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The Village Within

Published onOct 26, 2023
The Village Within

“It looks like rain,” I tell my daughter, Sophia, who is looking thoughtfully up at the overcast sky. “Sorry, we can’t do our evening walk today. But the frogs will sing tonight.”

I look across the road, mostly overgrown wild vegetation—scrub or belukar in Malay—that will soak up the rain like a sponge. I anticipate the chorus of banded bullfrogs, which reminds me of an online poll that found frogs in a Malaysian swamp to be the most beautiful sound in the world.1

Do you have a memory of a specific place during the pandemic—a familiar place experienced differently, or a new place? I found myself in the neighbourhood in which I grew up, this time with my daughter and wife, my grandmother and her domestic worker. I spent most of the lockdowns there, perhaps the most I’ve stayed put in nearly twenty years.

On our walks, I was always amazed by how much life comes forth from so small a place. The cats, chickens, and birds rustling through the bushes; the fragrance of pandan floating over scrub and thicket; insects murmuring in the undergrowth, an entire world of activity invisible to us.

The sky rumbles. To my right, water trickles down from the drain where I discovered my first tadpoles some thirty years ago, now carrying pebbles and batai laut seed pods from Sophia’s hand.

We turn in before the rain, but we’ll be out again.

Out of COVID, insights from the belukar

In Malaysia’s towns and cities there are pockets of scrub, belukar, “leftover” space that hasn’t been developed for one reason or another. These liminal spaces—micro-wilderness at once unformed and deformed, fugitives of time and place—resist clear definition and control. Typically inhabited by wild or feral plants and animals—wild figs, bananas, and yams, and macaques, monitor lizards, pythons, and birds and insects of all shapes and sizes—belukar subverts anthropogenic landscaping power. In residential neighbourhoods, there is often a negotiation between people and belukar—clearing of the “wild” space for informal farming or auxiliary car parking, to improve perceived tidiness, or to eradicate the perceived risk of snakes or other dangerous wildlife. (Ironically, the practice of clearing away the tall grasses where snakes live has been known to correspond with the appearance of snakes within buildings.)

During pandemic-induced movement restrictions in 2020 and 2021, many urban communities in Malaysia ramped up the informal terraforming of residential areas through (officially unsanctioned) “guerrilla gardening” practices. Gardens, sidewalks, road and drain verges alike were often converted into informal crop beds. Residential neighbourhoods took on a different character, one reminiscent of Malaysia’s more rural or kampung past. (“Kampung” is the Malay word for village; it can also mean “hometown.”)

Photo of a profusion of different plants growing in a small dirt median betwen a parking area and a sidewalk.

“Herbs on kerbs.” Photo by Benjamin Ong.

It’s more than likely that the sudden resurgence of home gardening came about as a way of coping with interminable lockdowns: something to keep the hands and mind busy, to offer solace, peace, and joy amid the frustrations brought about by an unprecedented pandemic. And perhaps as we were cut off from the global supply chains we’d taken for granted, and with many local supply chains in limbo, having a modest cache of edibles at our doorsteps or on our windowsills seemed comforting, even prudent.

Because of this, during the pandemic, belukar and edge habitats—and the guerrilla gardens that popped up in and around them—thrived, offering shelter to plants and animals alike. As the government focused on the health crisis, landscape maintenance and enforcement (for example, of illegal farming) took a back seat. Fastidious landscaping gave way to wilderness and overgrowth, and local residents took advantage of this, making clearings to plant fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Typically, these actions didn’t follow a formal green-space development plan; most of the designs were bottom-up, spontaneous, iterative, even anarchic. The landscape of urban residential neighbourhoods transgressed the aesthetic expectations and norms of contemporary urban planning.

