credit: Leonard Siaw.

Now that the mural is almost done with a few more touch-ups needed here and there, he said it took him roughly two months, which was double his targetted time, to reach this stage due to the lockdown restrictions of the National Recovery Plan (NRP) in Sarawak.

In the first week of June, he said the mural was already halfway completed but there were delays in between where he had to get approval from the police to continue with his work on the streets.

When asked about the significance of historical murals to himself, Siaw described them as history lessons as he learnt about the past of his hometown which he previously knew so little about as he painted.

“Previously, when I was doing another (mural) series called the ‘History On Wall’ at Kuching Old Bazaar, I realised I know very little about my hometown.

“So, it was then that I developed interests in similar projects with historical murals. I hope by accepting these assignments, I can get to know more about Kuching myself,” he said.

In fact, “The Big Well and Coolie Keng” is not Siaw’s first historical mural in Kuching. The other mural series he was referring to was an art project under the Old Kuching Smart Heritage (OKSHE) programme which featured old business ventures started out in the heritage area.

The series consisted of “Symphony of the Tinsmith” at Carpenter Street, “Sampan, The River Taxi” at Jawa Street, “The Lane Hawkers” at Kai Koo Lane and “Early Mercers” at India Street.

Also a part of a bigger picture, the coolie keng painting is complemented by “Wooden Clogs Shops” and “Trading of Local Products” along Ewe Hai Street under the Kuching Old Bazaar Cultural Mapping & Tourism Promotion Programme funded by the Minstry of Tourism, Arts and Culture.

Meanwhile, Kuching Old Bazaar Cultural Mapping & Tourism Promotion Programme coordinator Chua JC said recent completion of the three murals will wrap up the programme which was aimed to rebrand Kuching Old Bazaar mirroring Singapore’s Chinatown, Penang’s Georgetown and Melaka’s Jonker Walk.

Other than paintings on walls, maps, brochures and videos introducing the history and culture of Kuching Old Bazaar were also produced and now available online at the Kuching Old Bazaar website.

A screenshot of the Kuching Old Bazaar website.

Chua, who is also Kuching Old Market Community Association deputy secretary, said the people and scenes in the three murals “are basically things that we don’t see anymore”.

“For the older generation at Kuching Old Bazaar, these will bring back memories. For the younger generation, it will act as a reminder of what was there before time.

“Of course Kuching Old Bazaar will also benefit in the tourism aspect. Plaques are going to be attached to these murals where visitors or tourists can scan QR codes to read stories on our website,” he added.

Kuching Old Bazaar Cultural Mapping & Tourism Promotion Programme was first launched on Oct 1, 2020 covering Carpenter Street, Ewe Hai Street, Wayang Street and other areas of the Kuching Old Bazaar. — DayakDaily