In the coming issues, we’re going to be profiling some “old-timers” – or maybe we should say “long-termers”! Basically, we’ll be talking to expats who have lived here for ages! Some went to school here, some have become Singaporeans, and some, like FIONA WALKER, were born here. She is now raising her second-generation expat kids in Singapore.
Fiona left when she was very young. After stints in England, South Africa, Canada and the US, the family returned. A husband and two kids later, she is still loving life in the Little Red Dot.
Hannah Griffiths sat down for a Zoom chat with Fiona to find out what Singapore was like in the 1970s, how it’s changed, and some of her favourite tried-and-tested places.
Your family moved here before you were born – why did they come to Singapore?
Because of my dad’s job. He’d started out as an engineer on ships, and he stayed in shipping. My father had actually lived here for quite a long time – he came here in the late 50s. Then he brought Mum out as a new bride, and I was born here.
Do you have any memories from when you lived in Singapore the first time?
We left when I was two, so not really – just from stories and photos. One story is that we had a Cantonese amah who was very much the boss of the house, so when I first started talking, I learnt Cantonese! My mum said that when our amah was away, I’d have big meltdowns when she couldn’t understand what I was saying – because I only knew the words in Cantonese.
When we left Singapore, we sailed back to England. There were some workmen doing painting and other jobs on the ship and I was able to speak to them in Cantonese! I spent most of that voyage being farmed out to them, to help with my little paintbrush.
Then I was back in England and there were no Chinese people in my world, and I never spoke another word of Cantonese. I lost it all. That’s amazing. It’s a shame that you never got to use those skills again. I was very much a sort of Americanised teenager by the time I came back.
As an expat teenager myself, I’m very curious about what life was like as a child in Singapore at that time. Which school did you go to?
Well, there were only one or two high schools back then. Because we’d come from New York and I had just a couple of years left in the American system, they chose to send me to ISS; my sister went to UWCSEA because she had a few years until her GCSEs.
Are there any places you remember well from when you were a teenager?
Definitely Newton Circus! It makes me smile that my 17-year-old son says he’s meeting up with his friends at Newton Circus – nothing’s changed there in a very long time. When I was a little bit older, then we would go to places like Warehouse, which was a club. We also went water-skiing in Punggol.
What were places like Sentosa and Orchard Road like?
Sentosa wasn’t much of a thing, to be honest. We did go on a school trip there. It was touristy, but it was more for historical value than the resorts and manicured beaches now. For the beach, you’d more often go to the East Coast, or to little islands for water-skiing. As for Orchard Road, it was a lot less built up; but it was still the road with the main shops on it. The popular malls were Centrepoint, Far East Plaza and Scotts.
Why did you decide to move back to Singapore with your family?
The reality is that I really never left! I came back at 15, did high school and left for a little while to study. Then I came back, stayed with my parents because they were here, and I got my job; and I’ve been working for the same company for a long time. My parents retired and left, and I just stayed. Was that because of convenience or a love of Singapore? Both, in that Singapore is my home. It’s the place I know best, and it’s where I have my oldest friends.
Would you call yourself Singaporean?
I don’t when I’m here, because I’ve had so many conversations in taxis and they say, where are you from? And I say, Singapore, and they say, where are you really from? So, if I’m asked where I’m from, I say that my parents are from Scotland. When I’m in the UK or anywhere else and they ask where I’m from, I say that I live in Singapore and I’m from Singapore!
What about your kids? What do you think your kids would say?
I imagine they will do the same. But my children are different from me in that they’ve only lived in one place. My son is 17 and my daughter is 13; by the time I was 17, I had lived all over the world. I was really a third culture kid. They just don’t have the same sort of experience, since they’ve only lived in Singapore. They have family in Scotland, but they live here and my husband’s mother has moved here. So they even have a grandma here.
Is there anything you think you gained from being an expat kid moving around as a child that you wouldn’t have got if you’d just grown up in Scotland?
I think so; definitely. I’m quite adaptable – I’m open to changes or different ways of doing things. I mean, some people move a lot more than I did as a child, but our moves were quite extreme. We went from England to South Africa and then to Canada, and these are huge changes in terms of culture and language, food and weather. So I had to learn how to fit in, in all these different places. I probably also developed the ability to get along with people and understand them quite quickly. I think that’s been an advantage – and it’s something you do see in people who’ve moved around a lot.
What are your plans for the future?
When we finally retire, we’re likely to spend time in Penang, where we have a family home, as well as in Scotland. Ultimately, I think we will want to be near family, so the plan may change if our children settle somewhere else. For now, though, the retirement plan is to balance getting our fix of sunshine and good local food with our family in Scotland.
Speaking of food, you must’ve discovered some amazing spots in your time here. Any recommendations you can give us?
Well, there’s Hua Yu Wee. That’s a seafood restaurant along East Coast Road that I used to go to with my parents. Another family favourite would be Brazil on Sixth Avenue. We love all the PS Cafes, and there’s Tang Tea House on Jalan Kayu that we’ve just discovered. I also really love Carpenter and Cook, the restaurant and bakery near Bukit Timah Hill. There are so many little places like that that are smaller, often run by their owners, and just fabulous!
What about places to take your kids? I know they’re teenagers now, but where would you go with them if you were having a family day?
When they were younger, we spent a huge amount of time at the zoo. In fact, just recently we went again, and it was so nice and quiet that we were there for hours and hours; it was really nice listening to my kids tell all their stories from when they were younger. You don’t know that you’re making memories until you look back! It just made me realise how many fantastic memories my children will have of Singapore.
Where do you go to shop for yourself?
I love some of the more local brands. I love ToBeCalm, and all the scents that they do, and I like Stylemart, which is in Little India. It’s primarily Indian clothes, but they sometimes do things with a bit more Western flair, and they’re just beautiful. I also love Hock Siong, which is a secondhand shop. They get lots of different things in from all over, and sometimes they’re quite old. I love a bargain! I really like HotLotz, which is an auction house. I love to think that something has a history or a story.
Anywhere else you’d recommend to people who’ve just moved here?
What I would say to somebody new here is that you should really explore and get off the beaten track. That even goes for me; I’ve lived in Seletar for about 17 years now, but just recently during COVID I’ve been doing walks with friends at Bukit Timah Hill, and discovering the area around there. I’ve never really known that area, but there are amazing shops, bakeries and restaurants. I think you too often hear only about the glitz and glamour of Sentosa or the shopping around Orchard. But there are great places in neighbourhoods all over Singapore.
- Hua Yu Wee: 462 Upper East Coast Road
- Brazil: 14/16 Sixth Avenue
- PS Cafe: Multiple locations | pscafe.com
- Tang Tea House: 242 Jalan Kayu | tangteahouse.com
- Carpenter and Cook: 19 Lor Kilat, #01-06 | carpenterandcook.com
- ToBeCalm: Department stores across Singapore | tobecalm.com
- Stylemart: 149 Selegie Road | stylemart.com.sg
- Hock Siong: 153 Kampong Ampat, #01-03 Junjie Industrial Building | hocksiong.com.sg
- HotLotz: Cendex Center #01-15, 120 Lower Delta Road | hotlotz.com
This article first appeared in the November 2020 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!