The Kampong Utopia
"Oi! Mrs Tan! The Kueh Lapis (layered cake) was delicious! Could I order two boxes from you? My robust voice hollered over the Bukit Timah kampung community's zinc roofs. I continued pedalling furiously, not caring an iota about who heard me.
Mrs Tan grinned when she spotted my ramshackle bicycle "Sure Ah Kow, your order will arrive at your doorstep bright and early next Tuesday." I waved a grateful goodbye to the familiar neighbour and cycled haphazardly on my ramshackle bicycle to school, all the while giving myself a thumbs up for forging neighbourly relations and doing mum a favour.
The Singapore scene in the 1960s would have been incomplete without Kampungs, or makeshift houses with zinc roofs and walls made of attap leaves. They were not lasting by any means but were represented home, and all its comforts,for a majority of Singapore's citizens.
The Kampong community was by every means a wholesome bunch. Looking out for each other was not just a matter of courtesy- it was a way of life everyone had to conform to. All households reached out to anyone in need; each had ready donations when their neighbours were short of food or were lacking the income to cross financial hurdles.
The birthdays of all in the community were common knowledge because each was a special, coming-of-age event. Ageing, wisdom and joy seemed to go hand-in-hand.
An Idyllic life shattered
It was an idyllic life; one that would shatter to smithereens when the village police discovered one of the village residents, Tee Tuah Bah, lying curled up and lifeless on one of the easy chairs in the living room.
The medical examiner at the Kampung Community' small-scale hospital ruled Tuah Bah's death a result of natural causes. Not all its members were in agreement
Many of them didn't have kind words for Tuah Bah's widow, Ah Sum, shunning her when she passed their homes.
The community turned their backs on her in unison, with some indulging in what they felt was well-deserved name-calling.
"It's the Black Widow,"
"Yes. Best wishes to any man who has the fortune of marrying her," the more interested housewives and gossips would sneer.
The poor, hassled and dishevelled lady, who had been living from hand to mouth after her husband's death, could only cry helpless tears as community members levelled accusations at her
Negativity became her best friend and bedfellow. Depression became a regular resident. She soon felt tempted to turn to the solution many in her state might have to solve her unfortunate dilemma.
Ah Sum's dilemma
Ah Sum sat on the edge of a cliff near the wooded Kampung, legs swinging unstoppably. She carried in her arms Tuah Bah's child.
Empathy from the community was in short supply. What was she to do? She had little education, and bringing up a child literally took a village that was so near, yet so far...
Police Sergeant Lim Tuck Seng was enjoying a well-deserved break while off-duty. His surveillance of a Secret Society that recruited unsuspecting Kampung
teens the night before had finished in the wee hours,so he was very much ready to shrink under his bedcovers.
After swallowing a much-needed cup of coffee, Sergeant Lim fitted a commissioned police siren on his rickety Moris Minor. The kampung resident was looking
forward to shuteye, but it was not to be.
As he passed by the same cliff where Ah Sum was sitting, he caught sight of the distraught woman dangling her legs and baby, her face drenched with unresolved tears of anger and sadness. Like everyone else in the Kampung, he was tempted to ignore the frail woman.
The police officer in him gave him a raise-to-wake kick in the head. He approached the grieving, slighted widow and dangled a tissue in front of her.
"You'll pull through, whatever it is," he patted Ah Sum on the back. "The people in the Kampung are a bunch of ignorant fools. Think of Tuck Seng and the children. Would they want to see you like this?"
Ah Sum's choked sobs slowly came to a stop. She took the Hand of Kindness Sergeant Lim offered to her and slowly climbed into his Morris Minor.
Sergeant Lim took a weary, emotionally beleaguered Ah Sum back to the Kampung
Community. Its reaction was expected- indignant looks greeted Ah Sum. "Oh, so the
Black Widow has returned," A chorus of merciless giggles followed. Ah Sum hung her head. Sergeant Lim shook his head incredulously. "You won't want to know what I almost caught this woman doing," he berated. "Do you seriously want the responsibility of human life to weigh upon you? 'The earlier she leaves us, the better," a few members of the community spoke in staggered unison.
"Are you sure, beyond any reasonable doubt, that this lady caused her husband/s death?" "What else could it be?" Ahmad, who lived in the biggest kampung in the village supplied a ready answer.
Just then, Sergeant Lim's assistant burst in with news she seemingly could not wait to share." Tuah Bah succumbed to a heart attack," she panted. The use of pacemakers was not rife in 1960s Singapore; the diagnosis was plausible.
Sergeant Lim gave the persecuting mob a rough stare. "You heard her. You also know that this was spontaneous and unplanned. I couldn't have known that she was coming, nor could I have known you were waiting for me."Everyone in the
the assembled group exchanged guilty glances.
Ahmad finally extended a contrite hand. '"Maaf (Sorry) Mary. It's difficult enough to lose your husband and have to become the family breadwinner without fools like
us butting in," he shook his head. "we were just outraged for Tuah Bah. He was a close friend," He added and grinned awkwardly. Everyone else nodded in
"well, you can definitely make up for this," Sergeant Lim rallied. "Ah Sum needs all the help she can get. She is alone and has a family to raise. Why not give her a hand? It takes a village to bring up a child." The assembled community nodded vigorously.
The community's reception of Ah Sum was lukewarm at first. Some of its straight-laced members of the community could not shake the Black Widow impression.
Happily, things for Ah SUm took a turn for the better. Her culinary skills were sound; she started to give hassled mothers a hand with their cooking. Her recipes slowly gained popularity.
Ah Sum also had a way with needles and thread, putting an end to holes in garments. She also created lovely outfits for the community's little ones out of spare materials. The community started to accommodate her and even gave anyone
who called her a Black Widow a snub.
Ah Sum was always the first to extend a compassionate hand to a grieving family or a frightened child, little acts of benevolence that earned her the respect she deserved.
Everyone began to get along. It took Ah Sum's initiative, but she did earn a few Hands in Kindness by extending her own.
© 2022 Michelle Liew