Their Kampung Stories: “I went swimming before O levels”

Reuelwrites speaks to his mother to get a sense of what life was like living in a kampung.

Have you ever wonder what life was like for your parents and grandparents? Life before the comfortable HDB flat, condominium apartment or landed property which we call home? Life in 1960s Singapore when futures were uncertain and people lived in kampungs? Often, the people who can give us a snapshot of the stories and sentiments from that forgotten era are none other than the people closest to us – our parents, elders and grandparents. Inspired by Singaporean director Jack Neo’s latest movie ‘Long, Long Time Ago’, I asked my mother about life back in the kampung.

This article is the result of the interactions with my mom. The story in itself was hilarious and shocking for me. Before they became our parents, uncles, aunts, or grandparents all strict and orderly, they might have lived a different life not unlike how we lived ours.

What are the stories of your parents and/or grandparents? Speak to them, emphasise with them, and document their stories on your Instagram with #theirkampungstories. RW



RW: What did your parents (my grandparents) work as back when they were living in a kampung?

JN: My father was a taxi driver while my mother reared pigs, chickens and other farm animals. I lived in a kampung with my parents, two elder brothers, two elder sisters, and a younger brother. Life was tough, especially for my mother. She worked 3 to 4 jobs to supplement the household income. I was the youngest daughter and I was always helping my mother with everything. We grew durians and rambutans, we went fishing for prawns and crabs, we sticked the ‘gold’ on incense papers, and we peeled the feathers off ducks (for duck owners), all so that we can make more money – however little they may be – for the household.

It was dangerous for her to go fishing alone, so I decided to go with her. We had to transverse through the mud and all at night. As for the incense papers, they were also so smelly and dusty – I had to tie a cloth around my face to block out the dust. The payment for the incense job was only $0.30 per stack. In those days, the duck owners will pay us some money for helping them de-feather their ducks so that they can be sold. I helped my mom with that too.  

I did so many things when I was young. I even went picking durians and rambutans with my mother while everyone was sleeping in the middle of the night.


RW: Wasn’t it dangerous to do so at night?

JN: It was. Besides worrying that we might get hit by falling durians, there were also snakes. But it was also the best time to collect them (the fruits ripen and detach themselves from the trees at night). If we didn’t pick them, other people might trespass and steal them in the dead of the night. There was once, my mother wanted to leap from one tree to another to pick the rambutan. She fell off the tree instead and was immobilised. I had to go get help from my father.

RW: Why didn’t the other siblings help out?

JN: My sisters dislike all these work because they are dirty! I couldn’t bear to see my mom suffering so I helped her with everything. I also fed the pigs and chickens. It was a scary experience killing the chickens! And my 2nd sister practically did nothing! But my mom doted on her, I don’t know why. To my elder sister’s credit, she did cook and do the laundry. I didn’t do any of those!

RW: Did your parents (my grandparents) favour boys more than girls?

JN: Just a little.


RW: Did the 1969 floods affect your kampung?

JN: Yup, but we weren’t as affected as other villages.

RW: Did your mother (my grandmother) discipline (read: cane) you a lot?

JN: Mother used to hit me a lot! I was very naughty. I always ran out of the house to have fun with my friends. I also skipped school at times. On Saturdays, I would tell my mom that we have classes when there wasn’t any – so that I need not stay home and help with the chores. But we would go ‘gai gai’ at Beauty World. We would watch movies too.

The day before my O level exams, I went swimming at the beach in Sembawang Park – without any change of clothes! We were soaking wet after that. Ironically, I had the highest qualification (O levels) amongst all my siblings. They didn’t complete their secondary education, they didn’t like to study.

RW: Were you from an all-girls school?

JN: Mixed school.

RW: Did any of the guys tried to date you out?

JN: Of course they did! (Laughs).

Short Story: The Oak Tree And The Ants

imagePHOTO: Reuel Eugene Tay


There was a particular oak tree that sat on the hill of a countryside hidden from the reaches of the city. It was an ordinary oak tree yet it was also not just any other oak tree. Sturdy and beautifully mahogany colored bark, strong branch-of-an-arm that stretched out toward the heavens and, luscious healthy green leaves that decorate the branches those branches make this oak tree a beautiful sight to behold.

Playing companion to couples-in-love and kids on their Sunday family days and having acted as the backdrop for more than a dozen wedding photo shoots, the oak tree was in contentment. “With my coat of green, yellow and red I’ve shaded the young and old, the poor and the rich through the seasons unfailing. Through thunderstorms and seasonal winds that threaten to uproot me, I have lasted and stand firm. I’ve indeed lived a full life.. My life is complete..!” thought the good ol’ tree to himself.

Yet for years, the good ol’ tree could not tolerate one – the ants whom have made their home by his roots, climbing up his back (and front) as they have pleased. It was like a thorn in the flesh to the good ol’ tree, an itch he cannot relieve.

One fine day, with one mighty swing of his limps and rustle of his coat he finally broke with silence with authority and gusto, “I want you to depart from me now!” The ants froze in their tracks for a moment before orderly making their way towards the distant horizon. The good ol’ tree was pleased. After all, it went much smoother than expected. For a while, the tree was contented, being left alone felt like a crumb stuck in the teeth for a good period of time finally removed. That feeling was surreal, and the good ol’ tree thought things could only look brighter. Or so he thought.

No sooner than a week after the ants’ departure, the good ol’ tree became sick. Without the care of the ants, disease was spreading across his body like wildfire. The once beautiful mahogany of a bark was coming apart bit by bit, his coat was like the thinning hair of an old man. No longer attractive, the people stopped coming, children stopped playing by his side, the good ol’ tree was dying physically and emotionally, and now truly left.. alone.

It was then that the good ol’ tree realized his folly, issuing the ants the great exodus was his undoing. A threatening rainstorm hit the good ol’ tree hard that night, only this time he didn’t seem to be able to make it through the night. Despondent, the tree howled with the strong winds “Please come back my friends” while the winds slowly ate away at what was left of his previously beautiful coat of old.

The following morning, the good ol’ tree awoken from his slumber, astonished that he made it to the night, astonished that he actually felt a little better. That familiar unquenchable itch has returned, only this time the tree was glad.

There are people that will get on our backs like a thorn in the flesh or a detestable itch. Yet some of them are those who truly cared, some who helped us become who we are and some whom our destinies are intertwined with.