Aug 17, 2008

special report: expat enclaves

Havens away from home

Influx of expats is leading to the transformation of neighbourhoods - and more tasty foreign treats

By Theresa Tan and Melissa Sim

A Singaporean walking around the Tanjong Rhu area could be forgiven for thinking he is in a foreign country.

Minimarts at condos don't sell just regular rice, they also stock the basmati variety.

Vegetables that most Singaporeans have never heard of, such as Indian Palak (spinach in English) and Mehti (a herb which resembles a bay leaf) are in good supply too, as are lentils and a staggering variety of spices.

At condos like The Sovereign, The Makena and Costa Rhu, about four in 10 residents are Indian nationals, exceeding the number of Singaporeans.

Small wonder, then, that the area is known as 'Little Bombay'.

For Indian nationals in the area, it might as well be their home country.

As Ms Radha Suvarna, 36, a Citibank executive, puts it: 'I can live here as I would in Bombay.'

The Tanjong Rhu and Meyer Road areas are among many in Singapore that are undergoing a vast transformation.

It used to be that there were just three ethnic enclaves in Singapore: Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam.

Now, Little America, Little Australia, Little Japan and a host of others have been added to the list.

As more and more expatriates head here - the number of foreigners here passed the one million mark for the first time last year - they are transforming not just Singapore's economy but its community as well.

As is the case in other countries, the various nationalities setting up home here tend to set up enclaves where their countrymen gather.

In Singapore, education seems to be the determining factor for where they settle.

Property agents told The Sunday Times that clusters tend to come up around international schools.

The Americans, for example, have flocked to Woodlands because it is close to the Singapore American School.

The Japanese tend to live in condos in the West Coast, close to the Singapore Japanese School.

And the Serangoon area is popular with the Australians and the French, with the French and Australian schools nearby.

One in five households at the 310-unit Kensington Park Condominium - a 10-minute walk from Serangoon Gardens - is French, for example.

Once a critical mass of expats is settled in a particular area, food outlets soon follow.

With more and more Koreans flocking to the East Coast, for example, stores selling everything from kimchi to bulgogi have sprung up - there are at least three Korean restaurants in the area near Katong Mall.

For Koreans who prefer to cook their own food, the Seoul Mart, which opened in Parkway Parade last year, stocks provisions such as kimchi, Korean seaweed and Korean instant noodles.

The search for a taste of home has also led to the transformation of neighbourhoods.

Geylang, for example, has perhaps the greatest concentration of Chinese food outlets here.

Mr Du Zhi Qiang, president of the Tian Fu Club, a social networking club for new Chinese immigrants to Singapore, says there are now about 200 food outlets opened by Chinese nationals in the area.

The club's 2,000 members, all professionals, and scores of other Chinese nationals flock to the area for homegrown treats like jiaozi (dumplings) and hot and sour soup.

It is a boon for folk like businessman An Qian Xue, 42, who came to Singapore in 2003 from his native Shanxi in China to enrol his daughter in the Singapore American School and to explore business opportunities.

Now a permanent resident, Mr An remembers the time when he had to fill his suitcases with food whenever he returned from China.

'Now I can travel light because everything is here,' says the businessman, who eats in Geylang at least six times a week.

Indeed, Singaporeans who spoke to The Sunday Times said that, next to their contributions to the economy, the best thing about expats is the authentic food which follows them here.

Authentic pasta, Spanish ham, traditional Korean rice cakes, Chinese jiaozi - they are all out there.

Foreigners are not just setting up physical enclaves, however.

Some nationalities are also dominating certain professions, and marking out gathering places as their own.

Walk into a hospital, for example, and you will more than likely encounter a Filipino nurse.

At Parkway Health, which owns the Mount Elizabeth, Gleneagles and East Shore hospitals, 40per cent of the nurses come from countries such as the Philippines, China, Myanmar, India and Malaysia.

And 60per cent of the radiographers are from the Philippines.

Indian and Chinese nationals, meanwhile, are heading for the IT and finance sectors.

At Citibank Singapore, for example, Indian nationals make up 10per cent of the 9,000 employees, even more than Malaysians, who make up 7per cent. Singaporeans make up 70per cent.

In leisure, too, foreigners are making a beeline for certain areas.

Clarke Quay, for example, is the party destination of choice for Indian nationals. Outlets like the Rupee Room offer Indian food at the bar and play the latest Bollywood hits.

It draws huge crowds at the weekend. Almost 80per cent of its customers are Indian professionals, says marketing manager Ketki Madane.

Mr Harish Mallipeddi, 22, who works for an IT start-up,, is quick to pick the Rupee Room as his favourite haunt.

'We can meet Indian girls there,' he says candidly.

The Myanmarese, meanwhile, make Peninsula Plaza their own at the weekend.

Hundreds gather there to stock up on goods for home, read newspapers, and even organise political protests, as happened during the crackdown on Buddhist monks in Myanmar last year.

There is also a library run by a group of about 30 Myanmarese for their fellow citizens, which stocks newspapers and weekly journals from home, and books banned in their own country.

As foreigners set up their own neighbourhoods and go about carving out a space in Singapore, however, a downside to the sheer numbers moving here is beginning to reveal itself.

Sociologists say most relate to xenophobic fears among Singaporeans - that foreigners will take away jobs and scholarships and drive up property prices, for instance.

Others point to increasing friction as Singaporeans and foreigners live and work more closely, and fight a losing battle to paper over differences in social habits and lifestyle.

Much has been made of the differences between Indian Singaporeans and Indian expatriates, and Dr Leong Chan Hoong, head of the psychology programme at SIM University, sees the same thing happening between Chinese nationals and their local cousins.

Of the flow of expats, Dr Leong says: 'It is unrealistic to think that we can, in a few years or so, ameliorate the tension and antagonism experienced by Singaporeans.'

Asked how Singapore will evolve, he says that it depends on how well foreigners integrate with locals in the Lion City.

Expats, however, do not see a problem.

Mr An, the China native turned Singapore PR, says: 'I have come to love Singapore. The workers are good and don't make trouble for you, the tax rate is lower and people are helpful.

'Now when I go back to China, I feel out of place sometimes.'

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