The Life! Interview

Geraldene Lowe-Ismail: A walking encyclopedia on Singapore

Mrs Geraldene Lowe-Ismail leading a group on an “Antiques – Best Price Lah!” tour in 2003; in a photo taken in 1984 (above); and at the home of antique collector Percy Vatsaloo in 2004, which is one of the stops on her tours. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Mrs Geraldene Lowe-Ismail leading a group on an “Antiques – Best Price Lah!” tour in 2003; in a photo taken in 1984 (above); and at the home of antique collector Percy Vatsaloo in 2004, which is one of the stops on her tours. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Mrs Geraldene Lowe-Ismail leading a group on an “Antiques – Best Price Lah!” tour in 2003; in a photo taken in 1984; and at the home of antique collector Percy Vatsaloo (above) in 2004, which is one of the stops on her tours. -- PHOTO: TRISH HA
Mrs Geraldene Lowe-Ismail leading a group on an “Antiques – Best Price Lah!” tour in 2003; in a photo taken in 1984; and at the home of antique collector Percy Vatsaloo (above) in 2004, which is one of the stops on her tours. -- PHOTO: TRISH HAAG
Mrs Geraldene Lowe-Ismail leading a group on an “Antiques – Best Price Lah!” tour (above) in 2003; in a photo taken in 1984; and at the home of antique collector Percy Vatsaloo in 2004, which is one of the stops on her tours. -- PHOTO: TRISH HA
Mrs Geraldene Lowe-Ismail leading a group on an “Antiques – Best Price Lah!” tour (above) in 2003; in a photo taken in 1984; and at the home of antique collector Percy Vatsaloo in 2004, which is one of the stops on her tours. -- PHOTO: TRISH HAAG
-- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
-- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Her unusual tours include visiting clan associations and giant joss-stick makers

Veteran Singaporean tour guide Geraldene Lowe-Ismail has a good story to share for almost every spot on this island - from the Straits Chinese shophouses in Emerald Hill to the black-and- white colonial bungalows in Alexandra Park.

It is perhaps a trait that can be attributed to the 75-year-old Eurasian's inquisitive mind, which is what makes her so good at her job.

When Life! meets her at the Singapore Tourism Board's offices, the friendly and chatty guide jokes that some Singaporeans are sick of seeing her on her walking tours.

A seasoned tour guide with more than 50 years experience and author of the book Chinatown Memories (1998), she says: "I've always been very curious. People in Chinatown would say, 'Oh, this red-headed devil coming again!'. I would sit there or go to festivals, find someone who would speak in English or Malay or whatever and ask him or her to tell me what's going on."

But being a nosy parker has its benefits. She is one of the best in her field of heritage and tourism.

Just two weeks ago, she received a Lifetime Achievement award for outstanding contribution to tourism at the Singapore Experience Awards 2014.

The awards honours outstanding experiences offered by individuals and organisations in the tourism sector.

Indeed, she was part of the pioneer team to have devised an official 50-week training programme for tour guides in Singapore back in the 1960s. To this day, all guides have to go through the programme to be licensed.

Those who join her walking tours will know that she is a walking repository of information on Singapore culture and history. She can even get you into buildings and homes that no one else can.

If you are lucky, you may even get to witness a religious procession or take part in a cultural festival.

She says: "Shopkeepers will let me in; clan associations, sometimes they let me in but not someone else. It's a personal thing.

"I see what's happening for that day because it's more fun if there's say, a procession going on at a Hindu temple. It's not the normal standard zoo or bird park tour."

She was the first tour guide to do walking tours based on the Thaipusam festival and she has taken high-level dignitaries such as the wives of visiting prime ministers on her tours.

Born in 1938 to Eurasian parents, she was an only child who grew up in Katong and later attended boarding school in Perth, Australia.

Her father, who used to work for a Dutch rubber company, died in World War II, leaving her mother to raise her single-handedly.

Eventually, she returned here to find work in the 1950s, getting a job at a trading company called Anglo French Trading.

She worked there for about eight years, and in that time, she went overseas to places such as Egypt, Italy, Greece and Iran while working for the company's air passage department.

"It was a chance to travel and I got discounts. I was on lots of inaugural flights, such as the SwissAir's first flight to Egypt and Switzerland, and the first Japan Airlines flight 51 years ago."

That proved the first step on the road to becoming a tour guide, as through her jaunts around Europe, she mastered Italian and picked up Spanish and some French.

She then worked for Travel International, a travel agency owned by air- conditioning company Carrier Singapore.

During her time at these two firms, she started organising tours. The first tour she organised was to Cambodia, mostly for wives of expatriate businessmen, such as those from Italy, wanting to know Asia better.

These were rugged road trips that would take travellers to hard-to-reach villages and longhouses, giving them deep insight into the country's culture.

As that was the 1960s, the flights there were equally rugged as the planes were small and some did not even have proper windows.

She recalls: "The planes were small... it was like a market bus, everyone was standing in the centre aisle, holding baskets of chicken and fish and all sorts of strange things. A couple of times I had to sit on the toilet without a seatbelt."

