MALAYABODE:The aesthetics of the kampung house remains a timeless legacy of culture and tradition intertwined in an enduring example of sustainability
In the run-up wave to modernisation and globalisation where the uniformity of oftentimes cookie-cutter design offerings increasingly becomes the norm, the once ubiquitous kampung house is significantly in danger of being swept into oblivion.
Increasingly becoming a rarity in today’s highly urbanised residential setting, the kampung house is disappearing as fast as the novelty associated with modern urban dwellings is experiencing an uptrend. So it was with a certain amount of effort that we managed to track down an ardent proponent of the kampung house in landscape designer Lim In Chong, known as Inch of Inchscape’s house in Johor.
Spread across 10 acres of land in Batu Pahat, Inch lives his talk by having had his very own kampung house reassembled piece by piece after being transported all the way from its original Alor Gajah site in Malacca to Johor years back.
He later had three other replicas of this traditional house constructed and adjoined them to the existing kampung house to form a cluster abode with its very own central courtyard. Calling his adjoined abode “Langka Suka” to literally mean “Happy Steps”, Inch shares his story on how the realisation of this dream has become a reality.
Glorified steps: Possessing a fascination for the kampung house for as long as he remembers, Inch recalls a particular incident when he was ten years old, accompanying his father who has a habit of talking long morning walks as an extended form of exercise. “He’d pointed out to me, ‘One day, I might want to live in a kampung house’,” recalls Inch.
Somehow that comment stuck in his mind, and having grown up in Batu Pahat in a Chinese shophouse and town surrounded by a Malay kampung, which is typical of the demographics of most Malaysian small towns, the abounding interest and affinity for kampung houses were formed in the early impressions of what he saw in the traditional houses peppering the surrounding landscape.
“These kampung houses were a part of the make-up of the town. I’ve always been interested in Malay indigenous cultural artifacts like architecture, pottery, silverware, jewellery and textile that are all part of our make-up because they form such an important basis for our Malaysian material cultural identity. These interesting facades of the local culture that forms a critical part of our heritage that is shrinking includes architecture, cuisine, pantun and weaving. We have many Malay treasures that are unfortunately becoming rare or have already become extinct,” laments Inch.
“For example, the songket and ikat are two separate techniques that are combined in one cloth, the kain limar. This produces very beautiful textile dyed in natural colours. Each of the two states, Kelantan and Terengganu have their own unique and separate colour schemes for their respective cloths,” observes Inch elaborating on the techniques involved in some detail.
“Likewise, we have several traditions of architecture. We have the Bugis tradition in Perak and the Johor tradition which may have been derived from British construction methods. Terengganu and Kelantan have their own tradition which is related to Khmer and Thai.
“These three (styles) form the principal backbone of the vernacular styles of architecture in Malaya (back then),” shares Inch further, his peppering of factual details, historical information and interesting stories during the course of the interview adding layers of interest to the tale of the origins of the architecture of the kampung house.
It was precisely this interest in the kampung house that led Inch to embark on a mission of photographing Malay houses around Malaysia when he was about 30 years of age. Interestingly, this photographic pursuit also led him to spotting the kampung house in Alor Gajah that would eventually become his home.
“A number of years after I photographed it, the house had fallen into dilapidation so I made the approach to buy the house from the owner.
“It wasn’t made of chengal (wood) but of soraya and meranti. The roof had leaked and a lot of the timber members were already rotten, so I had to reproduce every damaged component lovingly and meticulously to restore the house to what must have been its original state,” shares Inch. The realisation of the kampung house was not without its fair share of challenges.
“Everything was challenging. First, we had to mark and number every piece of timber with aluminium tags and then use chalk to mark them so that we could draw out every piece of timber and photograph everything. Then, we had to dismantle the house from the roof down.
It was a very tedious job as every piece had to be reproduced,” recalls Inch about the laborious task of transferring the house to the location in Johor. A team of about 15 people finally realised this challenging mission.
“We had to reproduce the pieces of timber – every piece of timber was handmade. The rotten ones needed to be replaced and the good ones reused. For example, for the one part of the timber frame or panel where one piece was rotten, we had to open and disassemble the whole timber frame or panel, reproduce the damaged piece and then, reassemble the whole frame or panel.
