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Growing up in black-and-white house: We chat to a second-generation expat about her experiences of Singapore

Here’s the third in our series of interviews of second-generation expats who lived in one of Singapore’s black-and-white houses when they were children – and  are now bringing up their own children in one of these historic homes from the British colonial era. This is Fiona and Andy’s story.

Fiona’s father, Stuart Walker, was a Scottish marine surveyor who came to live in Singapore in 1961. During his 1966 annual home leave, he met and married Fiona’s mother, Sheila. She had never been outside of the UK, so she must have been a real Braveheart!

Fiona was born in Gleneagles Hospital . When she came home from the hospital, it was to Institution Hill off River Valley Road, in those days a cluster of little black-and-white houses. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to a quaint bungalow on Buckley Road.

For Sheila, it must have taken some getting used to.

“In those days,” says Fiona, “home help in Singapore was dominated by the Cantonese-speaking black-and-white amahs who came over from China. Stuart had already had Ah Song as his housekeeper for years, so for Mum it was a bit like moving in with a stern mother-in-law!  She told me it was hard, because it didn’t feel like her house and Ah Song was very specific about “how Mr Walker liked things done”.  She said there was a very clear hierarchy in the house: Dad, Ah Song, the dog and then her.

 

This went on for a while, but once the ice had been broken they became good friends. “Every year, Ah Song would give Mum egg mooncakes, which she couldn’t stand; and every year she would chop them up and put them down the toilet rather than cause offence.”

 

Childhood Years

When Fiona was two-and-a-half, the family moved to Winchester, England. They made the voyage on the Ben Lomond, a cargo ship which carried just eight passengers. Fiona was kept entertained in a plastic paddling pool, and by speaking Cantonese – which Ah Song had taught her – to all the crew.

They then spent a few years in Durban, South Africa, followed by a spell in Nova Scotia. Going from one extreme to the other, the cold and snow must have been a huge shock.  After that, they lived in New York for a while before returning to Singapore.

Fiona went to the International School Singapore so that she could continue in the American system; apparently, the American School had quite a wild reputation at the time, so her parents didn’t see it as an option. Her younger sister, who was born while they lived in England, went into the IB system at UWC.

At this time, they were living in a lovely black-and-white on Kay Siang Road, fairly central but with all the space and quiet of these colonial houses.

 

Fiona remembers the floods in the Bukit Timah area before the big canals were built. In the monsoon period, she says, you would often have to abandon your taxi at Balmoral Road and wade thigh-deep through water the rest of the way. Her parents recall that, in the 60s, young boys would ferry you about in little boats for a small fee.

Sengkang and Punggol were all rural then, and where the BKE and SLE motorways now run was all just jungle.  Her family spent a lot of time waterskiing at Punggol.

Adult Life

After school, Fiona went to the UK to do a Montessori diploma, and in 1991 she came back to Singapore to start working at the Julia Gabriel Centre, which was in a black-and-white house on Halifax Road. She is still with them.  In time, the Julia Gabriel Centre expanded here to include the Chiltern House preschools, and within the region to Delhi, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai.

Andy Tear came over from the UK in 1999 to work as a drama teacher at Julia Gabriel Centre; he interviewed for the position in London and within ten days he was here. At once stage, it looked as if Fiona would be moving to KL to establish the Julia Gabriel school there, so she temporarily moved in with Andy – who was, at the time, just a friend and colleague. But their relationship developed into marriage and two children, and they never made it to KL!

After four years, Andy joined Centre Stage, where he is now Head of Drama. He regularly acts in local productions, including the recent Shakespeare in the Park: Macbeth with the Singapore Repertory Theatre, and the upcoming Dealer’s Choice by Pangdemonium Productions.  “It has a fantastic script,” says Andy, “and it’s a great company of people.”

Daughter Ruby, who is four years old, goes to Chiltern House and does ballet at Centre Stage. And eight-year-old Finlay, who is at Chatsworth International (Orchard), takes UpBeat drum lessons at Centre Stage and is part of Stage Lights Performance Arts at Julia Gabriel Centre.

Fiona’s parents are happily retired in Penang; they feel that it’s like Singapore was 30 years ago.  Regularly, they come to Singapore to visit the family and catch up with old friends.

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