Kampong Spirit by Josephine Chia

Life in Potong Pasir from 1955 to 1965

This book features a lot of the main events in Singapore’s history. The author has Peranakan roots. Singapore has since progressed from third to first world. The author has also written ‘Frog Under a Coconut Shell’. This book gives insight into the Kampong life. Singapore attained independence in 1965.

Everyone wants to be happy. Only the degree differs. How avidly one wants to pursue this happiness depends on how much it matters to the individual. This quest starts from satisfying the basic needs of having a home, nourishment, good health and family. Yet somehow it morphs into an obsession to possess more and more things, as if somehow material acquisitions can satisfy the inner longing of the spirit. – Josephine Chia

Everyone needs someone. When the kampong spirit is in evidence, nobody needs to feel alone or abandoned. This warm feeling of being cared for makes life meaningful and brings happiness. And being happy, one possesses a stronger foundation, better able to take the knocks of life more easily. – Josephine Chia

Hard work brought us where we are now. Are there other ways to spend your money. Kampong life appeared to be happy. Kampong spirit was the spirit of helping thy neighbor and living in multi-racial communities. Children could play without fear of discrimination. There was a spirit of sharing in the kampong communities.

Food is major part of a Peranakan. The smell of food can bring back memories. Nasi lemak was one such dish. My mum used to sell nasi lemak to our friends. The Christian cemetery looked very peaceful. Our village consisted mostly of Malays. My mum wore the sarong-kebaya. She was a good seamstress and cook. ‘Whatever your circumstances, always live with joy.’ Mak (Mum). I had a crush on the music director, P. Ramlee. My family turned Catholic. I slept on a mattress. I came from a big family, with many siblings. Hygiene was not very good and there were rats at times. I always looked forward to watching P. Ramlee’s plays. Most of the films were outdoors and I had to brave the elements. At that time, the kachang putih man sold nuts in the streets. Orchard Road was filled with nutmeg trees and palms. My mum picked coconuts from the ground to make nasi lemak. The Kallang River used to cause floods in the 1950s. We obtained water from springs and wells. My mum liked to sew during the New Year. Clothes were purchased from the market and sewed back to a wearable condition. Electricity was powered by a generator. Thankfully, my family had some money from selling food. I was barely literate then. My other sisters passed away due to illness. I wanted to go to school badly and thankfully, my mum was willing to fund it. It was a difficult life, but my mum was inspirational to all the villagers. She believed in the value of hard work. Eventually, I studied literature in University and did an MA in Creative Writing in England. I was grateful for Mum’s encouragement. Kampong Potong Pasir was razed to the ground in early 1970s. HDBs were built to replace them. The kampong was destroyed as a result.

Someone who spouts wise sayings can be philosophical, but wisdom need not always be intellectual and acquired. It can be intuitive. – Josephine Chia

My mum often uttered wise words. Conditions were harsh in the kampong. My mum was very influential on my life. In the 1950s, many people were pushing for self-rule. The British were in power then. The political leaders from the PAP and Labour Front came to campaign. We got water from the wells. David Marshall was our first chief minister. Soon later, the Hock Lee Bus riots took place. It was the communists against the Labour Party. They alluded that the Labour Party was associated with the colonial British. People wanted a party who could give them a better life. Workers went on strike sometimes. The strike turned violet. The communists tried to spread their power in the past. People didn’t like helping the British as they left Singapore to fight the Japanese during the war. We tied coconut leaves to form a broomstick. My mum used to comb my hair. She used coconut milk as a conditioner. Our common language was Malay. We used to play chaptehs (rubber base attached with plumes of feathers). Sometimes, we wore wooden clogs, which were known as char kiaks. They produced a clok clok sound. Later on, rubber flip flops were invented. Parvathi was my best friend and we played masak-masak. We pretended to take care of a real home. Peranakan food was delicious. One day, I found my head was infested with lice. Mum helped to scrub it with carbolic soap. Later, my head was soaked in kerosene and it would help to kill the lice. There were plenty of strikes in 1955 and it was dangerous to walk around the neighbourhood. One day, Mum decided to snip away my long hair. For being rude, Mum would give me chilli padi to eat as a punishment. It was during that time that the new airport in Paya Lebar would be built. My dad could be volatile and hot-tempered at times. Some of my cousins were wealthy and they could afford expensive clothing. At that time, dimples were attractive to have. I was considered ugly as I didn’t have fair skin. I was having my hair permed. Sometimes, I would visit my grandma at her place. My permed hair was awful and I was afraid to face anyone.

