After living on four continents, ISABEL PALMER and husband Sean became Singapore expats. A stroke of good luck led them to renting a Joo Chiat shophouse – and they’re loving it!
Tell us about your journey to being Singapore expats.
My husband and I both grew up in families that blended customs, cultures and languages – he’s from the UK and the US, I’m from Germany, France and the Philippines. Between us, we grew up on two continents and have lived on four, and we speak five languages (not all of them fluently, of course…). Because of this, we both grew up with a sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere all at once, which really just keeps reminding us how important it is to keep reconnecting with our heritage – and also to stay curious about discovering new places and meeting new people.
I moved to Singapore with my husband and two children about a year ago, after living in Tokyo for nearly six years. Before that, a combination of work and family had us living in New York City, Doha and Paris for several years at a time.
What’s interesting about Singapore is that, of all the places we’ve lived, it’s the first place where I’m also often asked “What is your heritage?” and not “Where are you from?” For me, personally, this is a much easier question to answer. More broadly, the fact that this question is asked here so easily and naturally is testament to the history and diversity of Singapore.
When you arrived here, what areas did you look at to live? How did you end up in this shophouse?
We came here with a very open mind and looked at every type of rental available. We started zeroing in on the East Coast quite early in our search because it’s a convenient distance from our children’s school. The more we looked here, the more we liked the green and outdoor spaces along the beachfront, and the lively, charming mix of local and international restaurants and shops just a few steps away.
Our son is seven and our daughter five, so space was our main priority. And since my husband and I have both lived in so many different places, we wanted our home here to give us a strong sense of place.
Heritage housing was a natural fit, but it also seemed a long shot at the time. It was through sheer luck and determination that we stumbled into the shophouse we’re renting now. We originally inquired about the listing next door and were referred to our landlords before they even listed their property.
What are you enjoying about Joo Chiat?
As we explore and get to know the Katong/Joo Chiat neighbourhood, we continue to be delighted by how truly diverse the shops and eateries here are. Within just a few minutes by bicycle, you’ll find Joo Chiat Caphé, where the otah bahn mi is a delicious mix of local and Vietnamese, Ginkakuji Onishi, a Japanese specialty grocer, Baggie’s, a South African butcher with the best meats for a braai, Kim Choo Kueh’s original outlet, and Haig Road Putu Piring, who many will recognise from Netflix’s Street Food: Asia.
Living next to each other in rows of shophouses also really encourages us to get to know our neighbours – such an open, welcoming mix of people with such interesting and international stories, experiences and careers.
The covered walkways in front of our homes are shared, and we often find ourselves chatting over coffee or G&Ts after watering the frangipani, bougainvillea and lemon trees we’re growing.
What were the first things you bought when you got here?
We moved here with all the furniture, mementos, decorative knick-knacks and family heirlooms we’d accumulated over the years, so we actually did the opposite when we arrived: we sold a lot of things on Carousell.
Of course, there are online marketplaces everywhere, but Carousell in Singapore is one of the most comprehensive, reliable and easy to use of all the cities I’ve lived in!
Once I started looking for little local treasures to decorate our home, it’s also through Carousell that I came across one of my favourites: Wee’s Collection at 512 Changi Road. David has sold me lovely Peranakan woven baskets and vintage Shanghainese ad posters. You can book ahead with him for a tour of his collection of Singaporean collectibles, most of which are for sale.
What are a few of your best buys as far as furniture or home décor goes?
We always try to invest in meaningful art that ties us to the place we’re living in or the people we love. My uncle, Nolet Soliven, is a Filipino artist who has exhibited at Art Forum here in Singapore. Several of his pieces are scattered all over our home, and one of his larger, deeply layered abstract works has found its perfect place in our living room. We were also recently introduced through friends to Sue Grey, an artist working here in Singapore. She just finished exhibiting her oil renditions of iconic bottled products at Art Porters, another gallery we enjoy frequenting.
Another of my absolute favourite things to buy for every home is plants. The gardeners at our local Song Lang Garden Centre are so knowledgeable and helpful – I’m pretty sure they’ve delivered, planted, re-potted and rescued plants from pests at every home along our road!
Got any good advice for new Singapore expats?
Even amidst the stress and hassle of a move, make time to just take things in. Pick a place that’s a bit outside your comfort zone, and talk to the people who are helping you. Also, because it’s Singapore, taste all the food. Be sure to join a long queue and order whatever the person in front of you ordered. It will always be delicious!
Tell us a bit about some project or hobby you’ve pursued since arriving.
Our children’s school here, The Winstedt School, has been wonderful. Their approach pioneers integrated, comprehensive learning support that truly caters to every child learning differently. The teachers and staff are experienced and expertly trained, and the school community very welcoming and engaged. Over the course of this last year, the school has taught our children and us so much through its progressive approaches to learning that include social-emotional learning (SEL) and inter-personal communication (IPC). And the Parent League I’ve been a part of has given me an immediate network of supportive, caring and fun friends.
Name three of your best regional holidays and why they’re special.
Georgetown in Penang, for the history and heritage that’s so closely connected to that of Singapore. Komodo Island in Indonesia, to watch our children’s eyes go wide in wonder. And Camiguin island in the Philippines, for its sheer beauty and also our lovely hosts, the Corrales, who are long-time family friends with a deep historic connection to the island.
What about three destinations still on your bucket list?
One would be a Mekong River Cruise. Also, when we finally manage our first family trip to India, high on our list would be Jaipur. And, without any consideration at all to cost, logistics, current affairs or personal schedules, let’s pick the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Vladivostok, preferably in the depths of winter. (It’s so hot in Singapore that we actually dream of Siberian winters!)
Recommendations for Singapore expats
Schools & Kids’ Activities
Doctors & Dentists
Hair & Beauty
Wine & Dine
The Intan | the-intan.com
Forma | formasg.com
Asador Singapore | asadorsingapore.com
King’s Cart Coffee | kingscartcoffee.com
Chye Seng Huat Hardware cshhcoffee.com
Cake in a Cup instagram.com/cakeinacup7
Crane (above Café Natsu) wearecrane.com
Singapore Airlines | singaporeair.com
Things to Do in Singapore
Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s International Piano Festival | sso.org.sg
Free lunchtime concerts at the Asian Civilisations Museum | nhb.gov.sg/acm
An Evening with Nikki Müller at Cool Cats coolcats.sg
This article on this Joo Chiat shophouse appeared in the August 2023 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe so you never miss a copy!
Also, to find out how to make the most of being Singapore expats, read our latest City Guide here for free!