To understand the significance of this, we must recognize the technosolutionist, industrial, high-tech narrative that pervaded urban development in postcolonial, post-World War II Southeast Asia in the second half of the twentieth century.2 An unspoken assumption of this narrative is that the rural kampung represents poverty, and is thus incompatible with, or undesirable for, “smart and modern” urban futures. Consider this excerpt from Ee Tiang Hong’s poem “For my Son,” published in 1976, a decade of intense “development” for Malaysia (note: blukar is an alternate spelling of belukar):

One bright auspicious hour
You will hear your elders speak
Of Freedom soaring in the sky,
And hovering on a cloud, and stirring
In the leaves of sun-aspiring branches.
Inspired, you will burn in your passion
To hack through treacherous swamps
And the darkly creeping blukar of oppression. [...]3

I was born and bred in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, growing up in the 1990s to the tune of Vision 20204—the then-government’s aspiration for Malaysia to become a “fully developed country,” which in practice usually meant an industrialized, high-tech future. The classroom artwork created by my fellow students was telling: gleaming skyscrapers, rapid trains, robots, the works. If I went back in time and shared photos of overgrown sidewalks and a ruralized city with the kids of the nineties, they’d stone the demons in me: such unpatriotic blasphemy! But the dichotomy between hypermodern urban thriving and archaic rural poverty is problematic at best, and false at worst. COVID delivered a scenario where Vision 2020 was subverted by a reemergence of the kampung, a different vision for 2020.

Photo of a green field with various kinds of wild plants growing, densely packed together. In the background, some low-lying tiled-roof buildings, and further in the distance, the skyline of Kuala Lumpur, with tall buildings.

Conflict or coexistence? “Empty” belukar and remnant kampung houses frame a section of Kuala Lumpur’s skyline, with its emerging skyscrapers, including the Petronas Twin Towers, once the tallest buildings in the world. Photo by Benjamin Ong.

The modernization, urbanization, and economic change once embodied in Vision 2020 isn’t necessarily incompatible with the rural kampung aesthetic and way of life. Among those who tended vegetable plots on balconies and sidewalks, reconnecting with kampung-borne knowledges, were white-collar professionals Zooming in and out of meetings, the high-earning and highly learned alike—proof that the kampung is not the exclusive provenance of backwardness and poverty. After all, who wouldn’t want to be resilient in the face of supply-chain failures, or eat healthily for cheaper?

Beyond the material transformation of concrete edges into greenscapes, there was also sensory reconnection with nature. On neighbourhood walks with my daughter, we trained our ears to the sound of birds. We also explored with our tongues: support from the Center for Science and the Imagination’s Applied Imagination Fellowship5 enabled me to work with cooks, artists, and activists on a collaborative documentation of uses—past, present, and future—of ulam, or wild edibles,6 many of which flourish in the belukar.

However, the liminal and in-between spaces that hold this magic and wonder are often relegated to the sidelines in mainstream urban landscape management. They are considered unproductive because they don’t generate direct agricultural or commercial yield. According to this way of thinking, a forest is worth nothing until its trees are felled for timber, or its fruit harvested, or a trail paved so that humans may easily traverse it. Nobody has cultivated it yet, and it’s seen as something fallow, awaiting a better custodian to realize its full potential. One lesson from the pandemic was that these spaces are already living and breathing; in their current form, in their liminality, they are already good and there is beauty in them.

Over the last half century, urban residential neighbourhoods in Malaysia have mediated between the kampung of the past and the “modern” spaces of the future. The provocation that came into especially sharp focus during the pandemic is that we can be “both/and”—the high-rise and the low-rise (and the belukar) coexisting, layered with one another. If there’s one lesson I took away from the lockdowns, it’s that local neighbourhoods can transform our relationship with nature and promote resilient cities. But much depends on how we manage them—what we promote (or prohibit) to thrive and flourish.

Three (re)imaginations of urban space

The kampung spirit is still extant, even in urban areas, but how far into the future can we go with it? On the one hand, cities in Malaysia and Southeast Asia are growing too fast. On the other, community memory isn’t yet lost—although the risk of erosion increases as we turn to less local and indigenous ways of doing things. We have a window of time for (re)imagination, for reconnecting with the past as we design more sustainable futures, and for maintaining knowledge and practices that may be in danger of being forgotten.7 To grow the seeds sown during the pandemic, we need to confront some of the landscaping norms and values we’ve inherited over several centuries of industrialization and imperialism. We need to get over the kampung stigma where it exists and address three tensions:

1. Inclusive edible landscapes: freedom to forage vs. fenced-up gardens

There is much ado about urban greening and urban farming. No doubt accelerated by the popularity of neighbourhood gardening during the pandemic, the Government of Malaysia launched the national Urban Community Farming Policy in August 2021.8, 9 Further south, the city-state of Singapore launched its ambitious 30 by 30 policy, aiming to grow 30 percent of its food demand within its national borders.10 Beyond the benefits of food security and enhancing local ecosystem services, there are bigger issues about rights: Who gets to participate in community gardening and farming? Which practices are allowed and disallowed?

