Lest We Forget


Compiled by Faruq Bostaman

Memories of a Kampong Ayer girl

Tony Alabastro

FEBRUARY 19/20, 2000 – In the 16th Century, Kampong Ayer, the Venice of the East, was a water village of 25,000 families at Kota Batu, the then capital of Brunei Darussalam.

It was so unique that Italian chronicler Antonio Pigafetta came to explore its wonders with Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

In the 18th Century fisherman, blacksmiths, kris (native sword) makers, brass artisans, nipa palm mat-makers, pearl and oyster collectors, traders and goldsmiths all lived within the confines of the world’s biggest water village.

Last year, a prominent visitor at Mukim Tamoi of the Kampong Ayer was Dr Luisa ‘Loi’ Ejercito, First Lady of the Republic of the Philippines.

Queen Elizabeth, head of the one of the world’s ruling dynasties, boarded a Royal Brunei Police launch in September 1998 to tour “the centuries-old floating village on the Brunei River, where 30,000 live today in rickety wooden houses standing on a million stilts”.

A view of the Kampong Ayer

The country’s largest shopping mall, the Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Complex, which main walkway gives an unobstructive view of the Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Mosque and its golden dome, rose from the ashes of a portion of the Kampong Ayer.

“I once lived here,” Jacky told Nesa, as they strolled around within the air-conditioned comfort of the shopping complex one afternoon.

A few months before Jacky was born, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam opened the BND600 million Liquefied Natural Gas plant in Lumut. Brunei and Malaysia ended their dollar parity rate agreement the following month.

His Majesty turned 27 that year, and the Borneo Bulletin ran a full-colour illustration of His Majesty, the first publication of a coloured picture in any newspaper in Brunei, Sabah or Sarawak.

Men wore sextant bells in fade-out fabrics, Sta-Prest and 100 per cent cotton Dune-buggy fabrics in pop colours, Nuvo straight and narrow or Nuvo flares Levis pants.

People drove Toyota 1000s with redesigned 58 HP engines, Toyota Corolla 1200s or Toyota Corona Mark IIs.

In the same year, Colgate introduced a cool new mint flavoured toothpaste, Nescafe came out in a new, 8oz, bigger glass jar with a tight fitting lid; The Capitol Theatre was showing What’s Up Doc, starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal.

“We lived in a very big house. It was about 10 years old and we had inherited it from my grandparents, who had also lived in Kampong Ayer.

“We lived in the back of the village, where you can’t see the river. Mom could communicate with the neighbours without stepping out of the house.

“A tiny coffee shop had been set up outside the house. The shop sold food such as Siew Mai, prawn and banana fritters as well as fried chicken wings, ABC and rice dumplings.

“For supper, they sold Nasi Lemak as well as fried noodles.

“There was no need to actually go out of the house to buy food. I could stick my head out of the window and buy some noodles. People from neighbouring houses did the same thing.

“Sometimes, a person a few doors away would want something to eat. He would tell his immediate neighbour what he wanted and hand over the money. The order and the money would be passed along and the food would return along the same route. Even the people, who lived on the mainland would come and eat at this coffee shop.

“Everything was extremely convenient. We were linked to Jalan Sultan. We went shopping at the Klassik Department Store. The store is on Jalan Sultan. We also used to shop at the Tek Guan Plaza. This store is part of the Teck Guan group of companies, which had been established way back in 1910. The family who runs the company has lived in Brunei for three generations.

“We could walk to school and we could go jogging along the wooden walkways between the houses.

“The children played with marbles. There was a season every year when we played the game with the seeds of a particular tree. We would try and shatter each other’s seeds.

“We also caught and played with the house lizards. The elders believed that the lizards would make a clicking sound if they heard anyone speaking the truth. So it was always interesting when the lizards click, click and clicked away when there was an argument in progress.

“My cousins would climb up on the rooftops and play. One of them actually fell from the roof, rolled down the stairs and landed right in front of his mother, who began screaming. My cousin, on the other hand, claimed to have felt no pain at all.

“There was a season every year when everyone flew kites. All the children in the village would do nothing but play with their kites all day long. I can still remember the mothers screaming themselves hoarse calling us kids in for meals. The boys would even climb up on the roofs to fly their kites.

“All the children gave each other nicknames. They were very funny, but I simply cannot remember any of them at the moment,” laughed Jacky.

“Some of the children used to stay awake until two in the morning and they would claim that they had seen ghost in the Kampong Ayer at night. They said that the spirits of villagers who had passed away would come and visit the home they have loved so dearly.

“I was not allowed to follow my friends out in the night. I was an only child and spent a lot of time at home with my mother.

“Every year, during the monsoon, the waters of the river would rise and flood all the houses. Everyone would rush around carrying things to the safety of a higher level in the house. At least, the adults always rushed around. Us children thought the excess of water was absolutely fun.

“The Kampong Ayer was just like on big playground. The games, which the children played, made the place ring with laughter and vibrate with life. We all learned to be independent at a very young age. Life was very peaceful and we were all very attached to each other. Everyone knew who everyone else was and we were at home in every single house in the village.

“Now, we have all grown up and grown apart. It is hard to imagine that the children who climbed on roofs and ran through the village are now hard working doctors, dentists, engineers or even journalists.

“One night, we were sleeping and there was a knock on the door. The Kampong Ayer was on fire. My mother took all our important documents. I did not carry anything. My aunty carried the praying table. My aunt’s maid brought out some clothes. The fire spread very rapidly through the wooden houses. There was nothing we could do.

“Many cousins and friends lost a great deal of the personal belongings. We all had to rebuild our lives and move to new homes on the land.

“All the fire victims registered themselves at the Youth Centre. We were all given applications for government housing. The waiting period for housing was shortened to accommodate all the fire victims.”

“The Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Shopping Complex was born from the ashes of this fire. It is strange walking there sometimes and remembering that I used to live here when I was a child.”

The Kampong Ayer has a new face now. Sections of it are gradually being filled with concrete houses that have glass, which rattled in the strong winds that blow across the river.

The rickety, wooden catwalks are slowly disappearing and being replaced by cement bridges. Children no longer run but ride bicycles along the bridges which also connect the houses.

In the midst of this change, the river alone remains the same. It flows today, as it did in the past and as it will in the future.