Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Built places, social spaces

Panorama view of  some Home Island houses

Sedentary human societies build permanent structures to reside in. How do these structures affect social life and vice-versa? Let's consider the Cocos Malays of Home Island.  

Satellite image of Home Island residential area. Taken from a screen grab in Google Maps, the midday sun reflects brightly off the same portions of the roof of each house. On the left is the lagoon, The dark green square to the right is the tennis courts.
Cocos Malays residing on Home Island live in a single residential area. Locals refer the area using the term "kampong". This Malay term, depending on the context, can designate a village or an urban area. Although Google maps labels this as "Bantam Village", I haven't yet seen or heard that term used here. So what it is called? There seems to be little agreement on this issue.* My impression is that people refer to the residential area as "kampong", but without a distinguishing name. 

  Houses 1-24 comprise two shorter rows of houses. In the middle is the cyclone shelter, park, and mosques. "Cyclone Shelter"  is written over houses 30-31 and 54-55. 

There are 102 houses on Home Island, by my estimation. 96 of these are based on the same design and house the bulk of the Cocos Malay population of about 470 people. The 96 houses: 

  • two  short rows of houses nearer and parallel to the foreshore (1-24 ), 
  • four houses south of the mosque (25-28), 
  • three longer rows (29-96). 

The remaining six houses are unique.** 

Construction of these 96 houses began in 1985 and was completed in 1995 (see Blog "Homes in History") . Some accommodate only a couple or, indeed, are currently empty. The upshot is that 2-3 generations of one family often reside in a single house. An exceptional house has 10 residents and 4 generations. But an older couple with their daughter and her husband and then their grand-children could be considered typical.

Front view of house

Legally, local residents do not own the houses; but rather lease them long-term or rent short-term from the local government (the 'Shire'). I lived in one of these houses with Monika and the kids for 11 days in 2011 and one month in 2014 and really like the design--it felt homely and simple to me. But how have the Cocos Malay people lived in them?

Side view of  house. At the far left is the original house front. The satellite dish and water tank are beside the kitchen and ablution block respectively. Silver car and two four-wheelers are parked facing the rooms. The boat is next to the cooking area. The shed out the back is for wood?
The back of the house, usually called "luar" (which means "outside"), according to the general patter, is usually the place of cooking, eating, and socializing. These back spaces are connected to each other through walkways. Access to the front is limited. There are exceptions, but in the following I will try to explain this general pattern.

Front and back

Plan for houses

To start with, let's take a walk through the house. From the road out the front, we cross an open area, then reach the patio. Through the front door (visible on the left of the above plan), we enter the "Sitting Room". One door opens into "Room 1" another into the "Kitchen". Walking through the kitchen, we enter the long back "Verandah" area. The doors to Rooms 2 and 3 are on our left, while the Ablution Block is on our right. The number of rooms built depended on the needs of the families when they moved in.

Over the years, almost all families have extended on the basic plan. The back "Verandah" areas of various houses are in various stages of being enclosed. Larger extensions, sometimes even two story, lavish extensions, are often built (see my Blog "Laying some foundations" for an example). Sometimes it's younger generations and sometimes older generations who live in the front; I haven't been able to detect if there's pattern. Either way, after extensions are completed original house often appears as an old appendage to a large living space out the back. 

Architecturally it seems back-to-front, but, that is only if we assume that the front should be open and the back closed. If the back from should be open, then from a social perspective, it is entirely the right way around.

Original house with three bedrooms. Behind this is a two-story extension. Further back is lively and open kitchen eating area.

 The original house has limited use for social interaction. Around sunset and into the night you can sometimes see locals sitting on the front patio. I have seen the "Sitting Room" used as a TV room and as a place to pray. And on one occasion, I saw someone, appearing to be in a rush to deliver a document, visit my neighbour's house using the front door. Generally, people don't use the front door.

This is indicated by footwear. Before  entering the house, custom dictates one most remove footwearLittle footwear can be found at the front of the house. Most is at the back. Again, indicating the importance of the back part of the house

...and shoes are piled at the back door

Front view of house. The front is roped off...

Indeed, some front areas seem to have been effectively roped off. Granted, this protects the lawn. But it also encourages  people to go around, by the side, to  the back.  

Generally, movement from front-back is impeded.  Granted, we can see right through the front door to the light from the veranda out the back in the image "front view of the house". However, the  front  lawn is roped off as if often the case. The footwear etiquette mentioned above also hinders free front-to-back movement. 

It all looks very clear on the map with house numbers. However, it was only when I saw this map that I could make sense of my experience of houses. Prior to that, I had mostly experience houses by entering from the back; and I hadn’t connected the backs of the houses with the fronts. I have never been to the front of some of my friend's houses; most probably because that is where their elderly parents live. So it might be hard to believe, but I thought the house fronts were separate.

