Four Malay boys having a fun go at tarik upih pinang (palm frond sledding). Attribution: Yana Harmila Haron.

When I was a little boy in a kampung long long time ago, there was no TV. Can you imagine? (Kampung Boy: Yesterday & Today pt.1)

This came from LAT, the local Dennis the Menace, who wanted to acquaint his readers living in the modern age to the dearth of electronic gadgets decades ago. To make up for the technology ill, children of that era looked to their own company and space to amuse themselves. There were surely no lack of friends to play with – each household could boast of several children – and plenty of time and spots for games. When they ran out of money for cheap 10 cents movie, the children turned to outdoor games for thrills and the choice was quite impressive. These games filled kampung grounds with children’s noisy chatters and shrills and freed busy parents from having to closely mind their kids. Playtime was extended and didn’t end until the stroke of sunset when all would disperse and head back home, like a pack of chicks returning to their coop. Games were also a social glue that brought children from different ethnic groups together, strengthening the already easy relations between kampung residents.

Not F1 but the Upih Pinang Race

As nature formed a big backdrop of kampung life, the children invented games that were environment-friendly. They had gone green even before the green movement became global. One simple game involved the upih pinang (dried palm leaf). A child sits on the upih and is dragged by his friend with as much speed as he could. The team that brings the upih to the finishing line first, wins, provided the “passenger” is still on top of the upih. The balancing act required by the race is enough to send every one into fits of laughter. When a child gets thrown off, everyone can’t help but LOL.

Other games that use natural or recycled objects are konda kondi (which uses a small stick that is placed in a hole and players of one team flick and fling it off with a bigger stick while the opposing team tries to catch it); tapak kuda (horse hooves, which uses recycled milk cans that players walk on to get to the finishing line the fastest; and baling tin or bujang (which uses a recycled tin that is filled with pebbles and thrown to the ground to mark a start of running and catching).

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

A common trait in kampung games is the buddy factor. When two teams challenge each other, members of each team not only strive to win but also rescue those that have fallen. This is found in Police and Thief or baling tin which is somewhat a modified version of Police and Thief. In both, a spot is marked as a prison (that hosts captured players), usually the trunk of a coconut tree. Players of one team will not only be busy with running from their opponents but also with freeing their imprisoned mates by infiltrating the prison and tapping them. Sometimes saving your buddy is impossible:

The captured thieves would be sitting near the tree waiting for some daring thief to tag them… the tree was tightly guarded…creating an impenetrable fortress. Even the guy from Prison Break can’t escape this tree-prison thing. I don’t even think Alcatraz is this tough. (Police & Thief).

Over time, the running and catching toned down as players brought in a tennis ball to “bomb” their opponents, hence the evolving of the game into rembat bola or hantam bola.

Same- same but different?

As traditional games get passed down or shared around by word of mouth with no strict record of the name or the rules, the same game can be called differently or use different tools depending on where it was played.

Dodging and seizing your opponents are wanted skills in galah panjang, a popular group game across the causeway, but in Singapore many kids who used to play this game called it “jelon”, a corruption of “balloon”, or “belon acah” (literal: tease balloon). Unlike Police and Thief, the game must be played within a set boundary. When Singaporeans moved to flats, many children played jelon at the void deck or at their badminton court. Within that bound space, mini-courts parallel to one another are marked and one team will defend the entrances to these courts. The aim of the other team is to penetrate the entrances without getting tapped by their opponents. If one player can dodge every guard, the team wins but if one of them gets tapped the whole team is out.

In Konda Kondi, some children use sticks to play this game but in Singapore, a modified version of the game is called rounders where a ball rather than a stick is hit. But the aim of both was for the opposing team to catch that stick or ball. If this happens, the whole team associated with the player that hits the stick or ball is out.

Wait ah…Chop!

In those days, games were essentially for fun although the objective was still to win. So, if a player got tired due to too much running or if he wanted to avoid getting captured prematurely, he could ask for a time out. For this to happen, he would signal “peace” with his fingers and say chop, or chop night or chop twist. His opponent would “honour” this and everyone would take a break.

Play is Serious Business

The rugged kampung games thrive on wide open spaces. It also meant they chalked up a lot of sweat and kept children fit. The popularity of these outdoor games dwindled when TV burst into the scene and filled children’s imagination with superheroes and cartoon characters. So big was the impact that one claimed “TV robs us of our childhood!”.

The onset of TV is just the beginning; handheld electronic games (or anything with batteries) that followed are equally or more addictive. From Game and Watch, Nintendo, Pac Man (atari), Playstation to mobile game apps – these are solitary and sedentary and take away the bonding and physical out of juvenile fun. But this development is just as well as Singapore has changed tremendously. Kampung compounds and backyards are no longer children’s playground. Parents can’t afford to let their children roam free as before as crime lurks at more corners, and with both parents having to work, these introvert games help to keep children occupied within a safe environment. The downside perhaps though is summarised by this grandmother who cherished her rugged childhood:

Those were some of the best days of our lives as we engaged with each other in a multiracial environment during play. We don’t see this happening any more as children now seem to lack social skills as they don’t inter-relate much with other children. (Those cool games of yesteryear)

Play in the past was not taken seriously as parents rarely reflected on the EQ benefits of cajoling, bantering, arguing or even quarrelling that took place children. But the growing addiction of children to inanimate objects presents little opportunities for them to pick up these street smart skills:

Through play they learn and practise many basic social skills, develop a sense of self, learn how to make friends, how to tell the truth and when not to tell the truth… While we live in a digital age, and the Internet and social media are part of our children’s life, the irony is that interacting excessively on social media is preventing our children from actually socialising. (Angry Birds? Give me hantam bola).

Time to revive Police and Thief? Not a bad idea. After all, all angry bird and no play makes Ali a dull boy.

Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman
Senior Librarian
National Library (Heritage)

1 Comment

  1. Hi,

    Ass Wr Wb

    I am working on a project research about traditional games, how can I contact you?
    if you see this message please write me an email

    Hopefully we can catch up and talk soon, thanks

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