One Small Voice: Geraldene Lowe-Ismail

Published on 13 April 2015

Sentosa. Marina Bay Sands. Heritage? That can be a huge draw for Singapore too, says veteran tour guide, Geraldene Lowe-Ismail.

I was always shy as a child. I was an only child and my father died in the war, so I’d follow my mother and amah [nanny] everywhere. Being shy, you listen to all these different people gossip and talk. I guess I took it all in. You can learn so much from everybody.

When I was training tour guides, I’d tell them, “Talk to your granny and listen to all her stories, the origin of road names and what happened there, because that’s what makes it interesting.”

Once, I took some expatriate friends to Little India to walk around, and someone in the group said, “Geraldene, you must do walking tours, the Americans will love it!”

When planning outings for various expatriate clubs and embassies, I thought it would be more interesting to connect the tours with festivals — like the Monkey God’s birthday or Thaipusam — then it’s not just me talking, but you can actually experience the rituals. So that was how it progressed, linking tours to Chinese, Hindu, Muslim and Christian calendar events.

These are not tourist tours. I’d bring expatriates and foreigners to have prata and teach them how to eat, how to order. At Keong Saik Road, we’d go through the shops to the back where they make the best curry puffs. We’d sit in the back lane and look over to what was the old railway line.

Many people think Singapore is a new country, glossy and modern, but there is still so much here that can be discovered, shared and appreciated. Telok Ayer Street, for example, was originally the coastline. That’s why so many mosques, Chinese and Hindu temples are located there. For the immigrants, the journey to Singapore wasn’t easy. They had to sail with the monsoons and risk being attacked by pirates. So when they landed, one of the first things they did was to thank the gods!

But if everything is gone and nothing is the same anymore, what you lose is a sense of belonging to a place. On my tours, I often say this used to be this, this used to be that, and sometimes nostalgia and sadness hit me. On a positive note, Singaporeans are becoming more interested in their history and heritage. For those who like to travel or have lived overseas for a while, their eyes are opened and they’re often curious about their own country. Especially when everything is disappearing — you try to cling on to memories and what roots you have here.

So even if you’re on a bus from Jurong or Sembawang, you can stop and explore. I think everyone is just so busy in Singapore, we don’t have time to stand and stare, to take in the atmosphere — beyond the MRT and buses — and to see beneath what’s already there, what you pass everyday and don’t notice.

There’s a depth to Singapore that goes beyond its modern facade. The unique buildings, the law and order, are fantastic. In the old days it was more chaotic, but there was much history and character. To me, heritage is important because it is the soul of Singapore.

Geraldene Lowe-Ismail, 76, is a veteran tour guide best known for her heritage tours of colonial black-and-white houses, shophouses, World War II trails, antiques, traditional trades and more. In 1964, she was part of the pioneer team that developed an official 50-week course for Singapore tour guides. To this day, all guides have to go through intensive training to be licensed. At the Singapore Experience Awards 2014, organised by the Singapore Tourism Board, she was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement award for an outstanding 50 years’ of contribution to tourism.

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