A kampung house for the 21st century

Madam Ng serving Ms Andrea Bork local food last Friday. Ms Bork, who was visiting from the United States, came to One Kind House with her mother and brother to learn how to make local dishes.
Madam Ng serving Ms Andrea Bork local food last Friday. Ms Bork, who was visiting from the United States, came to One Kind House with her mother and brother to learn how to make local dishes.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

One Kind House in Telok Kurau opens its doors for dinners, gardening sessions

From outside, it looks like any other terraced house. But here, any stranger is welcome to walk in and pull up a chair at the dining table.

One Kind House at Lorong J, Telok Kurau aims to be a 21st century kampung. Since last May, it has hosted dinners, gardening sessions, programming courses for children and even start-up incubator gatherings.

People pay a token sum to participate in some of the activities, alongside the family living in the house.

Freelance consultant Calvin Soh, 49, said he came up with the idea for the place five years ago, when his mother was thinking of selling the property that the family has owned since 1969.

Now 74, Madam Ng Swee Hiah was thinking of moving to Barcelona, Spain. Mr Soh dissuaded her from selling the place, and convinced her to recreate the sense of community they used to be a part of in the older kampung days in Telok Kurau. Bemoaning the loss of openness in Singapore today, Mr Soh said: "How did we move, in 21/2 generations, from something so open to something so closed?"

His brother and uncle live there, while his mother lives with him and his family in another home nearby.

One Kind House has a Facebook page, but Mr Soh mainly relies on word of mouth from those who have visited it.

One of its more notable fans is Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, who visited the place last February, after one of his community volunteers told him about it. Although it had yet to open, he was impressed.

"I dropped by one hot Saturday afternoon, and was amazed at... what he intended to do with the space," Mr Ong told The Straits Times, adding: "I am glad it is now officially opened, and doing good for the community. Such ground-up initiatives enrich the soul of Singapore."

But not everyone is completely sold. While next-door neighbour Tew Hwei Ching, 42, likes that her neighbours are trying to recreate the kampung spirit, "it might not be the best" to have it in a residential home due to the noise and traffic, she said. But Ms Tew, an architect, added that every time a problem arises, she has been able to resolve it by talking directly to Mr Soh.

Still, others have complained to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) about the traffic and noise. Last November, the URA checked on One Kind House. It was found to fulfill the URA's rules for home-based small businesses, except for one: operating a small cafe for the public. One Kind House has since stopped the cafe.

A URA spokesman said that since the activities, such as private dinner sessions hosted by owners, were "mostly small-scale and conducted on an ad hoc basis, they can continue so long as they are not causing disturbance to the neighbours".

When The Straits Times visited One Kind House last Friday, six people were making laksa from scratch under Madam Ng's guidance. One guest, Ms Andrea Bork, 47, an American who was visiting her Singapore-based brother with her mother, said she was attracted by the promise of a dinner with the opportunity to connect with locals. She paid $40. "What I really love about this experience is that we get to cook and be with this family and learn from them," said the fundraiser.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline 'A kampung house for the 21st century'. Print Edition | Subscribe