I sometimes feel a stab of nostalgia and yearning when people talk about kampong spirit.
No, I was not privileged enough to have experienced kampong spirit.
Or rather, my family was too privileged for me to have experienced kampong lifestyles.
My grandad had a modest terrace house and that was the family home. It was in a landed residential enclave around Paya Lebar road called Tai Keng Gardens.
I never understood why that estate had a “gardens” in its name because there were zero gardens nearby, just the measly plot inside your terrace house next to your car porch.
But what was delightful and almost magical to a young boy was that if one walks or jogs around the estate which was completely filled with residential homes, there was one small section where one comes to a dead end.
You see a rough hewn brick wall with stone steps leading up to some vegetation and greenery.
You couldn’t see beyond the vegetation and that’s what makes it intriguing. It could be anything behind that greenery as far as your imagination takes you.
And as a very young boy, mystical creatures, living giants and strange lands were par for course.
It was months before I mustered up the courage to walk through that magic door.
And a whole new exciting world emerged!
There were dirt roads, idyllic small wooden houses with zinc thatched roofs, coconut trees, a large pond.
It was a kampong right at the backyard of the estate !
I spent lazy afternoons staring at the murky green pond. Once in a while you will see ripples in the centre of the pond and imagine strange creatures lurking underneath – a giant catfish with gleaming eyes, a mystical half man half squid like creature with multiple arms, shoals of electric neon fishes.
There was dense vegetation and spiders underneath large leaves which meant bringing matchboxes to catch them.
An old lady was selling chicken rice in a little makeshift stall along one of the dirt roads and in front of a rather small provision shop selling miscellaneous wares and a small section of sorry looking vegetables and fruits.
Chicken rice lady would sell me rice without any chicken for 15 cents and I would stuff my face.
The rice was sticky and not particularly well cooked but I thought it was the greatest thing on this earth.
It was my first introduction to Michelin star food because to me, that chicken rice was nouvelle cuisine.
Talking about chickens, that backyard Kampong boasted of a few disheveled chickens or two.
When I saw the movie “Rocky” where Stallone chased chickens as part of his training, I chuckled because that was what I would do on some hot sultry afternoons to let off steam.
I saw some kampong boys chasing chickens and I would join in with jubilant exuberance.
And nah, we would never catch them. We would guffaw with delight and once in a while crash into each other, dissolving into giggles on the ground.
Stray dogs would watch from a distance.
I was always wary of the dogs.
They could be watching and thinking “oh how cute maybe I will join in.”
Or they could be plotting.
“Psst that chubby Chinese boy is slowing down and tiring. He looks tasty and well marinated. Let’s go get our demon canine leader ……”
I had to make a mental note not to wander off too far and to retrace my steps until I found the stone staircase again and come back to boring civilisation.
Once I got hopelessly lost and spent hours frantically trying to find my way out. Needless to say, my parents were not amused by my gallivanting and not returning until nightfall, and I had the most spirited and ebullient walloping that day.
It rained this morning as I was penning this. Rain always makes me feel nostalgic.
I had a wistful moment and decided on the spur of the moment to take a drive to see my old family home.
My family home was unrecognisable but that was to be expected.
But the dead end street which led to the secret door of my backyard Kampong ?
This was all that was left of it.