After spending a few years with Travel International, she joined another agency called Asia Travel, helping customers book holidays and doing administrative work.

Around the mid-1960s, she married her husband, Mr Ahmad Ismail, 75, now a retired government servant.

The couple have three children: older son Iskandar, 49, who lives in Sydney and has a management role in a supermarket chain; younger son Mikhail, 36, a technician who lives in Norway; and daughter Apsara, 39, who works as a restaurant manager in London.

It was then that she began conducting walking tours in Singapore, starting with places such as Little India and Chinatown.

She says: "I conducted tours in Little India with some American women who were living here. Then someone asked: 'Why don't you do these tours for the American women's association because they do coffee mornings and they do nothing really interesting.' So I did. I would do two tours a month and take my kids with me."

Being fluent in Italian, she also used to take Italian groups around the island as well as for a cup of coffee at the Raffles Hotel, one of the first few places here to have a coffee machine.

She says with a chuckle: "I remember the Italians would go through Hong Kong, Bali, Thailand, and Singapore was the last stop in Asia, and by the time they got here, they'd be 'aggro', because they'd have gotten ripped off everywhere with expensive shopping and they hadn't drunk coffee in two weeks. So the first thing we'd do is to have coffee to calm down their nerves."

Of her passion for her work, she says: "People have a pre-conceived idea of Singapore - the Merlion and Marina Bay - but there's a lot more history behind Singapore which I feel should be promoted more.

"For thinking tourists, they like to know the history and origins of places and traditions, and in Singapore, it's so safe - like it is a bit hard to march into a Hindu temple in India or if you're not Christian, you may not go into a church elsewhere - but I take them to such places here."

During that time, she, along with Scotsman George Thomson, the former Public Relation Officer of Singapore, were tasked by the former Singapore Tourist Promotion Board to introduce a formal training programme for tourist guides here.

Together, they came up with a 50-week programme, called the Tourist Guide Training Course, where students would spend their Saturdays studying the colonial history of Singapore, and key buildings such as the Victoria Theatre and famous churches and temples. Sundays would be spent visiting the sites.

At the end of the programme, they would have to sit for an examination and if they passed, they would be certified by the Tourism Board and issued a badge. This is the same programme all tour guides undergo today to get licensed, although it is now called WSQ Tourist Guide Course.

By 1970, she quit her full-time job and has worked as a freelance tour guide since then.

It has not been all smooth-sailing. During the Sars outbreak in 2003, she had to stop her walking tours and do bus tours instead, travelling to places "out of town".

These included visits to Kranji war cemetery, and taking the same route the Japanese did when they invaded Singapore during World War II, covering the museum Reflections At Bukit Chandu and Labrador beach.

She recalls a time in the 1980s when physical tour guides were replaced by tape recordings for bus tours down Orchard Road, but that was shortlived.

She says with a laugh: "I was not involved in this but people would listen to the tape recording, which was timed to follow the drive down Orchard Road. But the bus would get stuck in a jam at Bras Basah Road or something and the tape would be playing something about the Padang. It didn't work."

Over the years, several companies have approached her to tape her walking tours so that visitors could rent them but she says "on principle, I would never do it as it would rob guides of work".

These days, she shuttles back and forth with her husband between Perth and Singapore - they have homes in both cities - and does tours on an ad-hoc basis, mostly for expatriate associations and foreign missions.

At her age, she says she does not do walking tours often, but continues to do coach tours of black-and-white bungalows in the Dempsey area, Swiss Cottage and Alexandra Park.

As always, she tries to mix things up a bit. "I'll always pick a different house or something that's special, not all the well-known mansions. And I can go only to the houses where people will let me in," she says.

She also takes tourists to meet people who are involved in "traditional trades" - giant joss-stick makers, makers of paper artefacts used as offerings for the departed, Chinese calligraphers and carvers of figurines of Chinese deities.

Calling her a "walking encyclopaedia", her son Iskandar says: "When we were young, we used to go on mummy's tours around Chinatown, Jurong Bird Park and Changi Prison. She always knew the best place to have a teh tarik or to buy spices in Serangoon Road. She knew all the shopkeepers and would stop to talk to them and listen to their stories."

Her daughter Apsara calls her "a pillar of knowledge" who has taught her to "have respect for cultures and how to build relationships".

She adds of her mother: "She has an ability to warm to people and they share stories and open up their homes to each other. That is something that I admire about her, she has a personal touch and this is something you can't teach."

Fellow tour guide Charlotte Chu, 53, who was mentored by Mrs Lowe-Ismail, describes her friend as someone "kind, generous and always willing to share".

She says: "In my early years as a guide, Gerrie would give me tips on how to do certain tours and also introduced people to me. A few times a year, she will donate proceeds of the tours she does for charity. She is always willing to share what she knows and always has a nice smile for everyone."

Mrs Lowe-Ismail does not look like she is going to hang up her tour guide badge anytime soon.

But she says of her future plans: "If I stop walking, maybe I'll write another book. I'm supposed to write a book on Orchard Road memories, before it all changes."

melk@sph.com.sg