In the day, noises from hens and ducks were common. In the evening, there were sounds from hurricane lamps or carbide lamps. The Tik Tok man indicated that food was here. He sold street food. Noodles cost about 10 cents back then. He was located near Hill Street. We all loved the sight of him as it meant great food was coming. High Street for the place for rich merchants. Robinson’s was a luxury department store which was opened in 1958. My parent’s first home was at Kampong Potong Pasir. My mum was optimistic that conditions would change. I loved to visit Town. My mum was always good at embroidery. Sometimes, we would wear the kebayas. I received heirlooms from my mum. I wasn’t known to be pretty in the past. The CNY clothing really hurt. David Marshall sounded like a clarion call of hope for the people in Singapore. Ah Gu was planning to attend David Marshall’s rally. Kallang Airport was the main airport at that time. However, it was soon replaced by the Paya Lebar airport. Mum and I also wanted to visit Tekka market and Rochor Canal. Any building built from concrete seemed modern and high-class. There were people selling ang ku kuih, which was from glutinous flour stuffed with softened yellow mung beans. It was sweet and red colour represented prosperity. Dhoby was the Hindi word for laundryman, who were mainly Indians at that time. The Cathay building was the tallest in Singapore at that time. Cactus plants were planted at our homes to ward away Pontianaks (Malay female vampires). High Street looked brilliant and rich. We were very impressed by what was sold in Robinsons and longed to own something from the store. Sua Ku meant Mountain Turtle. I was not allowed to remove my shoes in public, despite it being uncomfortable. Tan Kim Seng was a philanthropist. The best heirlooms were memories with my family. My dad was knowledgeable about the history of Singapore. Later, we visited Satay Club at Beach Road. My dad treated us well at times. My mum woke me up the next day and made me mee sua. The sugar was to bring me good fortune and the egg was a symbol of fertility. The Merdeka rally led to chaos and many people were injured from the stamped. The stage collapsed and people were squashed like sardines. 50 people were seriously injured in the end. Later, Lim Yew Hock succeeded David Marshall.

Lallangs in the grass were sharp and we had to be careful not to get cut. We often pretended to be cowboys etc. Some of the children also caught fish and eels. My mum was an excellent cook. She would often make nasi lemak. The lallang grassland has a thriving population of wild rodents, salamanders, frogs and snakes. Some of the locals knew how to source food and medicine from nature. Most of your medicine came from nature. We were all afraid of the python. It was rumoured to be 10 feet long. The villagers warned people not to enter the grassland as the python was not caught yet. The python killed by constriction. My mum made delicious tapioca. The python uses unique infra-red sense and can navigate in the dark. Our family were planning to visit our grandparents in Bandar, KL. Mum loved the mountains in Malaysia. We would go by kereta-api (vehicle-fire). It would be a long train journey. Abu had a good command of English. We all wanted freedom from the White Rule. Merdeka would be achieved in Malaya first. The Chief Minister in Singapore was Lim Yew Hock. Tekka was a popular wet market in the country. It was a fascinating and exotic place. One villager suggested using goat’s milk as a bait for the python. The goat would be used to lure the python out. The other villagers all waited with parangs and hid in expectation that the snake might emerge. Although the goat was sacrificed, the python was caught and killed. Everyone celebrated that evening and started dancing. The Federated States of Malaya would gain independence from the British on August 31. We would be free now.