First, we have the tension between informal, bottom-up planting and formal, top-down greening. In March 2021, a local newspaper announced that residents in one Malaysian municipality were no longer allowed to grow fruit trees and veggies outside their homes,11 yet four days later the same municipal council boasted about planting more than 150,000 new trees in 2020 as part of its commitment to sustainability.12 This raises questions over who gets to participate in shaping the landscape and who doesn’t, and about the distinctions created between designated and undesignated urban space. Under such a paradigm, it is an offence to plant on road verges and common or so-called “public” space.

Second, what about edible landscapes that transcend designated, boundary-confined space? Take foraging, for example. The practice seems to be picking up in parts of Europe and the United States; it has always been here in Malaysia, since the days of our Orang Asli (Indigenous) hunter-gatherers and settled communities alike, who often wander into forests and edge habitats (such as belukar) in search of wild edibles. But over the last few decades, we’ve been fed a diet of food provided by vast, inscrutable global supply chains, and rhetoric about how industry will lift us out of poverty. While industrialized food systems do provide for most of our dietary needs at a reasonable cost, this is a baby-and-bathwater situation where our sole reliance on these systems leaves us on the edge of losing nourishing and accessible landscapes.

Cultivating an edible city also raises questions about who has a right to harvest.13 We could have fenced-up, designated farming zones, or we could create a city that leaves space open for all to forage. During the early months of the pandemic, downtown Kuala Lumpur was drained of its usual bustle as people worked from home, or stayed at home without work. One group, however, remained: unhoused communities in the inner city. While humanitarian missions like soup kitchens were allowed to operate, some resorted to foraging wild figs and herbs to supplement their diets.

Close-up photo of a hand holding a small, red, densely seeded fruit. A person's face and upper body are visible in the photo, but are blurred.

An older woman living in the inner city, with a foraged wild fig. Photo by Nurul Fitrah Marican, edited and used with permission.

Instead of the European-inspired “formal and floral” urban landscaping, with trees and shrubs chosen predominantly for their visual or structural attributes, what if we planted for sustenance, so people could literally eat off the land? And not only our sustenance, but in support of biodiversity—wild plants and animals, the more-than-human filling the air with song. This idea isn’t so far-fetched; it was common practice in our kampung past.

2. Mangoes should be free! Finding the hyperlocal in a globalized world

I continue to be inspired by Richard Mabey’s 1972 book Food for Free,14 which reminds me of something a former lecturer and supervisor said: “Mangoes should be free.” Why are we paying supermarkets and importers so much for foodstuffs that grow easily and abundantly in our local neighbourhoods?

Globalization prioritizes what is scalable and replicable, what could be applied across the board if the world were indeed flat. Therefore, to feed the world through transnational systems and global trade dictates that either food has to be hardy and easy to disseminate in bulk, or a lot of effort and energy has to go into preservation during transit, driving prices (and carbon emissions) up. But many food plants popular in the rural kampung setting have not successfully boarded this “cargo ship” of scalable mass production. Ulam are difficult to transport; they wilt quickly and lose the properties that make them delicious when they’re consumed within hours—even minutes—of harvesting. The consumption of ulam is well and alive, but it’s also hyperlocal and doesn’t translate well to large supply chains. In that sense, the globalization of cuisine is always partial and incomplete; there continues to be a place for “authentic local experiences” and hyperlocal delicacies. Prioritizing what is scalable and replicable can cause us to miss local beauty. As we pursue high-tech and modern futures to be regionally and globally competitive, we ought also to make room for the low-tech and local.

We don’t yet have a Malaysian version of Food for Free, perhaps because that knowledge is still with us, albeit circulated as oral tradition and almost never written down. During the worst ravages of COVID-19, cut off from global, even national, supply chains, some of these practices were rediscovered and shared. The Malaysian artist Syarifah Nadhirah published a documentation of the foraging practices of the Orang Asli.15 Meanwhile, chef-academic Professor Shahrim Ab Karim of Universiti Putra Malaysia is one advocate in the rediscovery and reimagination of ulam,16 many varieties of which are castigated as weeds, and yet which we can easily plant in our urban gardens and neighbourhoods.

