The origins of Kampung Lorong Buangkok – Singapore’s last surviving village – dates all the way back to the 1950s.
Back then, Singapore still used only four digits instead of six for postal codes. And at the entrance of the village, an worn sign bearing the old four-digit postal code remains as a nostalgic reminder of yesteryear.
While there are still residents, mostly elderly folk, living in Kampong Lorong Buangkok, they welcome visitors to catch a glimpse of the place, and in doing so, take a peek into Singapore’s past.
Before the first rays of sunlight strike Kampung Lorong Buangkok, Mr Ter Ah Seng is already out on the front porch of his zinc-roofed, wooden house, stretching his aching muscles.
His neighbour’s roosters give several hearty squawks and several birds chime in, but Mr Ter does not seem to notice the countryside cacophony. After all, he has been living in Lorong Buangkok – Singapore’s last surviving kampung (olden day village) on the mainland – with his family for about 50 years. Today, his wife and only daughter, who is in her late 40s, continue to live with him there. They are one of the 26 families who remain there.
He uses a rag to wipe down his 20-year-old bicycle, recently given a new coat of sleek black paint, before hopping on and pedalling down the gravelly path.
Soon after, more residents stir from their sleep. Some head to their spartan kitchens to prepare breakfast, while others busy themselves with simple chores.
A loud clang from the nearby construction site sounds across the kampung, signalling that work has begun. Several new Build-To-Order blocks of flats have risen at the sprawling worksite, which hugs the fringes of the kampung.
As the sound of drilling and knocking hum in the background, 64-year-old Aton, who goes by only one name, sweeps her doorstep with a traditional straw broom. She takes the Berita Harian newspaper in, before sitting on a wooden armchair outside.
She says, in a mix of English and Malay: “Maybe later, I will cook. Sometimes it is chicken, sometimes fish with some spices.”
A few doors away, her childhood friend, Ms Sng Mui Hong, calls out to a golden-coloured stray cat. “Niao gong,” she says, referring to the male feline. It is feeding time.
Ms Sng, 65, is known as the kampung‘s towkay (chief). Her father, a traditional Chinese medicine seller, had bought the 1.22ha land in 1956, renting it out to families, and passing it down to his children after he passed away in 1997. Her siblings have moved to Housing Board flats. She continues collecting rent from the 26 families still living on the private land, which is about the size of three football fields.
Returning from the supermarket, another resident, Madam Lina, casually passes a $10 bill to Ms Sng over her gate and receives a blue handwritten receipt. Her monthly rent is $9.10, but she does not fuss over the change.
She says: “Mui Hong will sometimes come to our door to collect (the rent), or we will just give it to her if we see her. Our system is very simple; we trust each other.”
In the afternoon, a different kind of commotion unfolds. Throngs of curious visitors – from families to students – stream in.
Is this place haunted, a boy wonders aloud. His friends brush him off. It’s bright daylight now, they chide.
Meanwhile, Mr Koh and his wife are visiting with their two sons. “It is a part of Singapore’s history, and this is a way for them to experience it. But they get restless quite fast, with all the mosquitoes, bugs and the heat,” shares Mr Koh.
Many foreign tourists also find their way to the kampung, including 70-year-old retiree Jurgen Gaude from Germany, together with his wife and sister-in-law.
His daughter, who works in Singapore, had urged him to visit the kampung “before it is all gone”. She had scribbled the directions by public transport on a piece of paper. But they still got lost, he jokes.
“I’m glad we made it here. I like it, it feels romantic,” Mr Gaude says.
Such visits have become a routine affair for the kampung dwellers, who are generally welcoming to strangers, as long as they do not cast prying eyes into the private spaces of their homes.
At about 3.45pm, Mr Seah Yong Choi, 55, returns home from work at a biscuit factory. He holds a plastic bag filled with hamburger buns, strolls up to Ms Sng Mui Hong’s house and hangs the bag on the gate – a little token for the kampung’s towkay and landlord.
He says: “My friend gave a lot of bags to me and I can’t finish the food anyway. We like to share food among neighbours; it’s not a big deal. “
A while later, the grey clouds that have been looming overhead since the late afternoon open up. Rain pelts down on rooftops, chasing the residents indoors.
But for Ms Annie Ridwan, 67, her home of about 50 years is no longer a refuge on rainy days, but an annoyance. Often, the rain seeps through the roof and into her living room, toilet and bedroom. She has to collect the rainwater with pails, she laments.
Ms Annie, who works as a cleaner and earns about $45 a day, says fixing the roof is not a priority. The widow, who does not have children, says her late husband and relatives have tried to fix it but the problem keeps coming back. “The house is very old already, and I don’t know what to do. Other people go under their blankets when it is raining, but for me, I open up my umbrella, sit in the living room and wait.”
When the rain stops at about 6pm, she throws seven large empty egg cartons onto the ground near her gate, where several puddles have formed.
“I saw (a video) on Facebook that said that when (the cartons) dry up, it will be like cement and it can flatten the ground,” she explains.
Close to 7pm, a handful of people turn up at the kampung’s surau (prayer hall) – a simple zinc-roofed house – for the Muslim evening prayers. In the 1960s, a few villagers had banded together to build Surau Al-Firdaus for the large number of Malay families there.
Today, many of the surau‘s regulars are not residents of the kampung, such as Grab driver Johari Suhaimi, 39, who fondly recalls his life in a kampung on Pulau Ubin. He moved to the mainland in 1991 and now lives in Punggol.
He says: “If I am nearby, I like to come here to pray. It is so close to nature. It gives me a sense of peace.”
By Ng Huiwen, The Straits Times, December 2017
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