It’s been more than 40 years since Kay Vasey’s parents met and fell in love. Deborah Goldman spoke to Kay, who recently returned to Singapore to tread the streets of Tiong Bahru where her parents once courted.
In 1967, Kay’s Singaporean mother, Diana (Tan Poh Choo), met an Englishman named Gordon Vasey, who was at that time a Chief Petty Officer in the British Navy. After attending many tea dances together, they fell in love and in 1969 they were married. In 1978, Gordon took a job fixing helicopters for the Brunei Navy, and Kay was born not long after her parents relocated to Borneo.
For the first ten years of her life, the thick jungles of Borneo served as her playground. Her childhood adventures remain a pleasant memory to this day. “The Gurkhas used to let my brother and me accompany them on their treks,” she says. “I remember hacking our way through the jungle, which was great fun.”
As Kay grew older, she started getting itchy feet. “Brunei was a wonderful place to grow up, but I was also desperate to travel the world,” she recollects. And travel she did.
The family moved to England when Kay was 10, and she then went on to study law at the University of Barcelona. She also spent a year in Tokyo, but the travel bug hadn’t yet finished with her yet, and earlier this year, at age 29, Kay moved to Singapore with her fiancé, Dash. She now works as an in-house lawyer for an aviation company and looks forward to going into the office every day.
“I used to visit Singapore frequently with my family, but around the age of 14 I stopped going with them. I felt that the time was right to reconnect with my roots,” says Kay, adding that the gloom of London was another reason for the move. “There was no life in the London office where I was working. Everything seemed grey: the buildings, the weather, even some of the people!”
Kay’s parents now live in Portsmouth, England, but she still has relatives in Singapore, including her grandfather, who lives just around the corner from her Tiong Bahru apartment.
“My grandfather has some amazing and often horrifying tales of the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II,” she says. “He once recounted a harrowing story where he and a group of other Singaporeans were made to line up on the side of the street. The Japanese then identified the ’intellectuals’ in the group, took them to one side, and shot them. Luckily,” Kay adds, “my grandfather was a tradesman back then, and therefore wasn’t deemed a threat. We’re thankful he survived.”
An Oldie But a Goodie
Before coming to Singapore, Kay had put a great deal of time and effort into renovating her London home, and had no inclination to start over again when she arrived here. She wanted to rent a place that was ready to live in. She and Dash were shown everything, from swanky new condos with hot-tubs on the roof to old crumbling apartments with shabby furniture. Nothing appealed. Eventually they were introduced to property agent Jacinta Chadwick, who took them to the 1930s apartment block in Tiong Bahru.
“This was one of the first housing blocks to be erected in Singapore,” says Kay. In fact, the Tiong Bahru Housing Estate was the very first project undertaken by the government in a scheme that would eventually replace all of the old kampungs with mass public housing.
The apartment’s interior belies its age. Her Singaporean landlord – and interior designer – Eugene Chan is to thank for the modern overhaul. The antiquated floor-tiles have been replaced with smooth teak floorboards, and what started out as a cramped three-bedroom apartment is now a spacious one-bedroom oasis in the heart of old Singapore.
In contrast to the contemporary interior, the back staircase serves as a reminder of the original Art Deco architecture. These iconic common areas were built to either a square or spiral design, and the square staircase that links Kay’s apartment to her neighbours’ looks out onto the spiral staircases of the adjacent blocks.
Up and Coming
It wasn’t simply the apartment that Kay fell in love with. The area itself holds a fascinating appeal for her. “This is where my roots are. It’s an incredible feeling knowing that my parents once traversed these very same streets,” she says. According to Kay, the wet markets, family-run businesses and hawker stalls, combined with the comforts of modern-day living, are luring more foreigners to the area.
Notes from the Designer
Nearly all the furniture, paintings, and wall-hangings were installed by Eugene when he purchased the apartment. “My vision was to create a cosy home with an open concept,” Eugene says, “so I knocked down some of the walls to bring in more light and added natural-looking teak flooring.” He adds that he built the striking circular walls of the shower and the toilet with a material called graniterior – a synthetic textured cement mixture from Japan – and used green and white pebble-stones for the interior.
Though the apartment has an open concept, the bedroom is hidden in a corner to afford some privacy, and Eugene put the study area by the window so that anyone working on a computer there could look outside when their eyes needed a break.
“The Chinese sign on the wall is actually from my grandfather’s provision shop in Chinatown,” Eugene says, “which he owned in the 1950s, before I was even born!”
Kay has injected some of her own Singaporean heritage – and humour – into the space. Taking pride of place on the sofa is an incongruously bright yellow cushion modelled on a packet of Maggie Mee noodles.
Despite being perfectly happy in her new life, Kay says the travel bug remains strong. She is content, however, to remain in Singapore and use it as a base for her travels. “We’ve already booked ten weekends away this year alone, and we don’t even have to take time off work. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of!”
Tiong Bahru Wet Market , for fresh food and a friendly shopping experience
30 Seng Poh Road
Jacinta Chadwik, property agent
(+65) 9069 9870
Alvin Yeo , property agent
(+65) 9100 0001
Eugene Tan , Wall2wall
(+65) 6224 2245
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