The shophouses of Joo Chiat and Katong have a long and rich heritage, which is being preserved by their modern-day inhabitants. We’re invited into one that has been meticulously rejuvenated – and we find out why a boy from Yorkshire has chosen to settle in Singapore.
Who lives here: Mike Collins and his three sons who visit often
Time in Singapore: 18 months
Size and type of home: Three-storey, three-bedroom traditional shophouse
Décor style: Colonial elegance
The first thing that strikes me when I meet Mike Collins at his impeccably styled Joo Chiat shophouse is his voice – 30 years after leaving Yorkshire, his lilting accent remains, delivered in a tone that is deep and magnetic. The second thing I notice is his imposing stature.
You can easily see that Mike, as Chairman and CEO of Command Recruitment Group, is used to “commanding” a room. I’m transfixed as he starts to tell me about his expat journey.
“I arrived in Sydney in 1990 at the age of 25. I didn’t have a job and I soon realised my background as an oil and gas engineer wasn’t really a required skill, as they don’t do oil and gas in Sydney!”
After visiting numerous, unhelpful recruiters, Mike took matters into his own hands and started Command so he could help other engineers. Nearly 30 years later, he has offices across Australia, Singapore, Papua New Guinea and soon Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
“A year and a half ago,” Mike tells me, “I realised I needed to get out of Sydney; it was too isolated. I’d always lived in the same area of Tamarama, and each of the six homes I’d been in was within a 500-metre radius of the others. I needed to experience more.”
Lord of the Manor
Mike’s brother was the first to move over to Sydney to join him, then his sister and finally his parents came too. But when all the siblings decided to leave Australia recently, his parents went back to England. “This is what motivated me to go home for the first time since I left. I also wanted to show my eldest son Henry where I was from and where his Granny and Grandad live.”
Was going back home after so many years a shock? “Yes, because I expected everything to have changed. But it hadn’t. My village looked the same. It’s so rural and real Yorkshire people just don’t want to change! The view from the front door was exactly the same. Even the same people were popping by for a cuppa! It was typically cold and wet, but I liked it. Plus, I got to have a decent pint of bitter and a proper pork pie for the first time in 30 years!”
Mike even took Henry to see the home he had grown up in. “He’s only ever lived in Tamarama. So, to see a huge English manor house – with land, stables, a trout lake, market garden, 14 bedrooms, a servants’ wing and a forest that went all the way around – was a whole new world to him! Don’t let that paint a golden spoon image; my parents instilled work ethic, values, principles, honesty in all of their children and we had to stand up for ourselves.”
When Mike made the decision to move to Singapore, he knew he didn’t want to live in an apartment.
As I stepped through the double entry doors, I felt like I was going back in time – back to a time of prosperity, luxury, elegance and a more refined style of living. The interior design of his home is the innovation of Karin Rysgaard from Cocoon Styling, and evokes the Raffles Hotel of the early 1900s.
Dark, rich colonial tones sit perfectly against this 1930s traditional terraced building. “When I met Karin, I had no idea she would be able to create something so perfect for me. I said, ‘you’ve got a clean slate’ . We worked together to understand what the shophouse would feel like. Then I left it up to her. I just wanted to arrive and be amazed. And by god was I; it was incredible! The day I moved in, I arrived with just one suitcase, and I didn’t have to do a thing. The beds were made, there were freshly washed towels and the fridge was even filled with food and, more importantly, champagne! There’s not one thing in this house she chose that I don’t love.”
Being surrounded by antiques when he was growing up, Mike knew he wanted his shophouse to reflect a certain time in Singapore’s history. Even his coffee table is authentic. “It was originally in Raffles!” he proudly tells me.
Building a Business
At its height in 2008, Command had risen to 13 offices and 250 staff across Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore. But then the financial crisis hit and he had to downsize. “That was one of the toughest times I’ve ever had to face in business. Some of the people had been with me for over 10 years.” As I’m learning, Mike always manages to see a lighter side. “Many had even met their partners at work – though I’m a bit disappointed, as not one of them called their child Michael! I still remain good friends with many of the people who have worked with me over the years.”
But he did manage to keep Command going. Mike admits he had always liked visiting the office in Singapore before moving here. “It’s a great easy place to live and work. It’s multicultural, and has some of the best food and restaurants in the region.”
The History of Joo Chiat
These days, Joo Chiat is well known for its Peranakan shophouses and has become a popular foodie destination. The area first made a name for itself during the 19th century when wealthy residents used it as a weekend retreat.
Most of the buildings were built in the 1930s in what is known as the Late Shophouse style. When the Japanese occupied Singapore during the 1940s, the area housed army officers. There are reports that Joo Chiat had a more sullied past – as a housing area for “comfort women” during the occupation.
In 2011, Joo Chiat was named by the National Heritage Board (NHB) and People’s Association (PA) as the first Heritage Town in Singapore, with a view to promoting and retaining the Peranakan culture it proudly champions.
Living in Singapore
Mike is obviously thriving in his new home city. “I love the development that is happening here – more MRT stations mean less cars on the road. And even the ability to ride electric scooters around the place amazes me; it’s nice to see a country with some foresight.”
I ask if he’s happy and settled here. “I’ve really enjoyed my time in Singapore. I’ve met some great people and I’m starting to do some good business.”
Mike then has to rush off to a meeting, so we bid our farewells and I time-travel forward to the present day again.
Haji Tawakal Carpets (“Saeid is such a good salesman, I walked out with seven rugs – I should send my staff there for training!”)
50 Arab Street | 6292 2340
Wine & dine
Rabbit Carrot Gun (“my favourite place in Singapore and the owner Richard Huggins is such a great guy”)
49 East Cast Road
The English House by Marco Pierre White (“fabulous 1920s English décor and music, and a very British menu – the rack of lamb is spectacular”)
28 Mohamed Sultan Road
Spago at Marina Bay Sands
10 Bayfront Avenue
La Brasserie at The Fullerton Bay (“I love a good brunch and this is my favourite”)
80 Collyer Quay
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