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Readers Homes

Rebecca Bisset speaks with Gary and Ellen Darwin about their Seletar home in Singapore


This is the second in our series of three interviews with expats who were brought up here, and are now bringing up their own children in one of Singapore’s colonial era black-and-white conservation houses.

Gary Darwin’s father moved to Singapore in the mid 1950s. He worked for the beverage company Frazer and Neave, now known as F&N. (When it was founded back in 1883, it was called The Singapore and Straits Aerated Water Company!)

F&N owned a group of black-and-whites on Holland Park: two Art Deco-style houses on top of a hill, and four lower down in an older style with rounded arches.  Gary’s dad was alone at the start, living in one of the lower bungalows. But then, while on annual home leave to Yorkshire, he met and got engaged to the future Mrs Darwin.  Home leave was only three weeks long, so this was an impressive feat!

Once married, the couple moved into one of the houses on top of the hill.  It was set in a huge garden; since then, four bungalows have been built in that space.

School Days

Gary was born at Gleneagles, the main hospital at the time, and he has fond memories of his first school, Raeburn Park.  It used to be the preschool for Tanglin Trust, but the original building was torn down and now it’s all in one. As Tanglin was purely a junior school, he then went on to United World College (now UWCSEA) for his senior schooling. 

UWC was one of the first schools in the world to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB). Gary remembers it being a lot of work compared to O Levels, but thinks that it was probably nowhere near as tough as it is now. After that, he went to the University of Surrey, where he was to meet Norwegian Ellen, his future wife.

Socialising and Shopping

Growing up in Singapore was very different then, he says.  Most of the social life revolved around the clubs, and his family belonged to both the Tanglin Club and the Island Club.  His parents also entertained at home, and he remembers that these parties were a real mix of Singaporeans and other nationalities.

His dad had an old boat called Kirsty that was moored at a marina on the west coast – the West Coast Highway now runs through where it used to be.  Just a ten-minute ride would bring them to coral reefs where they could snorkel.  They would anchor off a spot they called Sandy Island and go ashore for a picnic.

Gary’s dad, who died last year, was also very involved in the Scout movement.  He remembers going camping around Singapore, at places that seemed very isolated.  Many of the expats in those days, he says, lived in the Holland Road area; everywhere else seemed like miles away. 

Quite regularly, they would drive up to Malaysia for holidays. Shah’s beach resort just north of Malacca was a real treat, and on the east coast they would stay around Kuantan. “I remember Dad telling us to lock the doors during one stretch of the car journey, as there were still Communists living in the jungle.”

There and Back

After university, Gary stayed on in the UK for a year while Ellen finished her degree; she was a year behind him. In 1991, they both came back to Singapore and lived with his parents for two years before buying a walk-up apartment in Gilstead Road, Novena, which they still own.

Ellen tried to get a job, but it took her a long time to find someone who would give her an employment pass, as they weren’t married yet and she was on an extended social visit pass.  Eventually, the Four Seasons hotel gave her a role in operations and later in sales and marketing She later became a PR (Permanent Resident) and now works in real estate. Gary, who has worked primarily at UOB, had to apply twice before he got his PR – and he was born here!

Even in the early 90s, things were very different from how they are now. The best restaurants were in the big hotels, says Ellen, who remembers the Marco Polo as a regular hangout. (An apartment block is now in its place.) She recalls lots of dark and dingy places, such as the Tavern (which served great chicken à la king), and when a French restaurant opened in Holland Village everyone was wowed.

Seletar Story

Ellen was keen on moving to Seletar, where some old UWC school friends of Gary’s lived. Next door to them was a corner house on a huge plot of land. They didn’t think the long-term resident would ever move, but Ellen wouldn’t give up hope, and her positive thinking paid off when they had a call to say he was leaving.

The couple’s daughter, Thea, was born at Mount Elizabeth Hospital and was six when they moved to Seletar, where they spent four and a half happy years. Theirs was one of the first houses to be demolished to make way for the new Aerospace Park. While waiting for another home, they took a Jurong penthouse on a short-term lease, and when other houses came up for bidding at Seletar they decided to give it a second shot.

Since moving into their new Seletar home, Gary has bought a couple of gardening books and became an ardent gardener. “We hardly go out to restaurants as we are so happy at home. We have our good friends nearby, and I love cooking,” says Gary. “We do like Picotin’s, however, because they change the menus for variety, and are also happy to listen if something doesn’t work.” Another favourite of theirs is Poison Ivy, the organic restaurant up at Kranji. Ellen spends time at the Swiss Club, too, where Thea has lessons in swimming, tennis and other activities.

I ask Gary and Ellen whether they feel that Singapore is home. “If we can continue to  live like this,” replies Gary, “then it is. But the rest of Singapore is getting so busy that I’m not sure whether this will be home forever.”  Ellen still likes the feel of KL and has good friends there; but they both hope that this house that they have spent so much time and love on will remain their home for the foreseeable future.

Visit our Online Magazine for photos of Gary and Ellen’s house here.