When we lose touch with nature, our chi shrivels within us. It’s important to breathe amongst trees and flowers; feel the wind in your hair, the sun on your skin, the sand under your toes, or smell the salt in the air. You should never be too busy to connect with nature. – Mum

We would often be awaken by roosters. My mum had given birth to close to 16 children. However, only 8 of us survived. Mum often did all the housework by herself. Banana money was useless back then. My eldest brother was also caring and he took care of us. Back then, girls did not have to attend schools. I was afraid I would be given away as my family was poor. Life in the kampong was really challenging. However, the good news was that my parents wanted me to head to school. I was 7 years old at that time. At that time, Tan Howe Liang was supported as he was Singapore’s hope for a medal. I was going for gold and hoped to enter school soon. Eventually, I studied at Cedar Primary. St Joseph Institution was very grand at that time. Some of the walkways to major buildings were also sheltered. It was a joy to buy books and I was fascinated by the process. Unlike my mum, I was soon to be educated. On a national level, Singapore would run its internal affairs while the British would run external affairs. It was one step closer to self-government. Tan Howe Liang returned from the British Empire Games with a Gold medal in 1960.

Money is a currency that allows you to buy things. Having it does not always make you happy. True wealth is when you have equanimity and joy of spirit. – Mum

The kampong spirit and sense of togetherness was strong. Gotong Royong means ‘mutual assistance’. Doors were kept open and people trusted one another. My mum performed her work with dignity. She was also talented at picking up musical instruments. Nature had its symphony in the village. In the past, the bucket men was used to clean up after people’s faeces. I had to sell food to pay for my school fees. Survival was paramount in the kampong. Karim had a great voice and could sing well. We all formed a band and sang P Ramlee’s songs. Music had this unique way of forging people together and form solidarity. Karim wanted to perform in public so that he had a better chance to play in a band. There would be an election in May that year. Lee Kuan Yew gave speeches for rallies and represented the PAP. He promised to improve our lives if we voted his party in. We could tell he was warm and sincere in his speech and he carried a great presence. He often took time to walk the ground. In 1959, his party formed the new government. We were on the brink of nationhood. We could finally call ourselves the citizens of Singapore. Alcohol doesn’t make you more creative but destroys your essence. The National Anthem was composed at that time too. Karim achieved success and managed to play in a band. English, Chinese, Chinese and Tamil were introduced as the 4 national languages. Our national flag was also designed in 1959. It was an enormous sense of pride for everyone.

Malay was our common language. I loved the English accent in general. I was attracted by the lovely spread of food on offer. The English parties always had great food. Parvathi read the book to me. Many people had to work part time to support the family, including myself. I was known as ‘Orang Cina Bukan Cina’, or ‘Chinese person, not Chinese’. I felt like I was in no man’s land and unwanted. Malays loved to admire birds. We bought birds and played with them. My father wanted to be to be married off young so that I would not burden the family. Our country was pessimistic as a whole. We were wrestling with the sense of identity. The first of June would be our first national day. However, it rained really heavily. Later, we folded sampan boats and raced against one another. Flooding occurred at parts of Singapore and there were crocodile sightings. The national day celebrations were cancelled. Women were starting to get more recognized in the society. Mrs Hedwig Anuar as a director of the library. I was in love with books and wanted to visit the library someday. The PAP was adamant that they would repair Jalan Potong Pasir and that was what they did. Everyone helped up with the laying of roads. We helped to scoop sand in the process. All of the potholes in the road were removed. We all worked towards a common goal and this created a sense of community. Women didn’t have to feel shackled anymore. Education was the hope to change my family’s circumstances. Tan Howe Liang also won the silver medal in the Olympics.