Interestingly, in the process of disassembling the kampung house, they came across a coin placed underneath the tiang seri that was a hundred years old. According to Inch, this was a standard practice to indicate the year that particular kampung house was constructed.
In a figurative and symbolic gesture, Inch placed the coin back under the tiang seri together with a new coin minted on the year that the house was reconstructed.
Beauty of sustainability
“The Malay kampung house normally has two components, (that is the) rumah ibu (main house) and rumah dapur (kitchen section) that is attached backto- back and drained by a joint gutter.
Citing the kampung house as a sustainable housing prototype, Inch says not only is the use of local materials the norm in this case, more often than not, the materials need not be moved from miles away.
Timber was used in the construction in such a way as to allow maximum air flow while attap provides shelter that has very good heat insulating qualities. The kampung house is normally set within a small compound in which one can grow a small orchard and herbs besides rearing a few chickens,” chuckles Inch.
Happy with the resulting relocation of his first kampung house, Inch then made the decision to reproduce three similar houses in the exact same style from scratch and joined all of them up into a cluster, forming a courtyard house.
“As you enter the rumah ibu, you will be greeted by the formal living room.
The informal living room located at a side meanwhile, opens up to the central dining space adjoined to the kitchen.
“In a traditional Malay house, the men will come in and use the serambi and the women will come in to use the dapur from the back,” shares Inch as he explains the typical layout structure of the kampung house and its use.
“The front entrance is for the men and guests you don’t know very well while the back (portion) is (reserved) for the women and family members. I have maintained the same plan that channels the visitors to the living room while providing the back entrance for the women and family members,” says Inch.
To the landscape designer who has already stamped his mark by winning several international awards around the globe, the connection to culture remains paramount, especially in the case of the kampung house.
Having represented Malaysia at The Gardening World Cup 2011, Inch had walked away with the Gold Medal, The Best Design Award and the Best Interpretation of Theme for his landscape design featuring a specially designed Washinboutei garden spanning 60ft by 15ft entitled “The Three Gardens – Peace, Faith and Hope” in response to the aftermath of the tsunami tragedy that had invaded Japan.
“I think it’s very important to me that the house has a historical connection with the culture and tradition of the country on a psychological and emotional level. The thing that I like about it is that I can always throw open the doors and windows and I am immediately surrounded by nature all the time. I suppose I actually like the fact that we have taken a house which would have rotted away and given it a new lease of life,” reflects Inch.
At Inch’s very own kampung sanctuary nestled in Johor, all the intricate patterns of the fret work and carvings come from existing Malay houses.
“They’re obviously historical. In keeping with Islamic motifs, the patterns are always tendrils and plants because Islam forbids the depiction of animal and human images.
“However, I noticed in the house that I reassembled, the motifs on the front panels were Chinese in origin. That may point to the possibility that the house was originally constructed by Chinese carpenters,” elaborates Inch further.
For now, “Langka Suka”, overlooking the Straits of Malacca is happily the realisation of a childhood dream come true.
“I grew up in a Chinese shophouse and we moved into a semi-detached house when I was 12, so I grew up by the river. Growing up by the river, I remember seeing the Indonesian sailing ships coming in on full sail carrying barter traders upriver to engage in commerce at the port of Batu Pahat.
“I’ve always believed that one should live in the countryside so that one has the space to grow things. I also love living by the sea.
“The first time my grandfather took me to the sea in his little Morris Minor, I was thrilled at seeing the vast expanse of the blue ocean.
“So, when I had the chance to buy this hillock adjacent to the site that my grandfather took me to overlooking the Straits of Malacca, I jumped at the chance,” reminisces Inch further. The resulting artistry is a sight to behold – with the 10 acres of land overlooking the sea and backed by a forest area.
True to his extraordinary landscape talent, Inch also transformed the site into a playground for the birds and animals of the forest – with special plants attracting selected species to his picturesque paradise teeming with water features.
“I’ve counted about 90 species of birds that come to my garden, including two species of hornbills. I’ve also included several water features around the house to provide space for the birds to bathe.
Water features around the house provide space for birds to bathe,” he says of his slice of haven in Batu Pahat.
So, given a chance to do it all over again, would he still settle for the kampung house? “Absolutely. It is literally like living in a beautiful restored historical artifact, surrounded by nature, overlooking the sea. What could be better?” beams Inch without a tinge of regret.
Pics courtesy of Inch of Inchscape