...people eat and watch TV in the open area out the back
View across the patio, meanwhile...

The back is where I have experienced the warmth of Cocos Malay hospitality. It is where more of the cooking, eating and socialising occurs. In the photo to the left, the family preparing for the wedding are busy eating and watching TV. In terms of the original architectural design, the Cocos Malays have reversed the design. The back is the focus of household social life.

Inside and Outside

Now to complicate it just a little. The "back" part of the house, as I have called, seems to be more commonly referred to as "outside" (luar). This seems to imply that the front part is "inside", but I'll need more fieldwork before I can comment on that. If, however, this does turn out to be the case, it might indicate a connection with notions of the lagoon (referred to as "dalam") and surrounding ocean. (referred to as "luar")

Side to side

From Nek Sofia's porch (house number 4) to the neigbor's porch (house number 3)

House number 5,6 and 7 along the foreshore and their different colored porch pillars

Our children walking from the neighbour's kitchen into Nek Sofia's backyars

Social life also occurs along another important dynamic--side-to-side. First as we noted elsewhere:
Even if family members do not live under the same roof, they tend to live close by. The village is less than 500m wide at its broadest point and yet related family members often live in very close proximity. One turn of phrase an informant used to describe this kind of arrangement was living belakang kebun (‘on the other side of the yard’).
Connection is facilitated by the openness of the backs of houses. Fences, of sorts are built in the front of house, as in the photographs above. However, between the houses the connection is often less impeded than the front. Smoke, smells, sounds, and people drift from one house to another. People will traverse three or four houses just going through the backs of neighbouring houses. This is not just limited to family--all neighbours seem quite closely connected. While Nek Sofia was cutting fish, Moni thought she was talking to herself. But it turned out, she was talking to her sister-in-law in the adjoining property. While the front might be fenced off, sides often are not.

Nek Sofia pointing towards her neighbour and sister in law's kitchen at the back of the house  (where the smoke is rising)

Cocos Malays sometimes facilitate sideways movement. As noted above, ropes and footwear etiquette impede back to front movement. By contrast, I have not come across deliberate attempts to prevent sideways movements (such as, for example, the construction of a fence). Indeed, sideways movement can be facilitated by the construction of paths between the backs of adjoining houses. 
Trees and shrubs make a kind of arch over a concrete path
 between Nek Sofia's house and their relative's.

Space and Sociality

Rungus Longhouse
This makes an interesting point of comparison with the longhouses of Malaysia. I grabbed this nice image on the left from a Malaysian doctor's website

In "Space and sociality in a Dayak longhouse", Christine Helliwell describes her experience of living in a longhouse. Each section of a longhouse is inhabited by different families. All are connected through light, smell and sounds. If you are quiet, others in the longhouse will call out after you. Social life is made possible through this continuing contact.

She also evokes the way space works in a great online book:
 I could not understand why my hostess was constantly engaged in talk with no one. She would give long descriptions of things that had happened to her during the day, of work she had to do, of the state of her feelings and so on, all the while standing or working alone in her longhouse apartment... I came to realize that the woman’s apparent monologues always had an audience, and that they were a way of affirming and recreating the ties across apartments that made her a part of the longhouse as a whole rather than a member of an isolated household. In addition, I recognized with time that she was almost certainly responding to questions floating across apartment partitions that I, still bewildered and overwhelmed by the cacophony of sound that characterizes longhouse life, was unable to distinguish.
Eventually I too came to be able to separate out the distant strands that were individual voices, which wove together magically in the air and flowed through the spaces of separate apartments. These were never raised as the dialogue moved through four or even five partitions, but their very mutedness reinforced the sense of intimacy, of membership in a private, privileged world. Such conversations were to be taken up at will and put down again according to the demands of work or sleepiness: never forced, never demanding participation, but always gentle, generous in their reminder of a companionship constantly at hand....
Not only sound but light as well flows from one apartment to another — particularly at night, when the longhouse is demarcated against the surrounding blackness by the tiny lights glowing up and down its length. In explaining why they sow the seeds of a plant bearing red flowers along with their rice seed, Gerai Dayaks told me that once in bloom, the flowers serve as ‘lights’ or ‘fires’ for the growing rice: ‘Just as human beings in the longhouse at night like to see many lights around them and so know that they have many companions, in the same way the rice sees the flowers at night and does not feel lonely’. At night in the longhouse one is aware of the presence of companions by the glow of their lights and their hearths. If a light is not showing in any apartment, its absence is an immediate source of concern and investigation. 
One day, I'd like to write something as profound and beautiful as this. But I wonder, how does moving out of long houses into Western-style houses affect the social life of a community on Borneo? I'll return to Home Island and take a look at what a different approach can tell us about the homes.

