Expat Homecoming in Singapore

After posting about the marvels of modern-day Singapore and offering a glimpse of the future in my previous post, I am now going to delve into the past and reminisce about our expat days there twelve years ago. I think only another expat will understand, so if you aren’t one, I won’t be offended if you skip this post.

After all, what’s there to like about pictures like this, unless you’ve been an expat in Singapore?

Just the name “Cold Storage” brought memories rushing back to my mind. How I had my first encounter with “this is not like home” kind of situations, the kind I now experience daily in Africa. Like when there wasn’t any Nutella to be found in any of their outlets. How they’d just shrug and smile and assure you it would be back on the shelf soon. Except it wasn’t, with a gaping empty section staring back at you for months, because literally the Nutella container hadn’t arrived in Singapore yet and wasn’t expected for another three months. Like gas bottles in a Joburg winter. And please don’t tell me to get a grip because Nutella is non-essential. You have no idea what kinds of funks my family will descend into without Nutella in the house.


Parisilk is Holland Village’s (and possibly all of Singapore’s) most well-known and cherished electronics and appliances outlet. Yes, this little rinky-dink store front. It’s special to us because we bought our first ever digital camera there, in 1998. And took our first ever digital picture with it.

First-ever digital picture in our family, Singapore, 1998

Holland Village was our regular haunt, just because it was so close to where we lived, convenient both for shopping and eating out. As soon as we entered the Shopping Centre there, it came rushing back to me: You’d happily take the escalator upstairs to explore all manner of stores, several levels up, and then you’d wonder how to get down again, because there was only the one escalator coming towards you. You’d have to pry open the door to the back stairway, shove your stroller through, and carry it back down three fllights of stairs. Let me just say that I spent much of my time in Singapore carrying strollers up and down dodgy stairwells.

We found everything virtually unchanged, except for this little gem: They’ve added a rooftop restaurant on top of the shopping centre, full of gorgeous orchids and offering great views of the (admittedly not so stunning) neighborhood.

I’ve always been fascinated by back allies such as this one
You’ll laugh, but we found joy in this particular view of some HDB flats
Holland Village, Singapore

Good thing our kids didn’t come with us, or we would have faced a major mutiny. And disbelief and ridicule over our weird fascination. But the two of us totally understood each other, without words. We revisited the stores inside, found the barber, the hardware store, the tailor where I had once had a dress made. The only dress I ever had custom-tailored for me, making me feel very, er, colonial. And yes, I still have that dress.

There were tons of trinkets in this store. And we were gushing over the awesome prices, until we realized we probably shouldn’t divide everything by seven as we do in South Africa. Singapore, it turns out, has gotten much more expensive since the late 1990s.

I used to despair about not finding things such as brooms or storage boxes when we first arrived in Singapore, until I came across stores like this one that were tiny but simply carried everything. Singapore today arguably boasts some of the best and glitziest shopping to be found anywhere, but what I loved most about our life there was the idea of the neighborhood shopping center, often just a collection of stalls on the courtyard in the middle of a bunch of HDB flats (government sponsored highrise apartment buildings) where you could eat some hawker food and do your daily shopping.
Typical wet market in Singapore
Another Singapore institution was the wet market. I loved buying my fruit and vegetables (fish, not so much) at the local wet market. I had a special deal with a woman at one particular stall: She would save all her not-so-nice looking oranges for me to use for fresh orange juice, and I would buy them at 10 for a dollar. The normal price was three for a dollar, and I remember thinking that that sounded expensive. Mind you, I have no idea what oranges cost, at home or elsewhere. But it is one of those unique habits you only develop as an expat that all of a sudden you are intensely interested in the price of everything. So I bartered and got me that deal, and we drank fresh orange juice every morning the entire time we lived in Singapore.
Beautiful children’s clothes in Holland Village Shopping Centre, 2012

The children’s clothes store where we used to buy matching pants and t-shirts for our boys was still the same, as evidenced by this old picture I dug up:

Zax and Jabulani, 1999

Methodically, and every once in a while hopping into a cab to escape the heat, we made our way to all the other landmarks we remembered, like Takashimaya, Emerald Hill, Mount Elizabeth Hospital, and Fort Canning Park.

Takashimaya on Orchard Road
Crowds of chattering Filipino maids on a Sunday, bringing back fond memories of Ampy, our maid, who was like a grandmother to our kids.
House on Emerald Hill
Singapore Botanical Gardens, a beautiful park we used to push our double stroller through
Orchids everywhere
Mount Elizabeth Hospital, where Jabulani was born
One place we hadn’t managed to see when we lived there was Bunker Hill in Fort Canning Park, including the “Battle Box” where the British command made that fateful decision in February of 1942, faced with a severe shortage of water and supplies, to surrender to the Japanese – to this day the largest surrender of British-led forces in history. There’s a fascinating little museum set inside the bunker where one can go through all the different rooms and watch re-enactments of the surrender conference. I stared up the escape hatch and felt myself shivering when I envisioned the feeling of doom these generals and troops must have felt, without even knowing yet what dehumanizing brutality awaited them at Changi Prison.
Escape hatch of the “Battle Box”, Fort Canning Hill, Singapore
But by far the most gratifying part of our excursion into the past was visiting our hold house on Holland Grove View, which sadly looked a bit mossy and overgrown, and having a fabulous dinner with our old friends Lisa and Sanjay, who arrived in Singapore at the same time we did and are still living there. It was great to catch up with them, as if we’d last seen them just a few days ago, and, I am glad to say, they were neither mossy nor overgrown.
Our old house on Holland Grove View, 2012
Catching up with old friends
All in all, a really fun and nostalgic experience. Accompanied by some pretty delicious food.

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