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Blog: Kampong life uncensored

What don’t I know about Peranakans and kampong life?

Kampong Spirit: Gotong Royong, Life in Potong Pasir 1955 to 1965

Even before I had met Josephine Chia or picked up a copy of Kampung Spirit: Gotong-Royong, Life in Potong Pasir, 1955 to 1965, I’d thought that the writer is one of “those privileged old-money Peranakans”. You know, the “privileged old-money Peranakans” whose predecessors made a large enough fortune in the colonial days to build family mansions in Malacca and/or Penang and whose parents and parents’ parents were educated in Oxbridge and were often found in the company of the former Straits Settlements’ ruling elite?

I didn’t think that Josephine had anything new to offer me in her book that I did not already know about the “privileged old-money Peranakans”. After all, many of the attributes of their language, culture, food and clothing are borrowed from the Malays, a culture that I grew up in and am very familiar with, only that they have more resources – thanks to their Chinese business acumen, my stepfather would say – to make the embroidery on their “kebayas” more elaborate and their “ayam buah keluak” more delicious. I had also thought that her recollection of kampung life in the book was going to be somewhat romanticised and not as authentic as to include the bits that would make the modern Singaporean grimace in disgust; it’s these very bits that my stepfather – who grew up in a Pasir Panjang kampong in similar conditions and about the same time as the author – would bring up often enough in conversation while I was little to remind me how truly lucky I was to be growing up in a HDB flat and not on the mud floor of an attap hut.

Unfortunately, my stepfather is no writer and he had never been very detailed in his recollection of the kampong life, which could be because he had forgotten, so I was grateful that Josephine had filled in these blanks in full Technicolour in her book, Kampung Spirit: Gotong-Royong, Life in Potong Pasir, 1955 to 1965. The heroine is the author’s mother, a Peranakan lady who was born into wealth but had fallen on hard times. Her grace and forbearance in surviving multiple pregnancies, raising her many children in abject poverty while stomaching her husband’s abuse and fighting for the author to be educated in a time when girls did not go to school and were married off in their teens, is the stuff of legend.

More distinctly, her book satisfied to a certain extent, my need, and perhaps the need of many young and old Singaporeans for nostalgia, and for a sense of the history and heritage that over the years have been physically bulldozed or simply forgotten in Singapore’s hard and continuous quest for economic progress and development.

She had painted her family’s history in and around Singapore monuments and milestones in such careful, detailed and chronologically accurate strokes that my own murky memories of my childhood excursions to these places came alive and more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that were my parents’ and stepparents’ childhoods began to come together.

And although I could not fully identify with the sheer hopefulness and elation that the author and the characters expressed during key moments such as when weight-lifter Tan Howe Liang became Singapore’s first Olympic medallist or when the water truck trundled into the drought-stricken village, the emotions were certainly believable and palpable. The characters are endearing in spite of their harsh circumstances: the shit-shoveller whose passion and ambition was to become a musician is just one of the many characters who will tug at your heartstrings.

I am certainly thinking of getting my stepfather his own copy now; perhaps after reading this book he would not be so restrained about sharing his kampong life memories with me. And perhaps I would one day gather the courage (and time) to chronicle my family’s history, even if all I have are memories and half-told stories. (I’ve also written a snippet inspired by several sessions of eavesdropping on my stepmother and her sisters while reminiscing the kampong life; hope you’ll enjoy that!)

Kampung Spirit: Gotong-Royong, Life in Potong Pasir, 1955 to 1965 by Josephine is the Singapore Literature Prize 2014 Co-Winner of the English Non-Fiction Category. Her book is available at all leading bookstores.

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