kampong. i’d never heard the word till i came to singapore. but in the last eighteen years i’ve heard it and what it means so often, feels like it’s part of my memory too.
“you live in jalan lim tai see, ah ? last time it was malay kampong, lah.”
“these days no one knows their neighbours, leh… not like kampong last time.”
“nostalgia for kampong spirit.”
“oh, indi, kampong days were fun… real fun… we used to climb up and look into the neighbour’s house from the gap between the wall and the ceiling… watch them make love.”
the last one from the most irrepressible seventy something year old man i think i know. still working, still playful, still clever, still breaking rules, eyes gleaming, still learning. must be something to do with growing up in a happy go lucky, not too wealthy, full of talk and spirit kampong.
the easy to pronounce almost musical word, i gathered means a simple habitat, an enclosure with rustic houses, a sense of community among the people living there, chickens and dogs running around, vegetable patches, fruit trees, a rambling, not overly orderly living space, where there was time to be kind, to sit around and gossip, to give a damn if somebody was in trouble, to run barefoot, to peek at lovers, etc.
singapore used to have large tracts of these hamlets. over time, they’ve disappeared. people have moved to government made hdb apartments. orderly, neat, clean, concrete, with many amenities, fascinating in their own way, no kampong spirit however and sorry no kampong chicken can.
a sigh seems to fall whenever this older way of life is mentioned. as if that was the best ever, nothing comes close. it possibly was, but now i wonder, is it possible to go back? is it ever possible to retrace one’s steps? yet in memory it will be perfect in many ways i am sure…
when aj asked if i’d like to walk in the last kampong, i was elated. yes… of course, you mean there’s still one?
toward the north of singapore, on the western end of yio chu kang road, a turn takes you to gerald road and then another to lorong buangkok. if you keep going straight – buangkok means united – you come to rows of massive new hdbs. but at a little kink in the road, if you happen to notice a green sign saying surau lorong kampung buangkok and you follow the direction, you come to unpaved paths that beckon you to walk in and leave the world as you know it behind.
there are hut like dwellings in cheerful mix and mismatch colours all around, mostly made of wood with zinc roofs, apparently kampongs always had those. there’s no “proper” road, the track is more like the space between structures where people walk, maybe kids play here too. cars come up to the first row of houses, then you cycle or traipse.
the man at the first dwelling looks at us with faint curiosity and says nothing. we ask if it’s okay to take pictures. he doesn’t mind. we go and look at the homes and gardens and surau, a prayer place, walking along the winding, almost directionless way. there’s no sense of hurry here. practically no sense of time. you just hang out, you just are.
what vegetable is that you wonder looking at a trellis where newspapers are wrapped around the still tender young gourd or pumpkin or whatever it is. how come no one is stopping us you might think. you’re so close to people’s personal living areas, the patio, the back yard, the front door. the absolute antithesis of a modern gleaming focused ambitious and maybe a bit hardened metropolis. kampong, with its own mien and style.
the land of kampong lorong buangkok was bought back in 1956 by a chinese gentleman, a medicine seller, who had seen a deity in a dream. he acquired the swampy place where only a few families lived, and converted it over time into a proper kampong, charging tenants a rent of $2 to $3. at present, his daughter is the owner. she lives on the premises and though the village isn’t as large as it used to be, there are still about thirty families, chinese and malay, staying there. they pay between $13 and $30 as rent.
those who live in singapore know how unbelievable that sounds. and how good.
the last kampong on the main island of singapore will not be around for very long. the land is already earmarked for development. sigh.
behind the kampong runs a long canal which goes all the way to punggol in the east, a lovely walking/cycling track along it. one the other side, the modern, measured houses of a city.
my daughter falls down while skateboarding. the walk must come to an end. however nothing to stop us from rushing to jalan kayu nearby, famous for its roti prata shops, and falling upon food and our first bandung. gorgeous, completely non trendy or “interesting” said in a particular tone, gawky pink drink. evaporated milk, sugar syrup, rose essence, plenty ice. delightful.
kampong. i find something that excites me, i love the play and growth of language. seems the word compound in english meaning a space enclosed by a fence around a building, comes from the malay kampong via portuguese (campon) and dutch (kampeong). here’s oed’s entry on this.
some nice reading on the last kampong of singapore.
end of 1997, we moved to singapore from india. in 2015, the country celebrated fifty year of independence. singapore has given me much and i am fascinated by the spirit of this gutsy city state with hardly any land or resources, but oh what dreams and chutzpah (the finest interpretation of the word), the ability to reach big, hunker down and hold and strategise and act and grow. despite my many years here, i haven’t seen a lot of the island, which started out at only 28 miles by 18. now of course it’s bigger, thanks to that spirit i spoke of. so i thought why not see singapore in this landmark year, and celebrate #sg50. aj, my friend and trainer, and i traipse in different parts of the city every week. hope you enjoy the walk talk. you’ll find more in my index. and the walks continue in singapore’s year 51.