Structure and social life

I'm going to use a structural approach. Structuralism in anthropology focuses on the role of structures in human culture and society. Structures take different forms. They can be:
  1. infrastructure--roads, houses, harbours, printing press, the internet etc.. 
  2. economic--gift-giving and capitalism etc.. 
  3. social--caste, class, gender, family etc.
  4. thought--grammar, monotheism, nationalism, laws etc.
Structure is essential for human life, yet it restricts our lives. Imagine we didn't drive on one side of the road but drove wherever and however we wanted. Traffic would be chaos and we could not safely get anywhere. Structure provides us paths and roads in life. Nevertheless, we resent the structures for limiting us; can't live with them, can't live without them, it seems.

The Home Island houses homes are structured along two axes: front-back and side-to-side. The front to back is emphasised through the design of houses: a bold patio and "Sitting Rooms" subsides in the Verandah. Extensions head backward. On the other hand, the back is the focal point for social life. The back may even overshadow the front. The other axis is the side-to-side. This is emphasised through the fenced-off front of some houses and the ease of access with neighbours in most.

It should be noted that the house of the old "king" of Cocos, the last of the dynasty who had ruled the Cocos Malays, was built on a cross design, nevertheless the building seems open to all directions, without a clear sense of front and back.

Oceania House

It's a bit of a leap for me to assert this, but one could speculate that it was necessary (on an unconscious structural level) merely to distinguish from the 'ruled', whose social life is structured along axes.

We anthropologists have applied ourselves, in recent decades, to understanding to what extent we can act independently of structures (that is, act as "agents") or not. This has been somewhat ill-advised, seeing as philosophers have been struggling with the more general question of the possibility of free will for over two millennia and have not come up with anything conclusive. Undeterred, we have persisted with our own rather complicated riddle of the Sphinx, which will probably end up eating us too. 

Nevertheless, I wonder how the structure of the houses shapes social life? And, to what extent is social life independent of the housing structures? Certainly, the way people have extended their houses seems to indicate some acting outside the structures (that is as "agents")--but this is debatable. My colleague Paul Thomas at Monash wrote to me:
Your description suggests some effort to remodel through the act of living in the space, a cultural shepherding of people around the house effectively subverting the original design.
Because of this, he thinks that front-back might be inadequate descriptions. And then, as he suggests, we need to know about the original plan. Was it created by a public servant on the mainland? Was there any input from local residents about the design?

I finish with more questions than answers. I thought this would be an easy blog to write, but it's been the hardest. This indicates to me, there's a lot more to be said on the interaction of social life and built spaces on Home Island.

* Here are some samples of conversations (from memory) with people aged in their 50s and above. I didn't want to use the term "kampong" or "village", but all the other terms I could think of seemed inappropriate. So here we go, cue annoying anthropologist:
Me: What do you call the kampong here?
MA: Home Island.
Me: No, not the island, I mean just the kampong.
MA: the kampong
Me: Bapak panggil kampong ini kampong apa?  (Father, what do you call the kampong here?)
NT: [pauses asks friend]
Friend: tak ada. (there's no name)
Me: Nek, orang sini panggil daerah ini apa? (Grandpa, what do the people here call this area?)
NM: Kampung Kankong. (Kampung Kangkong)
Me: Kampung apa? (Kampung what?)
NM: Ya Kampung Kangkong; itu kan nama jalannya. (Kampung Kangkong, that's the name of the road [which NM's house is located on--this implies just the area around the road])
Me: Ya tapi apa nama semua rumah di sini dari 1 sampai 100, apa namanya kampung ini? (yeah but what's the name of all the houses from 1 to 100, what's the name of this kampung?)
NM: Ya Kampung Kangkong (Yeah Kampung Kangkong) 
Me: What's the name of this village?
NS: [pause] "Kampong Home Island".
Me: And what do you call it in Malay?
NS: "Kampong Pulu Selma". 
But then the name of the island itself is open to interpretation:

According to this sign "Pulu Kelapa" is the name of the island

This seems to confirm my impression that there is no widespread term for the residential area.

I am also a little confused about the meaning of "kampong". Nek Mimi, and elderly man, seemed to use the work kampong in contrast to hutan (jungle), such that any cleared area, with or without houses, was called kampong.

** The unique houses are as follows:

  • 97-98 are the nurses' accommodation. 
  • 99 is a uniquely designed house. 
  • The lot where I am staying  comprises two houses: Pak Emma's family and the tourist accommodation "Ocean Villa". I think it is "100". 
  • Above us are 2 newer houses on the un-numbered lots in the sketch.
  • "Oceania House" the former residence of the Clunies Ross dynasty, now owned by an Australian man who is busy restoring it.
  • The doctor's accommodation.

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