Balek Kampung

Balek Kampung is a Malay phrase used in local speech to mean, a return to one’s village.

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Because I needed to buy curry powder for Christmas, I made a quick trip across the freeway to Rumah BeBe in Katong.

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It was my grandmother who recommended this ‘home-made’, nameless powder from Bibik Seet’s kitchen.  I still remember calling her while standing by the spice aisle at Cold Storage, asking her which brand of curry powder to buy.

No brand!  She said authoritatively.  Go to Katong!

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Katong is the village of my childhood.  For those of us growing up in the East side of Singapore in the 70s, and 80s, Katong was like the English High Street lined with shops.  Our school was Katong Convent; along the stretch of Marine Parade, the National Library had 2 shelves of dance books.  I read every one of them.

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About 8 years ago, I convinced my husband to re-locate away from the city centre, and purchase an old house, right in the heart of historic Katong.  I wanted so much to have a sense of rooting.

My house was up this street.

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In my enthusiasm for salvaging a heritage house, I naively thought I was creating a home to grow old in.

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It was the most beautiful house we have ever shared.  One day, Jon and Summer went on holiday.  In their absence, I caught sight of an aged woman in a house with 3 levels, an indoor pond, a roof terrace, separate living and dining spaces, 3 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, a small backyard, and realised, I no longer belonged.

I admit I have an affinity towards old things, the forgotten and discarded.  Traipsing through the old hood today, a despairing house called out to me.

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Where am I going to park?  Today is Sunday, there’s no traffic, but during the week?  And when it rains?  Same old issues!  Katong is too far… We lived in a house right there that didn’t need this level of saving, and yet…My husband thinking aloud, reasoning with me.

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The house answered a question that has been haunting.  Yes- if ever an opportunity presented itself to save such a house, I would move back from London, swiftly.  The things I would love to do with this house-  skylight, indoor courtyard, French folding doors, a vertical garden, spiralling stairs and the meticulous restoration of its tiles, windows!  An open kitchen with marbled counter tops, an island for gathering and gossip, caned furniture carelessly arranged in the backyard, some sort of tall green plants for privacy.

At some point, the project will end,  Jon interrupts my imagining gently.  Then what?

Then I’ll sell the house for you.

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And then?

Then I’ll go back to the village in London.  You know, balek kampung.

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  •  Rumah Bebe 113 East Coast Road

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