3. The need to control vs. allowing nature’s agency

The visions of the future sketched above all depend on whether we allow room—indeed, freedom—for nature’s agency. Policies on urban agriculture and landscape management have one thing in common: humans are still in control. Our contemporary policies are descendants of colonial, industrial agriculture instead of a collaboration with nonhuman nature. We plant within boxes and fences, leaving nature little agency to shape these landscapes with us. Instead, we ought to recognize the rights of wind, water, and wildlife alike to sow as we do.

There is a conflict of the tame vs. the wild, so eloquently rendered in John Fowles’s The Tree.17 Agriculture and productive landscapes with direct utility to humans are seen as good. Things that grow wild—so-called “weeds”—less so. One learning from the dialogue between resident and belukar, from the gardening-foraging tension, is that there is a place for the cultivated, but also for the spontaneous. And the ecological integrity of the local landscape is better when both are present.

Photo from across a street of a person in a wide-brimmed hat trimming plants that are growing on the edge of a paved walkway.

A grasscutter trims the edges of the belukar—the drain marks a boundary of sorts between “order” and “chaos.” Photo by Benjamin Ong.

The colonial aesthetic seeks to bring order to nature and make it bend to our will. But nature’s response to our actions—so vivid during the pandemic—shows that there is something visceral and organic at work here, emerging and weaving its way through the rigidity and boundaries of the city, defying control, definition, and delineation. Something co-produced between humans and nature, vibrant and inviting.

What, then, is the alternative future represented here? One where we humans proceed with humility, acknowledging that what seems chaotic to us represents a deep, sophisticated order in nature, one that our supposed engineering brilliance has disrupted. Maybe there is something we can learn from the plants and animals that don’t view the city through our points and polygons. Nature is our neighbour, whether or not we like it: we share our living spaces with plants both planted and wild, and with animals domestic and feral.

The leftovers: a vision for the future

The kampung continues to emerge and reemerge in cities—not as something displaced in space and time, on the rural periphery or in the past, but as a living, driving force that can find a home in even the most futuristic of urban spaces.

Beyond potted plants and neatly manicured gardens, urban green space can be a place for situated community knowledges to thrive, for drawing on traditional practices and designs—foraging, kampung gardens—of our diverse communities. The idea of “rurbanization”—or making cities more rural—is being picked up elsewhere.18 In Malaysia, we need to combat the stigma of kampung, to show that the city that goes through the village is a viable alternative to the status quo. Indeed, if we draw from our rich traditional and ecological knowledge, we may succeed in creating landscapes that are more respectful of the shared culture and history of the city’s diverse ethnic communities.

The kampung imaginary seeks a middle ground between the extremes of conserved wild space (for example, forest reserves where food harvesting and consumption are typically prohibited) and anthropogenic green space (for example, sterile parks devoid of edibles, or formal cropland). The pandemic showed us glimpses of a future where humans and wildlife work the land for mutual benefit—where we carve out enough room for ourselves but leave plenty for the rest of nature. In this future, we make peace with the notion of ceding control and not needing to label or fence everything up. We learn to receive and reap what we did not harvest. We’re comfortable with the liminal space and the leftovers, home to both the known and unknown.

In this future, there is room for different traditions, orthodoxies, and interpretations of space: a time and place for both order and chaos, for the manicured and the messy. Nature has agency to share in the shaping of urban green space—frogs and birds alongside humans—and wildlife is seen as part of the fabric, not a nuisance. There is room for mystery and wonder and discovery around the corner, where—in the words of Wendell Berry—we “praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.”19

A future where we are not afraid to look to the past for inspiration and instruction. A future where we leave behind more than we take.

Some say this is a future of flourishing; I don’t know about that, but I’m all for a future of nourishing! A future full of stories shared around a foraged meal prepared together, our tummies and our hearts full.

Photo of people serving themselves from a table packed with plates and bowls with various kinds of colorful food and sauces.

Urban foraging lunch at the ImagiNasi event, June 4, 2022. ImagiNasi marked the conclusion of The Kampung City, a project supported by the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, through its Applied Imagination Fellowship. Photo by Benjamin Ong.

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