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Curator to a cultural treasure trove
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Kampung Ayer is one of our nation’s best ‘living’ examples of history and culture rolled into one, being a traditional home setting back in the day prior to an exodus to land. A great many citizens, and some permanent residents too, can trace their ancestry to residents of Brunei’s Venice of the East. With the physical location being a still-standing physical testament to history, it is not a stretch of the imagination to consider what artefacts, antiques and heritage lie here.

One such residence, the ‘Mahligai Suhaimi’ is a traditional example of Bruneian craftsmanship and a mini museum in its own right, with tourists occasionally making an appearance in their quest to learn more about our culture. Possessing hints of English, French, Italian and Austrian influences, in the form of expertly cut glass and crystal furnishings, such as candelabras. There are also an abundance of gold-leafed paraphernalia decorating the interior. Originally built in the 1950’s and based on the trends of that time, restyling the interior was not too difficult.

The home’s main hall was converted into an exhibition room displaying items dating back to the 1920s, with a spattering of indoor greenery. One of the centrepieces is the violin of Pengiran Haji Ibrahim, who used it to play Brunei’s national anthem for the first time in 1952. Connecting to a living room with bedrooms lined up on its sides, a strass crystal chandelier hangs from a ceiling coiffured with Italian, French and German fabrics. Designed as a quilt-work craft form called ‘Badal-Badal’, the space is also dotted with paintings of well-known personas on the global stage as well as family pictures.

The bed rooms are rich with character and vibrancy, coming in hues of white, red and blue, and packed with accessories and furniture imported from abroad born from an interest in European interior design styles. A section of wall in a wide hallway converted into a resting and dining area displays an array of traditionally-crafted baskets that were made 70 years ago.

Incorporating ideas gained from observations made during travels abroad, the homeowner aimed to create the sensation of showering within a natural setting. Faux plants dot the space, while black and white pebbles poured across the floor, and pandan leaves used for aromatic purposes contribute to the ambience.

A second residence that goes by the title ‘The Mingai Zari’, and was built 136 years ago, is home to a selection of items dating back to the 14th-Century. After the last occupant left the home, it has continued to be maintained and currently possesses a style reminiscent of Brunei in the 1700s. Evidence of the Temanggung clan that called this place home is evident courtesy of the prominent use of their colour – red. From prominent items such as the ‘Mingsun’ and the ‘Gata’, to other major household items, red has been the order of the day for a long time, complemented with touches of gold.

Smaller in stature than Mahligai Suhaimi; porcelains, fine stitched-panels, artisan metalwork and more are scattered throughout the 4-bedroom home that also has specialty-areas including a music room, a small library, and a space with a cloth weaving loom.

This interior and its accumulation of tangible history tells an ancient story of its own, regarding the extent of the Sultanate’s influence and economic power, which had a lot to do with its geographical positioning within the Southeast Asian region. Imported items serving a domestic purpose hailed from Europe, Japan, India, Java and China. Items from porcelain vases and finely-crafted woodwork to exotic jewels and deadly weaponry, make up just some of the old clan’s collection.

An interesting act of fusion involves an iron bed imported from Wolverhampton in England. Made in 1850 and still intact and in decent condition, the bed has been dressed in a local bridal fashion – fully decked with beads, silk stitching and metal sequins. In opposition to a mixture of East meets West, the home’s kitchen has been preserved in the exact style that was preferred by the family occupants at that time – clay cooking pots and copper utensils over a ceramic tripod.

Suffice it to say that both these homes in the Water Village are a reminder of our history and accomplishments, as well as an indicator of just how far Brunei Darussalam has travelled on its path to the modern day we all live in. As long as we all remember where we came from and cherish the physical remnants of a time long past, then the nation’s journey toward a future will always be culturally rich.

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