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Returning to Singapore after 30 years: Expat Katrijn on visiting her childhood home

Having lived in Singapore for a few years as a toddler, Dutchwoman Katrijn De Ronde is back, this time with her husband and daughter. Here, she describes visiting her old house and neighbourhood after 30 years.

After six months in Singapore, I still had not been back to the house in Bukit Timah where I’d spent my toddler years. (Sister F., on the contrary, managed it on the first day of a Singaporean stopover – there is some truth to the statement that less time makes for more efficiency.) So when brother W. and my parents came down to visit the Tamtam household, we all piled into a taxi and drove off in search of the past.

Unfortunately, the taxi driver could not find the spot. “Didn’t it used to be off Sixth Avenue?” asked my mother apologetically. “I think we just passed that.” So my father, who has a built-in GPS system that works across the whole time-space continuum, guided the poor taxi driver back to the right cul-de-sac.

This is where four-year-old me told my surprised father, when he returned home from work to find me walking purposefully down the road, that I was “going travelling”. I had a cardboard suitcase with cookies in it. In my mind, the street had been wide, with tall grass waving slowly in the afternoon breeze. Sort of like a tarmacked road in the middle of an African savannah.

It turns out the reality is much more mundane: a curb, a bit of grass, a few trees, lots of houses, no panoramic views.

In fairness, the lack of streaming sunlight might have something to do with new houses built. When we lived there, it was in a modest white bungalow surrounded by a large garden. But in that formerly wide-open space now stands an imposing three-storey house with a little clock tower blocking the sun from its smidgen of garden. 

Next to our house was The Jungle. I was never ever allowed to walk down that way, because It Was Dangerous. I remember my father once stepping out of the jungle in the dark. It made him seem like Superman.

Unfortunately, this cluster of trees and bushes also did not live up to my expectations, even though there are still snakes (large ones) living there. Those snakes snuck into our house a couple of times and scared the living daylights out of our helper. (I was calmly sitting at the dining room table drawing, making sure my feet didn’t touch the floor and feeling supremely safe on account of having short legs.)

But no longer! Even though we get ants and pigeons in our apartment on the 23rd floor, I am very happy to report that snakes appear to be confined to the ground.

In short: the visit to the old neighbourhood did not trigger a single memory. In fact, I still retain all my original memories, since my brain has not accepted the reality. The Singapore I remember from childhood is not the Singapore my daughter is growing up in today.

We may be repeating history, but we’re living a whole new adventure.

Katrijn chronicles the adventures of her family at singatamtam.blogspot.com .