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Borneo's Riverside Bistro

Penang's iconic boutique bistro ChinaHouse leapt across the South China Sea to breathe the new life into the Old Courthouse of Sarawak's White Rajahs. BY MARCO FERRARESE. PHOTOGRAPHED BY KIT YENG CHAN.

Published on Jun 20, 2016

A DEEP PURPLE BORNEO SUNSET IS transforming the Sarawak River into shimmering dark silk, and I'm perfectly positioned to witness the alchemy, standing at the base of the 1924 Charles Brooke Memorial obelisk. Behind me rises Kuching's Old Courthouse, a majestic collection of white buildings covered with dark gable roofs and flanked by breezy wood-tiled verandas. This is where Penang's boutique bistro ChinaHouse opened its Borneo outlet, one that's going to turn heads with its blend of culinary, shopping and artsy delights set in a well-preserved colonial-era building.

An overview of ChinaHouse.

Built between 1868 and 1927, Kuching's Old Courthouse complex lies at the heart of this river town, carrying the legacy of the White Rajah empire: three generations of Asia-born Englishmen who governed Sarawak for a century until 1941. The last raja, Vyner Brooke, handed the state over to the British after the Japanese occupation of Borneo in World War II. The White Rajahs' Sarawak was the only place in colonial Southeast Asia where Europeans managed a sovereign state seeking to integrate with the local culture. Their vision echoes in the Old Courthouse's architecture, which is wildly different from the typical colonial buildings in British Malaya and India. Rather than Ionic and Corinthian, Tuscan columns line the complex's spacious verandas, connecting the wings to a central courtyard open to the sky.

Four main wings are connected around a central courtyard.

Prior to the ChinaHouse makeover, the vast Courthouse was squandered as a campground for Kuching's vagrants, driving locals away. The state government tried to zap some verve into the old classic by fully renovating the space in 2003 and opening the offices of Sarawak Tourism Board in the main wing, but the efforts were more of a dull fizzle than the envisioned electric pop. It took the dynamic charge of a childhood dream to defibrillate the block.

"Since I set my eyes on it as a kid, I knew that the Old Courthouse deserved much more," says Jason Tai, managing director of Pansar and investor of the ChinaHouse at the Old Courthouse project. A native of Sibu, Sarawak's second river town, Tai loves to collect and preserve antiques. "Kuching's Old Courthouse is a beautiful old building in a city center that desperately needs life," he says over coffee and a thick slice of ChinaHouse's excellent cakes at Kopi C. This luminous bistro enlivens the Courthouse's main wing, right below the original clock tower that's been ticking away Kuching's hours since 1883.

Kopi C.
Mini lime sponge apple and cakes.

All the nostalgic-chic wooden furniture here was sourced from West Malaysian Chinese medicine halls and kopitiams, and transported to Borneo by freighter. "I hunt for this stuff in Penang and Kuala Lumpur," says Narelle McMurtrie, an Australian entrepreneur who has already spruced up Langkawi's and Penang's boutique accommodation and café scenes with her hotel brand Bon Ton and the original ChinaHouse in George Town.

It was Jason Tai who convinced McMurtrie to transfer the idea of her boutique-bistro to Kuching's Old Courthouse. "I visited ChinaHouse during a business trip to Penang and just loved it," he says. "It was exactly what I had in mind to kick-start Kuching." It was an offer that McMurtrie, who had the Old Courthouse complex already in her sights from previous visits to Sarawak, couldn't refuse. "The ChinaHouse's concept is inspired by traditional Chinese homes with a courtyard surrounded by three outlying buildings," she explains. "In Penang, we had to make do with a single, long Chinese shophouse we split into 14 different dining and creative spaces. But in Kuching, the Courthouse's four main wings are connected around a central courtyard—a dream match to the original concept."

Artsy boutiques have livened up Kuching.

ChinaHouse at the Old Courthouse duly replicates the 14 spaces of its Penang sibling, including chic bistro Kopi C., two reading rooms, a bookshop, an exhibition room, a bakery, an arts and crafts boutique, a fine dining restaurant, ChinaHouse's signature live music club the Canteen, and even a full-scale auditorium. "We want the restaurant, shops and bistro to cater to families, while leaving plenty of free performing and exhibition space to the young," McMurtie says. "We want them to fire up Kuching's city center." Judging by the number of wellheeled adults, tourists and artistic young types seen on the revamped premises, it seems that McMurtrie and Tai have hit on a concept that resonates. Attracted by the softly lit verandas and breezy courtyard, patrons can wander between Kopi C.'s tables—equipped with colored crayons and paper tablecloths that can win aspiring artists a RM50 food and drink voucher—and the Canteen for live music and performances. There may be a new dynasty dawning in Kuching, and under this empire community is king.

Kopi C.
Kopi C.'s veranda is a great spot to while away the day.



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A glimpse of the makeover at ChinaHouse in Kuching.
  • The original clock tower signals a rich past as well as the time.
  • ChinaHouse
  • Mod but still local interior designs.
  • Local interior designs.
  • Aussie visionary Narelle McMurtrie.
  • Cake and murals.
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