Former kampung neighbours meet again after 30 years

The guests at the reunion dinner yesterday which saw many of the former neighbours from Kampung Jalan Ara meeting for the first time after they moved out of their old homes in 1987. Three members of the committee that organised the event are seated i
The guests at the reunion dinner yesterday which saw many of the former neighbours from Kampung Jalan Ara meeting for the first time after they moved out of their old homes in 1987. Three members of the committee that organised the event are seated in the middle and are (from left) Mr Jony Iskandar, Mr Yusoff Md and Mr Jasni Yusoff. The reunion was to help the families get back in touch with each other and to recreate the sense of a kampung, said Mr Jony.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM PHOTO: COURTESY OF JONY ISKANDAR PHOTO: COURTESY OF JONY ISKANDAR
The guests at the reunion dinner yesterday which saw many of the former neighbours from Kampung Jalan Ara meeting for the first time after they moved out of their old homes in 1987. Three members of the committee that organised the event are seated i
A football team from Kampung Jalan Ara. Former resident Yusoff Md remembers his days at the kampung as being "carefree".PHOTO: COURTESY OF JONY ISKANDAR
The guests at the reunion dinner yesterday which saw many of the former neighbours from Kampung Jalan Ara meeting for the first time after they moved out of their old homes in 1987. Three members of the committee that organised the event are seated i
Mr Jony (second from left) and his neighbours helping to get things ready for an event at their old kampung.PHOTO: COURTESY OF JONY ISKANDAR

Separated after a resettlement exercise in 1987, 100 Malay former kampung neighbours who had lost contact with one another reunited for the first time in 30 years yesterday.

One of them, Mr Jony Iskandar, 57, said: "In the 1990s, there was no social media and no way to really keep in touch with such a big group of people effectively.

"Some of us would bump into each other only at the weddings and funerals of mutual friends. So I decided to organise a reunion to reconnect and chit-chat," he said.

Mr Jony spent almost a year tracking down his neighbours with the help of a few buddies he had kept in touch with. He said: "It started with a few of us. Then our WhatsApp chat group grew to about 35 of our former neighbours and word continued to spread."

Since their former Kampung Jalan Ara is now protected, forested military land, they met at a Housing Board multi-purpose hall in Jurong where they had dinner and took part in a quiz testing their knowledge of kampung life.

The organising committee shared vivid memories of their kampung life with The Sunday Times.

Co-organiser Saed Saadon, 60, a travel agent, said Kampung Jalan Ara, bordered by Jurong Road and Bukit Batok Road and Old Choa Chu Kang Road today, was larger than three football fields. He was also able to sketch it from memory.

At its heart lay a mosque that could fit 100 people. It was surrounded by 10 rows of four connected kampung units, which they referred to as terraced houses or barracks. There were also 27 individual structures, which they cheekily called bungalows. There was an Indian mama shop and a small Chinese provision shop as well.

There were two main entrances into the kampung - one via Track 22 and the other along the former Jalan Mandar. Their kampung was surrounded by a larger Chinese one called Lam San.

There are almost no public records of Kampung Jalan Ara, but National University of Singapore's Department of Chinese Studies head Kenneth Dean, who has a kampung mapping project, said he and his team have located 220 kampung sites from early historical maps.

Most had been demolished by the the 1990s as public housing expanded, he said. The last one standing today is Kampung Lorong Buangkok (off Yio Chu Kang Road).

He said: "There is still much to learn about life in kampungs. They have been wiped clean from the historical memory of Singapore - and yet, people lived in them 20 years ago."

Describing the reunion as "a very interesting event", he said: "The cultural side of kampung life seems very far away now, but it was a central part of the history of Singapore for over 180 years.

"We must do more to gather remaining photos, videos and written documentation of life in the kampungs, and conduct more oral history recordings, before even the memory of a lost way of life vanishes."

Mr Jony believes Kampung Jalan Ara dates back to the early 1960s after residents were relocated from another kampung called Sungai Attap, where present-day Taman Jurong is.

The kampung dwellings, featuring zinc roofs, had been built by the authorities.Electricity and running water were introduced later.

To earn some pocket money, the residents helped Chinese farmers living in the same area to plant vegetables.

But their kampung days were mostly "carefree", said Mr Yusoff Md, 63, wistfully. Laughing, the supervisor added: "One of the Chinese farmers, who had a crocodile farm, also had an elephant that he took around the kampungs to jalan-jalan (walk around)." Mr Yusoff was a teenager at the time.

They also went into the forests to catch grasshoppers.

Mr Jasni Yusoff, 56, a driver, added: "We would sell them to Chinese boys. The smaller the grasshopper, the harder to catch, and therefore steeper the price. The Chinese boys would in turn sell them to bird shops," he said.

The kampung was where they learnt how to swim, added Mr Saed. "There was a quarry of sorts that was used by the nearby brickworks. It was our own lagoon. We would dive right in after it rained and the water had pooled."

The pinnacle of their year was Hari Raya. They also enjoyed weddings. Mr Jony said: "Weddings were a whole kampung affair. We helped to build tents and chipped in to help skin chickens and prepare the food."

This world fell apart when they were resettled in flats in Bukit Batok and Jurong West.

Mr Jasni said: "We felt a great sense of loss and trapped in our new flats. In the kampung you had three to four doors to enter and exit from. But there was only one door in an HDB flat."

It was to recreate the sense of a kampung that Mr Jony decided to organise the reunion.

"It's important to siratul rahim or maintain family ties. We don't want to lose this spirit. We want our children and their children to experience it too."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 16, 2017, with the headline 'Former kampung neighbours meet again after 30 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe