Meet the people keeping the kampung spirit alive in modern Singapore

Beneath Singapore’s gleaming façade of a modern metropolis lies kampung culture — a philosophy built upon a simpler way of life.

  • Koh Yuenlin
  • August 2019

Kampung meaning “village” in the Malay language, kampung culture refers to a neighbourly spirit rooted in the country’s humble past — and one that binds the people of the nation. It often refers to a sense of community where everybody looks out for each other. Good things are shared, and burdens are carried.

Yet it is more than that. It is also about a connection with nature; it is an unspoken honour code; and a way of living that values simple joys and being in the moment.

Pockets of kampung culture continue to exist in Singapore.

Even though close-knit villages have been replaced by high rise apartments where one can easily live in isolation among thousands, different elements of kampung culture are still perpetuated, and in different ways too. We talk to the people who in very different ways are ambassadors of this evolving culture.

Village without borders

Gaining an appreciation for the simple things in life

Intern at Ground Up Initiatve, Chan Yi Ting.

“The younger demographic equate kampung with being backward. It does not have a very positive connotation,” admits 22-year old Chan Yi Ting laughingly. Yet here she is, proudly showing us around the 2.6 hectares plot that is Kampung Kampus — the back-to-basics farming, crafting and education base for non-profit community Ground Up Initiative (GUI), where members of the public — tourists included — are welcome to join a gamut of weekend programs spanning harvest-and-lunch sessions to wood-fired pizza workshops.

“An interest in sustainability led me here, but there is so much more I have learnt,” shares Chan, who is part of a 14-member team who runs the organisation. “In school, we learn about profit margins and market gaps and all kinds of ‘practical’ things I can use in my future job. But it got to a point where I questioned if the pursuit of money is all there is to life. I wanted to find more meaning.”

Pick up a new hobby from Uncle Bob, the wood crafter.

“At GUI, we want to keep the good parts of kampung culture alive: a connection to the environment, and a connection to other people,” she says. And while her role is to manage the 11 year-old organisation’s social media platforms, the porcelain skinned city girl surprises us with accounts of wading through the stream running through the place, tilling and fertilizing the grounds with compost stinking up to the high heavens.

Ground Up Initiative has over 100 active volunteers.

Yet it wasn’t getting down and dirty that had the biggest impact on her: Working here has changed the way Ng interacts with others. “Being in a space where I have to constantly meet and spend time with new people outside of my own demographic group — from senior volunteers to young children who join the programmes — have made me learn how to find similarities to connect with others.”

Farming programmes help city folk reconnect with nature.

For one coming from a wired generation that is more comfortable with virtual communication than face-to-face contact and actual conversation, Ng sees this new perspective in human connection, and the importance of genuine relationships, as the biggest kampung culture takeaway for her: “There might hardly be any physical kampungs left in SIngapore but we’re all still interconnected — our actions impact others. We just need to bring our mindfulness with us wherever we go. ”

Ground Up Initiative Kampung Kampus
Address: 91 Lorong Chencharu Singapore 769201 opens in new window

Code of Honour

Learning business lessons from the good ol’ days

Managing director of Ah Hua Kelong, Wong Jing Kai.

The fish farms of Singapore are pretty much kampungs out at sea: units with no addresses, standing stoically on wooden stilts in the waters off the buzzing city’s coasts. The fishermen call out to each other as the boats past by: “Oi! Eat already?”. When somebody cooks something delicious, all are welcome to come around for a feast. Or perhaps an uncle — done with a day of harvesting crabs — might decide to drop by to talk shop over kopi.

The work day on a fish farm starts at daybreak.

Beneath this idyll lies a code of honour. “Farming is a business, but I don’t see the fish farmers competing with one another, and nobody keeps any ‘trade secrets’. Everybody helps each other. So, when somebody doesn’t have enough supply to meet an order, we just sell our stock to them at cost, and vice versa. No other trade would have such camaraderie.” shares Wong Jing Kai, the 30 year-old managing director of local fish farm, Ah Hua Kelong.

On top of clams, Ah Hua Kelong also supplies mussels, sea bass, and pomfret to local restaurants and homes.

