The Kampong Affair

Max Tan wants to “rewrite this whole language of the wrap”. In doing so, he brings us back to a 1950s village, complete with scurrying chickens

Considered one of our city’s most forward designers, Max Tan has always taken the path less travelled. For his latest collection, that jalan brings us to Kampong Lorong Buangkok, a traditional Malay-style village that enjoys the reputation as “the last surviving”, situated in not-so-rural-anymore Yio Chu Kang. The video-show (film this month “in compliance with prevailing Safe Management Measures”, we are told) of his latest collection (season unspecified) debuts online today. Since it’s still the month of August; it seems de rigueur that it would appear like a National Day homage to a lost way of life and a rural relic, destined for the National Archives. This is a part of our island that few have ever seen: the home to a reported 28 families who live in one-storey wooden houses with corrugated zinc roofs, on a plot of land the size of three football fields. Kampong Lorong Buangkok is privately-owned by the Sng family, whose patriarch Sng Teow Koon, a TCM seller, bought the 12,248-square-metre verdant expanse in 1956, the year Nicoll Highway and the Merdeka Bridge were officially opened, 40-odd kilometres away to the south. Although long-term evolution (LTE or 4G) cellular signals can be picked up here, the kampong has retained much of its idyllic air, including almost-clichéd, swaying coconut trees.

To be certain that viewers are not taken elsewhere other than the past that Max Tan looks at (or, as he says, “to tell people where I’m from as a designer”), the show is set to music that harks to the early ’60s (a decade before the 38-year-old was born): P Ramlee’s Getaran Jiwa (Soul Vibrations, aka Yearning Heart), made popular in English by the American singer Lobo in Whispers in the Wind. And Ye Feng’s (叶枫 aka Julie Yeh) 神秘女郎 (shenmi nulang or Mysterious Maiden), a song now often associated with compatriot Cai Qin (蔡琴 or Tsai Chin). Both oldies are sung mournfully by the husky-voiced stage actress Zelda Tatiana Ng. The choice of a Malay lagu and a Chinese ge is perhaps deliberate to better reflect the racial mix of this kampong. In Getaran Jiwa, written by Mr Ramlee, with lyrics by Syed Sudarmaji, we hear of the jiwa of possibly a place: “tak mungkin hilang/irama dan lagu/bagaikan kembang/setiasa bermadu (it will never fade/the melody and song/such as a flower/always in bloom)”. Could this koleksi be Mr Tan’s fashion blossoms, redolent of kampong spirit?

Mr Tan, the second-place awardee at the China Fashion Creation Contest in 2010, who ends the online show with a personal plug of his brand, “decided to rewrite this whole language of the wrap, which is really a humble piece of Southeast Asian garment, which is a sarong.” Rewriting seems to be Mr Tan’s present preoccupation. For his spring/summer 2021 collection (called wanita or woman in Malay), it was about “rustic moods re-written with an urban touch”, as well as “structured tailored qualities stripped back and rewritten (yes, sans hyphen) with a looser hand”, as described on his website. This time, the seemingly bold recast “revolves around drapes, around the body—simple folds and tucks,” Mr Tan tells us. Simplicity is, of course, relative. To his fans, his clothes appeal because they are not that simple. And simplicity doesn’t necessarily equate with minimalism, which is often doing away with the superfluous. Mr Tan does not eliminate the unnecessary. Dress over dress, flaps over shoulders, asymmetric drapes on top of more, sleeves too long, and cords that do not function as a fastener—all composited so that the end results appear to be simple. And so that, as Mr Tan declares with delight, “you’ll see a very, very much softer side to what I’ve usually been doing.” He has, of course, put aside easy-to-form fabrics such as neoprene, and has embraced rather enthusiastically more of the pliable, such as polyester jersey and kindred modals, hence the “softer side”, evident since his graduate collection in 2020.

The problem with simplicity is that in its very freedom from anything perceived to be complex, it may expose one’s weaknesses. A straight line, for example, may not be exactly horizontal or, in the case of Mr Tan’s rewriting of the wrap, a neat line. The sarong, in its most elemental form, is a rectangle, joined at the two ends to form a tubular garment. Mr Tan’s approach to design is based on a similarly planar construction. Almost everything comes from flatness—the fabrics hang down (movement allows the skirt to flare or open up, sometimes to drag on the floor), or stretched across the upper chest, straight. A horizontal neckline of a cream column-dress, for example, held up by spaghetti straps, puckers. The plackets of shirts and shirt-dresses, too, gape and won’t sit flat. If these issues are unmissable on video, it would be regrettable when one see them close-up. Designer fashion, if the term is still relevant or revered, deserves better.

“What I really wanted to show,” Mr Tan cajoles, “and to say with the collection from post-pandemic (sic) is to look back at where I’m from and be inspired by where I grew up from, my experiences as a childhood (sic), who I became—how I became a designer, and all these different elements that really made me who I am.” It is not clear how he is connected to the kampong (or if, indeed, he grew up in one since most kampongs in Singapura made way for urbanisation in the ’80s), but situating the adoption of the sarong in kampongs and in Southeast Asia alone negates the other forms, such as the lungi of the Indian subcontinent (also known as the longyi in Myanmar where it is worn by both men and women) and the izaar of the Arabian Peninsular, just to identify two. But what is rather puzzling is the need to drape some pieces from the collection on clothes lines, the way the kampong folks might, if they were drying the day’s laundry. Was this to augment the kampong theme? Or to exoticise what would otherwise just be a bunch of clothes in what’s, foremost, a residential area?

It would be surprising if the ketua kampong (village head) or “the landlord”, as the sole Ng still residing here is called, find this amusing. Not quite cantik, we imagine the respond to be. The models walk in and around the kampong listlessly (the chicken are in better spirit), as if they were paid just to do that; what they wear offer no latitude for understanding the connection between designs conceived in Mr Tan’s studio in McNair Road (quite the heart of our city) and the presentation in a conserved kampong. This is not a soul vibrating; this is without soul. As it is written in Getaran Jiwa, “andainya dipisah/irama dan lagu/lemah tiada berjiwa/hampa (if they should part/the song and the melody/they grow weak and dispirited/and empty)”. Perhaps the same can be said of design and craft, and, just as importantly, fashion and tradition.

Screen grab: Max Tan/AP Media Asia/Vimeo