The origins of the city's name have never been clear. "Kuching" does translate into "cat" in Malay and "kuching" is an old Malay spelling. However, the new official Malay spelling today would be "kucing," but both of them are pronounced the same. There is a separate theory whereby it may actually be a variation of the Indian name for "port" - "Cochin". Kuching was first settled by Indian traders who set up base at Santubong. Artifacts of Hindu origin can today be seen at the State Museum.
One highly unlikely theory is a story based on miscommunication. According to the story, when Rajah James Brooke arrived in Kuching on his yacht, the Royalist, he asked his local guide what the settlement's name was. The guide, thinking that the English adventurer was pointing towards a cat, said "Kuching." However, Sarawakian Malay for cat is "pusak" and this theory does not hold much credibility.
Another theory is that the city was named after the "mata kucing" or "cat's eye" fruit. Trees bearing this fruit used to grow in abundance by the river banks - where the city's commercial heart, is located. There is a hill in the heart of the modern city called Bukit Mata Kuching, and was named after the fruit. Also, at the foot of the hill, there was once a stream called the Kuching River. The stream, located in front of the Tua Pek Kong temple, had large amount of silt deposit and during the 1950s, was filled in to make way for roads and the city's expansion eastwards.
There is another more credible theory and that Kuching actually means "Ku" - Old and "Ching" - Well or "old well" in Chinese. During the Brooke's rule, there was no proper water supply and water-borne diseases were common. In 1888, there was a Great Cholera epidemic. However, water from a well at the present day China Street in Main Bazaar area saved Kuchingites from the disease. Clean supply of water from the well helped water-borne diseases became a thing of the past. Evidence of the well is still found at China Street. As Kuching expanded and the population and demand for clean water supply increased, the well was not adequate to supply the clean water and it was replaced by clean water supply from Matang area later.
Despite those theories, the city was named Sarawak under Rajah Sir James Brooke's rule. Under Rajah Charles Brooke's rule, the city was renamed Sarawak Proper in order to avoid confusion with the ever expanding Kingdom of Sarawak. Only in the latter part of his reign was Sarawak Proper renamed Kuching.
The city has never been noted for having a significantly large population of cats. In fact, the many cat statues, the Kuching Cat Museum and other association with cats have been largely a recent phenomenon, part of a modern effort of tourism. Many travel brochures refer to Kuching as "Cat City" or the "City of Cats".