Wong who was in the digital marketing field prior to partnering the elderly owner of 21 year-old fish farm business Ah Hua Kelong fell into the trade by chance. “I am not going to tell you some romantic story of wanting to become a fish farmer. I saw a business opportunity and I couldn’t pass it up. That was it.”

But Wong’s career change would leave an indelible mark. “At the beginning, the fish farm was just an off-the-grid place to chill,” recalls Wong. But what truly impressed him is the farmers’ sense of integrity.

“The fish farming community taught me about mutual respect for all, without judgement of character. This is how I want to conduct my business: with honesty and honour, even if I were to go into another industry in the future,” says Wong.

Scaled by Ah Hua Kelong is where you can try some of the freshest seafood in Singapore.

While Ah Hua Kelong is closed to visitors for hygiene reasons, Wong is bringing it to the mainland through his restaurant. Scaled by Ah Hua Kelong is housed in an industrial-chic two-storey shophouse unit located in the Kampung Glam area. It might not exude the rustic charm of a fish farm but the kampung spirit is certainly alive in the space.

Seabass with tagliatelle in a nori cream and finished with tobiko and pickled radish is one of Scaled by Ah Hua Kelong’s signature dishes.

Every person working here — from Wong, who might be showing a guest the video of one of the farm hands harvesting mussels, to their affable servers and even kitchen staff sharing the ins and outs of crab-shelling while patiently teasing out tiny morsels of flesh from flower crabs — displays a genuine respect for their colleagues and patrons alike. Nobody is trying to pull ranks, everybody helps out. In the words of Wong: in a kelong, everybody is like family. And that’s the feeling he doles out in spades at the restaurant.

Scaled by Ah Hua Kelong
Address: 55 Haji Lane Singapore 189248
Tel: +6598300117 opens in new window

Seeding an idea

Encouraging the young generation to slow down

76-year-old Ng Swee Hiah of One Kind House.

While her young visitors tiptoe around precariously, terrified of treading on a sapling or getting their shoes muddied,76-year-old Ng Swee Hiah navigates her densely-grown garden with ease. The affable matriarch of four year-old venue One Kind House — an organic farm, cooking school, and “21st Century kampung” — nimbly leads guests through her little jungle of sorts. As she does, she identifies the different plants and herbs — from papaya plants to pennywort and the South African leaf, prized for its anticarcinogenic qualities — and details their healing properties like a proud mother talking about her children’s talents.

Ng’s garden is her pride and joy.

For a retiree, her days are long. On some days, she is kept busy from 8am until late in the evening, entertaining her diners. It’s hard work but she relishes it.

“I keep the kampung culture alive by promoting self-sufficiency,” the retired primary school teacher says. “In the past, we would grow our own food – tapioca, sweet potatoes, spring onions, mangoes… You eat what you grow.” And she continues to practise that philosophy: blue pea flower crawling up trellises are used to make blue-tinted nasi kerabu – a rice dish scented with ginger and lemongrass. Water spinach and chilli harvested from the planters are stir-fried. Okra sprouting from the ground are incorporated into curries.

Blue pea flowers are used to make nasi kerabu.

“I get the people who sign up for the cooking class to help me harvest the herbs, pluck edible flowers… and I demonstrate how to make the dishes from scratch. It opens people’s eyes to how things were done before — not like how one would walk into a supermarket to get ingredients in a plastic bag.”

Beyond paying visitors who visit One Kind House, Ng also shares the bounties of garden with her community. “The kids I knew from decades ago are now busy young adults helming their own households, and I hardly see them around. But when I do, I might ask them if they want something that I have just cooked, like achar.”

One Kind House offers cooking classes where you’ll learn how to make a three-course meal of traditional homely dishes from scratch before sitting down together to dine together.

Ng says she doesn’t have a manifesto. She simply wants people enjoy themselves in the simple homely style she grew up with. “Sit down. Forget the time completely. People are so caught up with work nowadays that they go home only to sleep!” So she feeds them with dishes lovingly cooked with ingredients that she has hand-grown, and seeds the idea of self-sustainability and slow living, one dish at a time.

One Kind House
Tel: +6591123002 opens in new window