By: Verne Maree
Three teachers taught Verne Maree a thing or two recently when she visited them in their cheerful, comfortable HDB rental apartments.
Considering the sky-high rentals one pays in Singapore, it’s odd that in my 12 years here it never occurred to me that an expat could happily live in an HDB flat. This despite reading Neil Humphreys’ Notes from an Even Smaller Island, et al; he dwelt in a Toa Payoh two-bedroom for 10 years, and told anyone who would listen how jolly and egalitarian it all was.
Actually visiting and chatting to three expat occupants of two ordinary HDB flats, I have a better idea of what it’s all about. Unlike Neil, they’re not writers, none of them plays football and they’re not from Dagenham; in fact, all three are teachers at the ISS International School Singapore who have found accommodation in HDB blocks located conveniently close to the school.
Drama and Secondary English teacher Jacyntha England is Canadian, but has lived and worked abroad for more than 20 years – in addition to English and French, she speaks both Thai and Russian. She’s been in her two-bedroom flat in Block 33, Telok Blangah Way, for the past five years.
Sandra and Hervé Clark-Guillotel are Canadian and French respectively. She teaches French, and English as a second language; he’s the PT instructor. They’ve been in their Block 109B Depot Road flat for about a year.
“I would really encourage expats to look at the HDB lifestyle; it may not be as luxurious as a condo, but it does hold special benefits.”
What brought you to Singapore?
I left Vancouver in my early 20s to backpack and work around the world for two or three years. Twenty years ago, I took up a volunteer job at Ubon Ratchathani, right on the border of Thailand and Laos. There I learnt the language, got hooked on the idea of living locally and fell in love with teaching.
After that, I spent three years in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania, lived in various parts of Europe and then spent four years in Kazakhstan. That was the most welcoming and hospitable culture I’ve ever lived in, by the way – and the safest.
As for what brought me to Singapore, I heard from a friend here that ISS International School Singapore was looking for staff; so I applied, and that was that! I enjoy the variety of the international teaching lifestyle, where you can take up opportunities as they arise to move on to new worlds and different experiences.
Why an HDB apartment, and why this particular one?
Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always lived the way locals do. One of my priorities in living overseas is to learn and engage with the local culture as much as possible, which is partly why I chose to live in an HDB flat. Also, as a single woman who doesn’t earn a huge expat package, my fixed rental allowance is sufficient to cover this flat but would not be enough for a condo.
I’d heard the stories of how expensive housing was here, so I found an agent before I arrived. She did a fantastic job of researching what was available close to the school, and this was the first place she showed me – on my first day here. The flooring and cupboards had just been done, the place smelt of fresh paint and I like the cool marble under my bare feet. It’s fairly bright, you get a nice cross-draught, and once you turn on a couple of fans it’s not too hot.
It’s ideal for a single person like me: I don’t have to share with anyone, so I have my privacy. But it’s rare to find a single person in these flats; all my neighbours are families.
Best of all is the convenient location. As a drama teacher, I’m very much into the arts, and from here it’s just a 15-minute cab drive to the Esplanade. The only drawback is not having easy access to the MRT.
We hear some horror stories about landlords. How do you get on with yours?
I probably have the best landlady in Singapore; she and I clicked immediately and she even helped me find furniture. I feel I’ve landed in a space where I was meant to be. She’s always been very helpful and attentive to repairs, and when I’m travelling – as I do a few times a year – she comes in once a week to check on the place and bring in my mail. I arrive home to find fresh flowers in a vase on the table, and she has never once raised my $2,000 rent in five years. For Singapore, that’s amazing.
What do you like about your location?
From my kitchen window I look out onto the green of Mount Faber, and in five minutes I can be on the walking trail. What’s more, the school is so close, just a five-minute taxi ride or ten minutes on the bus.
Walking home from school along the Treetop Walk takes about 40 minutes, and I often stop off at one of the markets to pick up something for dinner. Bukit Permai is a famous hawker centre, but my favourite is the one opposite the SAFRA Club building. I like to go to the wet market there on a Saturday morning, and I can get Malay, vegetarian and Thai food, plus local food of all descriptions. The locals know me well by now.
There’s so much on my doorstep – I love the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood, and it’s just a walk away. I love the history of this area as the place where the first Malay rulers lived; there’s a beautiful mosque nearby, and a number of important burial sites. The local culture feels very strong to me; even though it’s no longer a kampong, it has a village feel.
Do you know your neighbours?
I do. On one side are Ming and Fee, a Chinese couple who have two young boys; on the other are Elizabeth and her father. Both of the men are taxi drivers, so they often give me a ride to work in the mornings.
