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The Big Read: At Singapore's last kampung, villagers cast a wary eye on the future

SINGAPORE — The sleepy rhythms of Kampung Lorong Buangkok are thrown off kilter with some regularity these days, and given the interest re-ignited in the area by this week’s Parliament sitting, things are set to get a lot busier for residents.

An aerial view of Kampung Buangkok. Photo: Najeer Yusof/TODAY

An aerial view of Kampung Buangkok. Photo: Najeer Yusof/TODAY

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SINGAPORE — The sleepy rhythms of Kampung Lorong Buangkok are thrown off kilter with some regularity these days, and given the interest re-ignited in the area by this week’s Parliament sitting, things are set to get a lot busier for residents.

If anything, residents are more than prepared for “intruders”. On a visit earlier this week, a sprightly woman approached a reporter and asked, in Mandarin: “Yes? Another reporter? You want to ask me about what I feel about this kampung, right?”

Mdm Sng Mui Hong, 65, has had a front-row seat to the times of Kampung Lorong Buangkok — from the massive floods of the mid-1970s to its current status as a curiosity of sorts for all manner of Singaporeans and tourists.

Above: Visitors to Kampung Buangkok included students on excursions, tourists from places like India, Japan and the United States, and other Singaporeans intrigued by kampong life. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

She is, after all, not just another kampong-dweller. To some, the resident of 62 years is known as ‘towkay’; to others, she is their landlady, who oversees day-to-day administration of the village. Her father, the late Mr Sng Teow Koon, bought the land on which the kampung now sits in 1956, and began renting out space at low prices to a mixture of Malay and Chinese families.

In the over 50 years she has lived in the village, she has greeted all manner of visitors - from tourists to students to the Prime Minister himself. 

To the residents of the 26 houses in Kampung Lorong Buangkok, living in mainland Singapore’s last surviving kampung is a badge of honour. 

And while they are, in true kampung spirit, welcoming of one and all, they draw a line at being viewed as some lost tribe that is now a beacon for the curious, reduced to being exhibits in a quaint fishbowl. They remain proud of their way of life, and want to be treated with respect. 

But while there has always been a smattering of visitors, things are about to get a lot more hectic for the residents. Kampung Lorong Buangkok was thrust back into the spotlight earlier in the week, when Member of Parliament (Ang Mo Kio) Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar raised an adjournment motion on the need to preserve green spaces and heritage in her Jalan Kayu constituency. 

Dr Intan had on Monday (Oct 2) proposed that the authorities preserve the kampung, which sits on a 1.22 ha plot of land, as a conservation or heritage education site. 

Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said in response that there was “no intention” to begin developing the area “in the near future”. 

Mr Lee told the House on Monday that while any future developments, which could include schools and a major road in Seletar,  need to be carried out in a “holistic and coherent way”, they have to involve deep engagement with the families in the kampung. 

“Some may not want to move away...but they may also not want their community to be turned into an educational or heritage attraction, drawing crowds of curious visitors,” he said.

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Of course, being Singapore’s last remaining kampung on the mainland - the only other one left on the island, Kampung Khatib Bongsu, was demolished in 2007 - means the curiosity factor of Kampung Lorong Buangkok will likely go through the roof soon. 

Of late, visitors have included students on excursion, tourists from places like India, Japan and the United States, and other Singaporeans intrigued by a bygone way of life. Film crews have also descended upon the village, along with their crates of equipment and sizeable entourages. 

Mdm Sng, like some of the residents TODAY spoke to, were largely receptive to this, but stressed that there are rules that visitors need to play by.

These include not intruding on residents’ privacy by sticking camera lenses into living rooms, or causing a ruckus at odd hours of the day. 

Above: 91-year-old Omar Dengkil has lived in Kampung Buangkok for around 67 years, since it began in the 50s. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Outside the house of Mr Omar Dengkil, 91, a sign reminds visitors that those who want to get a picture or video of the house ought to get permission first. 

When asked, Mr Omar, who has lived in the kampung since its beginnings in the  1950s, said that while he was more than happy to answer questions about the area or show visitors around, he did not welcome cameras in the house, at least not without his permission.

A 47-year-old housewife who only gave her name as Lina told TODAY that there have been times when she felt like “shutting myself in the house”, because of the overwhelming number of visitors. 

“Sometimes, I just don’t want to answer the door, or open my windows. If not (visitors) would come by and start taking pictures of the inside of my house,” she added. 

Mdm Lina lives in the kampung with her mother, husband and three children. She grew up there, then moved to a Housing Board flat, before moving back to take care of her mother, who has dementia. 

Another thing that irks her is how visitors and acquaintances they tend to ask the same question: “They like to ask me when the Government will be taking the land back, and (if they do) how much we will be getting in compensation.” 

