Rhyme And Reason-A Literary Series

The romance and reality of kampung life

People think of kampung life as something idyllic. I grew up in one. It wasn't.

In 2009, The New York Times ran an article on Kampung Buangkok headlined "Singapore prepares to gobble up its last village". It was a sensationalistic headline, and it worked on me: I followed the news with interest and curiosity. But unlike a good number of people, I have not yet made a visit. Perhaps I shall go some day. The truth is, though, I have no real desire to do so.

I grew up in a kampung. Not in Buangkok - my early childhood was spent in Paya Lebar, near what is now Kim Chuan Depot. I lived there with my extended family till I turned two, and after moving out with my parents, continued going back regularly, sometimes daily, for the next seven years. My extended family was resettled in 1986, when the government acquired the land. By 1991, the dotted lines marking the lane leading into the kampung had disappeared from the Singapore Street Directory.

Jalan Waspada was an unpaved track that wound its way off Upper Paya Lebar Road before arriving at a jumble of zinc-roofed wooden houses in a shallow valley. The road was covered with potholes and loose, sharp-edged stones, making it a veritable obstacle course for cars that intruded into its inner sanctum. My cousin Heng and I used to get ferried to our grandmother's after kindergarten every day in my uncle's dusty blue Toyota. The bumpy two-minute drive saw us repeatedly being launched into the air, then flung unceremoniously back against the car seat, like in a mini rodeo ride.

Like most early childhood memories, the rest of my kampung recollections are spare, fragmented, truncated; the equivalent of cinematic stills, with no soundtrack, no entertaining stories. Still, the few images that come to mind are vivid, enduring. The rough concrete floor of my grandmother's house; the splintered texture of the wooden walls; the chickens running free around the compound; the rickety chicken coop that I once tried to climb and nearly fell off; the well with its column of cold damp air enclosed by stone.

Above all, I remember the games my cousins and I played. The hours stretched long and languid back then - partly because we were children with no adult responsibilities, but also because the packed after-school schedules now created by over-anxious helicopter parents were still a distant nightmare. Afternoons were spent battling over the relative merits of airplanes and racing cars in a card game called Top Trumps, navigating our M.A.S.K. figurines through the airspace of our grandmother's living room, trapping spiders in matchboxes to goad them into fights. Heng and I used to gather fallen twigs as kindling for our grandmother's kitchen wood fire. We even invented a chant that we sang, waving the twigs in the air with large sweeping gestures - "Yah yi yah, yah yi yah..." It felt good to make ourselves useful.

People usually do a double-take when I tell them I grew up in a kampung. They look even more surprised upon hearing that my grandmother was still cooking with firewood in the mid-1980s. I wonder how they would react when they discover that the kampung outhouse didn't even have a bucket that was cleared daily by night-soil workers. I had assumed that to be the case for years. It was only recently that my mother disabused me of that notion - there was no bucket, she said, only a "very deep pit".

  • ZHANG RUIHE

  • Zhang Ruihe works in education and has been involved in the Singapore literary scene as a writer and editor for more than a decade. She served as essays editor for the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore from 2005 to 2009, and received the Golden Point Award for English Poetry in 2013. Her creative non-fiction, poetry, reviews and short fiction have been published in various journals and anthologies, both in print and online. She is working on an essay collection.

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Accounts of kampung life tend to wax nostalgic. Older folk lament the loss of the gotong royong spirit which banded people together against difficulty, speak of the trust that made it unnecessary for people to lock their doors at night.

Others miss being close to nature, tell stories of their tree-climbing, insect-chasing exploits. Almost everyone yearns for a return to the more idyllic pace of life, before widespread urbanisation swept us headlong into the 21st century. These are heartfelt longings for a way of life all but irretrievably gone. Except for two tiny communities at Buangkok and on Pulau Ubin, there are no kampungs left in Singapore. Most of them had to make way for development by the late 1980s: The bulldozers and tractors moved in, levelled the trees, chicken coops, wooden houses. Everything washed away by the tide of change.

I understand the nostalgia felt by former kampung residents, despite feeling none of it myself. I was too young to develop any real ties to Jalan Waspada and the life that came with it. In the absence of such emotional attachments, what I remember instead are the dirt, the basic living conditions, the toe-curling discomfort. Stripped of any sentiment, the bare fact is that I grew up in what was essentially a Third World village - the kind of place that schools now send their students to for community service trips and for a first-hand taste of hardship. I'm glad not to live there any more.

Recently, there has been a surge of interest in Singapore's history, partially driven by an understandable reaction against the relentless forward-moving momentum of the post-Independence years. Accompanying this interest has been a tendency to romanticise the past, again, maybe in reaction to a national narrative that often posits that past as a negative standard against which to measure the present and congratulate ourselves on how far we have come.

I have always felt uncomfortable with both extremes. Kampung life was what it was - a way of living that people made for themselves out of the realities of the day. Painting it in rose-tinted hues ignores the material deprivations that few would endure now - we who complain so vociferously about MRT breakdowns and stuffy hawker centres.

At the same time, the symbolic value of kampung life is undeniable. It represents an era when things were not necessarily easier, but simpler, when ordinary people seemed relatively sheltered from the realities of global geopolitics and economics. Even if the world economy was going to pot, you could still grow vegetables and rear chickens for a living; you were never pitted against your fellow citizens with the same competitive intensity as people are now. Urbanisation and resettlement brought a sea change to the way people related to others and imagined their place in the wider world. Instead of the material discomfort of the past and the narrow horizons that poverty entailed, we now cope with the psychological stresses that come with success and an aspiration that often knows no contentment. I wonder which we would prefer if given a choice.

I won't visit Kampung Buangkok.

Those days are over. My own experience has dampened any curiosity I might feel. But I can understand why others visit. Learning about the past is important for knowing who we are, where we are going. My hope is that our quest to understand our roots does not fall into sentimentality, that in unearthing new stories about old times that have so far been left out of our national narrative, we do not swing to the other extreme of discounting the old stories entirely. There will always be a tension between the desire to look back and the need to move forward - and in land-scarce Singapore, this tension is heightened to a degree unknown elsewhere.

How to hold it in some kind of creative balance - that is a question that will occupy us in the years ahead. May we find some satisfactory answers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'The romance and reality of kampung life'. Print Edition | Subscribe