Singaporean George Heng laughs when asked to say something in Chinese.
“Most of us (Singaporeans) don’t speak Mandarin,” says Heng. “We’re in Chinese restaurants ordering by the number … like everyone else.”
Fifteen years ago, Heng and his wife, Geraldine Sng, moved to Canada from Singapore, a highly cosmopolitan city-state off of southern Malaysia. The Republic of Singapore, which gained its independence in 1965, has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. “It’s a whole melting pot … of influences,” Heng says.
While he grew up speaking Malay, Heng did also learn some Mandarin at home, as well as English. “Growing up, my dad always had the BBC on,” he says, adding that Singapore’s colonial heritage (it was colonized by the British) gives it a connection to Canada. “We have a shared history with Canada … we are a Commonwealth country,” Heng says, adding that Singaporeans also sang God Save the Queen at various events.
Other memories from his childhood are similar to those of any Canadian youngster. “We had comic books; we had hot dogs,” he says with a smile.
There the similarity ends, though. “Singapore is very, very small and it’s very congested,” Heng says of the nation, which boasts a population of around 5.5 million in a land area smaller than the city of Calgary.
And while Singapore is part of southeast Asia, Singaporeans have a very different cuisine from, for example, their mainland Chinese neighbours. With its European, Arabic, Middle Eastern and Chinese influences and spices, Singapore’s cuisine covers a wide range of flavours. “We love curry; we like spicy food,” Heng says.
For Heng and Sng, the pace of life in Singapore was extremely hectic – 80-hour weeks were not unusual – and so they began to think of retirement. They were looking for a place to slow down and relax; somewhere that offered a high standard of living and a better quality of life. Heng had done his undergraduate work at the University of Calgary and still had friends here – “I came and never quite left,” he says – so in 2001 the couple decided to make the big move, settling first in Calgary and then coming to Airdrie five years ago.
“Canada gave us that balance that we needed,” Sng says.
Adds Heng: “It boiled down to quality of life.”
The decision to leave family and move halfway around the world was not an easy one. “It was a difficult move,” Sng says. However, she adds, it was something she and her husband do not regret. “We just needed a change of pace,” she says.
Their plans to slow down have been somewhat put on hold, though. Currently Heng, who went on to earn a master’s degree from the U of C’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, is the IT expert at Airdrie Public Library and Sng works as an administrator with Samaritan’s Purse (she also works as a cake decorator, floral designer, chef and event planner).
For the couple, their native country is never far from their hearts. Their home is decorated with art that has personal meaning: tiles from a Singaporean home that was being demolished; a wooden screen/door from their first apartment in Singapore – and chef Sng enjoys the fact that Calgary has lots of sources of ethnic food supplies (although she still brings some of her own special spices back when she visits family in Singapore).
Overall, though, Sng and Heng are very much at home here.
“I don’t really miss Singapore,” says Heng.