Spirit in old kampung still relevant in modern living
by Shaik Kadir
I read with interest Law Minister K Shanmugam’s comments on Facebook earlier this week about the way some Singaporeans are unable to tolerate their neighbours of a different race. It calls to mind the days of my childhood when we were all living together with people of different races.
How nice it was in my kampung, located in the middle of Jalan Alsagoff in Geylang Serai, where Malays, Chinese and Indians lived together harmoniously and tolerated each other’s communal habits. We need to bring back that much-adored kampung spirit in our public housing estates.
My close friend was a Chinese, Eng Joo by name. Both of us were in Secondary 1 in 1960. He lived in a rented room in a huge attap-roofed house where many Chinese families, mostly farmers, lived. We used to go to the open-air cinema deep in Jalan Alsagoff together to watch western movies that cost us 10 cents each.
Eng Joo’s sister was one of those who would fetch water from the Government standpipe about 100m away from this huge house. She would use two kerosene-tin containers, each held by a thin rope strapped around a bamboo pole that would rest on her shoulders. She chatted in fluent Malay with the makciks doing their washings at the pipe. I admired her, but she was taller than I.
Having lost my father to throat cancer when I was six, I lived with my mother and my two sisters in a rented room of a Malay house, which leaked when it rained. I would collect the rain-water and that would save me from making the trips to the standpipe.
This standpipe was a gathering place for Malays, Indians and Chinese in the neighbourhood. Friendship was made and extended while waiting for our turns to fill our containers. My mother washed clothes there at night together with her Indian friend, Achi Rai.
Not far away from this standpipe was a Chinese sundry shop. From this shop, we would buy our seasonal kampung games such as tops, glass marbles and kites. The friendly shop-owner, whom we call “Apek”, would even give us a “Marie” biscuit as a bonus.
Eng Joo and I would play glass marbles near the huge house together with his two cousins. For kite-flying and kite-battles, I played with my Malay friends.
An Indian sundry shop on the opposite side of the road was where we used to buy colourful ice-balls. The “mama” would put a block of ice over a wooden stand fixed with a knife-blade that would shave the block through a to-and-fro sliding motion. Ice flakes were then collected in a bowl under it. Often, we would buy a ball and ask the “mama” to cut it into two for Eng Joo and I to share. Often, my friend would pay for it while I got the half from him for free.
At home, early recycling efforts were already practised. My mother would keep the leftovers in a container and a Chinese woman from the vegetable farms behind our home would collect the waste food three times a week. The swill was for pigs from the farms to eat. But we get a reward for the contribution. At the end of the month, the woman, whom my mother called “Nyonya”, would give us a dozen fresh chicken eggs. My mother would even invite her for Hari Raya celebrations and I would invite Eng Joo.
Another friend of mine, Kern Ho, once gave me a pair of his new long pants. In my book, “A Kite in the Evening Sky” (2000), I mentioned: “Kern Ho’s mother was also very generous. Every time I visited Kern Ho, his mother would give me some vegetables or a papaya to take home. Once, I brought something for her in a tiffin carrier – mutton curry cooked by my mother. She was very pleased and asked me to thank my mother. When I was about to leave, she gave me back the tiffin carrier which she had washed, and I saw that she had placed five fresh chicken eggs in it as a token of her gratitude for the curry.”
One of the ways we still keep this communal spirit alive is to invite neighbours for our Hari Raya festivities. This Hari Raya Puasa, that was celebrated last weekend, three families and two individual friends visited us, and one of them was Mr Tan Lye Huat, whom I have known for more than 35 years.
Such kampung spirit, even in our more modern homes now, might help in preventing intolerance and race prejudice from seeping into our community.
(Mr Kadir is a retired school-teacher who has written several books in English. He has been writing for various publications since 1976.)