“After a while, it becomes very frustrating, because we ourselves are not sure when this will happen,” she said. 

Her children, too, get questions about life in a kampung, not just from friends, but also their teachers in school. While they take it in their stride to provide as much information as they can, “it gets a bit too much after a while”, said Mdm Lina. 

Above: 83-year-old Awe Ludin has been living in Kampung Buangkok for more than 50 years. He welcomes visitors to his courtyard, and even keeps pet roosters for schoolchildren to see. “Otherwise, they won’t know what a live chicken looks like," he says. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

But other residents, like 83-year-old Awe Ludin, simply shrug and accept that this is the way things are, and will likely be for a while. 

He welcomes visitors to his courtyard, and even keeps pet roosters for schoolchildren to see. 

“Otherwise, they won’t know what a live chicken looks like. They only know it when it’s fried chicken,” he chuckled. 

Another thing residents would like the visitors to know is that having strangers traipse through the grounds at all hours is not something normal.

Mdm Sng told TODAY that kampungs usually restrict visitors. 

This stems from a desire to protect the village’s women from male trespassers.

However, she came up with the idea of opening the doors to provide Singaporeans with an education of sorts, so they could better appreciate a way of life that was once common in the country.

When Kampung Lorong Buangkok began life in 1956, such dwellings were common in Singapore.

At its peak, more than 40 households called the place home, but that number has fallen by almost half now.

Despite some misgivings, Mdm Sng said opening up the village was the right thing to do, to give Singaporeans an education of sorts and an insight into a way of life that has all but disappeared.

Yet, while visitors can sometimes seem like a nuisance, there are other, perhaps more potent, challenges over the horizon for the villagers.

Above: New HDB developments seen next to a kampung house in in Kampung Buangkok. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

A skyward glance from any point in the village reveals the issue. Here, blocks of flats loom over the kampung. There, a landed estate is kept at bay by a canal. And at its edge, held back by metal fences, workers in yellow hard hats are busy putting up new HDB flats, shattering the mid-afternoon quiet with their tools.

Mdm Lina has seen change shrink the boundaries of the village. Her house was once bordered by shrubs and greenery. 

These days, the trees are gone, and concrete hulks that will eventually become homes for other Singaporeans are towering over her home, a red and white panelled three-bedroom house. 

Other reminders that the kampung is a relic of a bygone era abound, including some that sound mundane, but speak to the pace of change in Singapore.  For example, where on earth does one find a zinc roof supplier in Singapore these days?

There was a time when they were ubiquitous, back when such roofs were de rigueur here. As such homes disappeared, so did the folks supplying such items, and now, finding one is a real challenge.

Each roof panel can last a resident an average of three to four years before it gives way, and when it does, the real problem arises. Supplies are hard to come by, and even if you can find a zinc roof, good luck finding someone who can do the replacement. Mdm Lina’s husband said he had to pick up the skill from her late brother, but admits that there “are not many people left who know how to (handle zinc roofs)”. Despite these challenges, and the uncertainty that lies ahead, many residents are insistent on staying, as they feel their way of life is far superior to that of the average HDB dweller. 

Among the reasons they cite are space and the neighbourliness that HDB living does not offer. 

Mr Omar, for instance, recalled how everyone, Malay and Chinese, pitched in when help was needed to prepare land for a  Muslim prayer hall. While some gathered leaves and rocks to lay the foundation, others with skills helped erect the building, which now sits proudly in the village’s centre, its pastel shades standing in stark contrast to the muted colours of the surrounding houses. 

Above: Jamil Kamsah,62, has lived in the area since 1965. He recalls catching fish from the nearby drain when he was younger. He disapproves of recreating a mock-up of the kampong: “It’s not the same...almost like taking away the real heritage of the area.” Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Given their druthers, then, villagers say they would want the kampung to be kept as is, failing which, conservation would also be welcome. It would be a waste to see it go, said former make-up artist Jamil Kamsah, who has lived in the area since 1965, and recalls catching fish from the nearby drain when he was younger. 

“We should never forget our roots...where we came from,” he told TODAY as he went about tidying up the lush garden surrounding the house. 

For many, however, dreams have given way to reality. Mdm Lina, for instance, said she has already made “mental plans to move out”.

“What can we do? If (the Government) wants us to move, we have to, right?” she said with a shrug. 

Chiming in, Mdm Sng added: “If they need the land, no amount of pleading can help. We just have to accept fate and carry on (with life).”

Mr Awe added: “I’ve seen a friend cry when he had to move out of his kampung.

“I think my wife might cry (if we need to leave this kampung), but...I won’t cry. Men...cannot cry, lah,” he quipped

If, or when, that happens, Mdm Lina and others said they would have just one wish.

“At least they should preserve the buildings here, even if we (cannot stay),” she said.

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