Everyone in the HDB environment is very friendly, and we take good care of one another. There’s no sense that they see me as different or foreign. Whenever we go on holiday, we bring back sweets and souvenirs for one another: last summer, I bought T-shirts for the boys. At Christmas I hang stockings on their doors, and they bring me moon cakes in season.
We live very close to one another, but it’s never noisy and we’re all respectful of one another’s privacy. If the doors are open and people want to chat, that’s what we do; when we want to be alone, that’s OK, too.
I would really encourage expats to look at the HDB lifestyle; it may not be as luxurious as a condo, but it does hold special benefits.
What are you looking forward to?
Five years having passed since the last renovations, they’re doing a whole lot of free upgrading to our apartments in January. My landlady and I sat down together to decide on colours and choose the new front door.
Sandra and Hervé Clark-Guillotel
Canadian and French
“French remains important to us – my husband’s French, and I teach the language”
Block 109B in Depot Road has a spacious feeling, with a multi-storey parkade next door and a neat row of businesses that conveniently includes a FairPrice supermarket, a doctor’s clinic, a dentist, an optician and more.
I get the feeling this is a pretty desirable HDB block, as they’re well located for downtown and quite new. From the slips we get in our mailbox, you’d pay $500K or $600K to buy one of them. Queenstown is very close, and I can bike down to the Quays in half an hour.
How did you meet, and what was the journey that brought you to Singapore?
Sandra: I’m from Montreal; Hervé is French-born and grew up in Paris. We met more than 20 years ago in Canada on a winter school ski slope, under the watchful eyes of 120 eighth-graders. He was the ski-instructor.
In 1998, we went to northern Quebec to work at a school in a remote, fly-in Inuit community of just 350 people. From there we moved to the States, to Mexico and then to Germany. Hervé came out here two years ago and I followed a year later.
I’d visited Singapore as a backpacker in 1994 and really liked it. It’s a really easy, nice place to live in terms of many things, including safety.
Hervé: A couple of our teaching and banking friends who had preceded us to Singapore told us that ISS International School Singapore was looking for teachers with our profiles, so we applied. That’s what many international schoolteachers tend to do – move on to new experiences.
Why an HDB apartment, and why this particular one?
Hervé: Even before I arrived, I bought my Yamaha scooter through an expat friend here. Living in a Simei condo for the first year I was here on my own, I commuted to work by scooter.
The condo was nice and I loved the pool, but apart from being expensive, it was a long haul. Your social life suffers, and the taxi-fares mount up. So when Sandra joined me, we looked for more central accommodation through the Property Guru website, and were lucky to find this three-bedroom one; not all HDB flats are as nice and comfortable as this. It was very close to the school, and the price was right. Apparently, though, we’re paying the slightly inflated ang moh’s (Westerner’s) price.
Sandra: Price and location were the two main factors. I love living centrally. The charm of this place is being right next to the reservoir and looking out onto a wall of greenery. There are stairs that take you up to a walking path and the Treetop Walk. I should walk to school every day, but it’s about 300 steps up. Instead, Hervé takes me on his scooter.
I take buses all the time, though – we have routes to Tiong Bahru, HarbourFront and Queensway. There’s a public pool in Queensway that charges just a dollar to go in. The SAFRA Club pool, which all residents of the area are entitled to use on weekdays, is beautiful but charges more.
How did you go about furnishing your home?
Sandra: Having moved a number of times, we know how to furnish a place comfortably and to our own taste without spending too much. We’d have preferred to rent it unfurnished, but the landlady wanted to leave things such as the TV unit here.
Our big, L-shaped rattan sofa came from the online classifieds, and also serves as a hideaway bed. In the office is another sofa bed; we can put up as many as five guests.
We sourced other furniture from the Salvation Army, and purchased the drop-leaf table and six rattan chairs for $10 each from a local woman who was moving; I reupholstered them myself. The prints came from IKEA; the calendar pictures are my nod to Canada.
Hervé: Bought second-hand, the TV cost half the price of a new one. This TV-watching armchair was my birthday present; it’s from a shop in Suntec City.
What are the drawbacks to living here?
Sandra: Only minor things. There’s no hot water in the kitchen, so we have to heat some in a pot if we have greasy dishes to wash. Another oddity is that the wastewater pipes run along the kitchen walls, so when you flush the toilets, the sound of water rushes through the kitchen.
Hervé: I have to say that I miss having a pool right outside my door. Now, I try to end my teaching day at the public swimming pool, so I can get in a swim before coming home.
And the advantages?
Hervé: There was no sense of community in the Simei condo where I lived. The difference here is that after one year I know all my neighbours. We help each other, lend each other tools. Next door is an electrical engineer, and he has helped me out when I needed help. It’s very warm, very friendly.
Sandra: To experience being part of the community, one Friday night we joined the line-dancing group in the void deck. They were lovely – so hospitable and so kind – but we were disastrously bad at it.