I read romantic books when I was 10. Very often, I read to Parvathi. Amongst Indians, arranged marriages were common. Karim was a full-fledged musician. There was a cable radio installed near our home. We could listen to Western singers from that era too. The Tunku urged Singapore to merge with Malaya. My dad thought that we were close to one another and didn’t see why splitting was necessary. The merger was a hot topic. Should we merge with Malaya? The weather was getting dry. The village bomoh danced, but there was no rain. Singapore was suffering from drought. We were afraid that a spark might cause our house to catch fire instantly. The biggest problem was that the well was drying up. Finally the water truck came and we had to scoop our share of the rationed water. Our government started negotiating a water deal with Malaya. Perhaps merger would be a good solution indeed. During festive occasions like Hari Raya, people in the village could contribute food for everyone to share and eat. The food was delicious indeed. There was a fire at Bukit Ho Swee. A rubber factory burnt down. In the end, 4 people died while 16,000 were made homeless. It was horrific indeed. It was one of the worst Kampong fires in history. The Women’s Charter kicked in and it was illegal to send girls under 16 to be married off. There were more women in power now.

Our first University was born. My eldest brother was a teacher. He thought me how to play chess. I loved the game and found it to be exciting indeed. I became a long life fan of chess since then. Pavarthi’s future wasn’t bright as her family didn’t have money to send her for education. The richer people had better advantages as they could send their children for education. The government agreed to provide a generator for us so that we could have electricity in the evening. Our kampong started working together as a community. The government is fulfilling our wishes for a better life. In 1963, Singapore merged with Malaya. Everyone had to vote on 3 options in a referendum on the terms of entry into Malaya. Option A was for Singapore to retain control over internal affairs and it was the best option. Tan Howe Liang won a gold in the Commonwealth Games. We were all euphoric in nature.

Tunku and LKY had a goal for a unified States. The Barisan Socialis disapproved of the merger. Sukarno, President of Indonesia, disapproved of the merger and reacted with Konfrontasi. Indonesia wanted Malaya and Borneo to be part of them. I dreamt of being a writer. We as Peranakans, celebrated Chinese New Year. It was the time of the year where we could eat great food. I felt in love in with the sea and felt indebted to PAP. Joo Chiat was the area where I enjoyed a lot. The kebaya was made up of fine embroidery. Mum gave me a pair of gold earrings. We also fired crackers during CNY. TV also made its debut soon after. Later, we all sang the National Anthem. Most of us were glued to the TV and intrigued by the programmes on offer. My dad gave me a blue stamp as a present. It was lovely indeed. Despite the merger, racial tensions built up and people were no longer united as one community as compared to the Kampong days. People of different races saw each other as being different. Anti-Malaysia rioters burned down the British embassy. US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov 22. There were random bomb blasts in Singapore at that time. This was the dark side to the merger.

Parvathi was 17 and all her parents wanted was to get rid of her. His parents also didn’t want to pay a hefty dowry for her. Her dad was not a nice man and was often drunk. The man that Parvathi was supposed to marry was a widower and was ugly. She wanted me to live my life freely and happily. Karim appeared on TV in a live performance. However, Karim (who used to shovel faeces) lost his job as an entertainer when Great World shut. STB tried to promote Singapore as having a unique culture and heritage. Konfrontasi started and bombs went off. Tension continued to mount and the communists were not making things easy. There was chaos and carnage. A curfew was imposed and everyone had to stay indoors from 9pm to 6am. In the end, 23 people were killed in Konfrontasi. Karim was injured badly and couldn’t sing anymore. Violence continued to ensue once in a while. On 3rd of September, 13 people were killed. I gave Parvathi my earrings as she was in a dire situation. My mum understood my behavior. The next day, Parvathi committed suicide by swallowing all the pills that were used to sedate her brother. I could not bear to watch her get cremated and I was extremely upset by the whole event.

Singapore was beset by troubles and the bomb at MacDonald’s House went off. They were planted by Indonesia saboteurs. No one felt safe at all. Schools were affected as well. Karim was crestfallen after his injuries. The merger was not going well. The racial imbalance was a big issue. We agreed that we should fight together as one. Finally, the Tunku admitted that the relationship with Singapore was over. The separation would be on Aug 9, 1965. LKY admitted that the separation from Malaya was a moment of anguish. We had to survive on our own as an independent nation. It was important to dream and to live in hope. LKY was optimistic that Singapore would survive. Our family finally owned a television. We did well in the SEA Peninsular Games. Everyone had to work hard to get Singapore out of the Third World Status. The lion must roar again.



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