Bukit Timah’s secret kampung, hidden in a forest

In this upscale district, where landed houses outnumber HDB flats, lies the little-known remnants of its kampung past, hidden by time and nature. On The Red Dot uncovers its secrets.
Desmond Ng and Trinh Hoang Ly Channel NewsAsia 28 Apr 17;

SINGAPORE: The Bukit Timah Nature Reserve abounds with dense vegetation, a variety of forest animals, noisy insects - and the ruins of an old Chinese kampung so well-hidden that few know it exists.

Flanked by thick foliage, this piece of land just behind Hindhede Drive contains the remaining structures of several Chinese kampung houses, with remnants of a well, a bathroom stall, a kitchen and a storage area still standing.

It has so far eluded many of the joggers, nature lovers and families who frequent this nature reserve.

Mr Sani Abdul Rahim, whose maternal grandparents used to live in the area, said: “Maybe (the authorities) can put a sign to indicate that there was a village here. Many people who trek in this area may see the structure, but they don’t know the history of it.”

Mr Sani, 54, spent much of his childhood in the 1960s and 1970s roaming the Bukit Timah area.

Bukit is Malay for "hill" while the name ‘"Timah" is believed to have originated from a corruption of the name of the Temak tree which grows in the area. The nature reserve, which is the largest primary rainforest in Singapore, was also believed to be infested with tigers in the early 1800s.

Mr Sani remembers that the hidden settlement area used to be the site of a Malay and a Chinese kampung, but only remnants of the latter remain today.

The area is just a five-minute walk from the visitor centre off Hindhede Drive. It can be accessed via some crumbling granite steps.

A sign at the start of a trail states “Kampung trail”, but there are no markings on the map at the visitor centre as to where these remnants are.

Mr Sani, who is with the Temasek Rural Exploring Enthusiasts, told the programme On The Red Dot that the group discovered the ruins a few years ago. They occasionally conduct free walking tours to the site.

This freelance photographer pointed to some of the remaining structures, and described how back then, the lower part of the house walls was made of concrete to prevent snakes and other animals from sneaking in.

The rest of the walls would be made of wood as it was abundant and cheaper to obtain.

A cooking stove belonging to a family can still be found half-covered in creepers. The wood used for cooking was usually stored in the crevices under the stove, said Mr Sani.

AVOIDING THE NIGHT-SOIL MAN

Also surviving are the brick structures of a common toilet, where human waste was collected in a galvanised metal bucket. Because of the smell, these toilets were usually located a distance from the main house.

Mr Sani recalled how he and his friends would run away whenever they saw the night-soil collectors coming. These men had the unenviable task of taking the away the human waste to plantations on the city’s outskirts, balancing the stinking buckets on bamboo poles slung over their backs.

“We would run because of the smell. And the way those people carried the buckets was very funny - we would laugh and cover our mouths,” he said.

More fond memories were created playing along a stream by the kampung. It was where the villagers showered, did their laundry and collected water.

“For us, this was our favourite location to play with our boats,” Mr Sani said.

Watch the full episode on Bukit Timah here. Catch That’s My Backyard - On The Red Dot, on Fridays, 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.

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