October – Kampong Coconuts

Fujairah Wadi (small) 34 x 45cm oil on canvas Niamh Cunningham 2007



This month’s story comes from my old friend Trebas.  We used to be neighbours over 15 years ago when living in Dubai. I match a painting of a wadi in the emirate of Fujairah from those days living in the UAE with her evocative childhood memories of her grandfather’s coconut farm in Singapore.


Kampong  Coconuts


My earliest memories of trees are of coconut trees. I grew up in a kampong which was a rural village. My grandfather owned lands where coconut trees grew. I remembered workers going around with long tools and a monkey to harvest the fruits. It was fascinating to watch humans & animal working in tandem together. Till today, I am still amazed that not once were they hit by falling coconuts! Before being sold or consumed these harvested fruits became children’s toys. I remember playing among the small mountains of coconuts with my siblings & cousins, effortlessly climbing up and down and handling the fruits with agility and balance that only children have. No worries about harmful sunrays or the coconuts falling on our slipper clad feet! My favourite part was being allowed to enjoy the fresh fruit and juice. Although the juice was usually warm it was surprisingly refreshing.

Ahh. I didn’t appreciate such simple life luxury till we moved away. Unlike the children, the womenfolk in the family has a less carefree relationship with the husks of the fruit. Yes, the tough fibers of a coconut husk are great for scrubbing away grime but they made such a mess. The husks used to provide fuel for cooking produced so much smoke & soot. I can still recall my exhausted mother wiping soot from her face!

Was it the ignorance of a child and the simple acceptance of way of life, neither had I questioned the ethical issue of coconuts being harvested by animals. The monkey had been tethered to the handler, yet they had always looked so happy. I had never once witnessed an abuse. However, I am now glad to see and support companies doing away with monkey labour in their harvesting.


Trebas Kwek, is a chartered accountant in Singapore

Kampong house in Singapore circa 70’s

Memory Palace of Trees 2020 is socio- ecological art practice which invites your participation to tell a story (or give some kind of information) about trees. It is a social enquiry of how to live better with the planet and with people by simply sharing stories. You are cordially invited to tell me your story of a tree or trees. (email : niamh@niamhcunningham.com) I would love to hear from you. Throughout 2020 a story will be posted with either an artwork already made or perhaps your story will inspire me to make a new work!