Some Eurasians frustrated at being mistaken for foreigners in Singapore

Mr Graham Ong-Webb (above), political risk consultant, with his wife Emmanuelle Chiau and daughter Saskia. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF GRAHAM ONG-WEBB
Mr Graham Ong-Webb (above), political risk consultant, with his wife Emmanuelle Chiau and daughter Saskia. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF GRAHAM ONG-WEBB
Mr Michael Shelley, general manager of an events company, with his daughter, Talya, and Madam Rosalynn Heramis (above), who is often thought to be an Indonesian, Nepalese or Indian. -- ST PHOTO: BENSON ANG
Mr Michael Shelley, general manager of an events company, with his daughter, Talya, and Madam Rosalynn Heramis (above), who is often thought to be an Indonesian, Nepalese or Indian. -- ST PHOTO: BENSON ANG
Mr Michael Shelley, general manager of an events company, with his daughter, Talya (both above), and Madam Rosalynn Heramis, who is often thought to be an Indonesian, Nepalese or Indian. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Mr Michael Shelley, general manager of an events company, with his daughter, Talya (both above), and Madam Rosalynn Heramis, who is often thought to be an Indonesian, Nepalese or Indian. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Some Eurasians have been mistaken for foreigners, much to their frustration

They are true-blue Singaporeans who were born and bred here, as were some of their parents.

Yet, many Eurasians are often mistaken for foreigners because of their European-looking features and Western-sounding surnames.

Just ask Asian Games gold medallist swimmer Joseph Schooling. In the past week, the 19-year-old's Eurasian looks have attracted more attention than his swimming feats.

Netizens have called him an "ang moh" (a Hokkien term for "Caucasian") and a foreign talent.

The online fuss prompted his businessman father Colin to tell The Straits Times last week - in Malay, no less - that he is a "true son of Singapore".

Their last name Schooling originated in Germany. Joseph Schooling's great- grandfather, an officer in the British army, came from England and married a local Portuguese-Eurasian. His grandfather and father were born in Singapore.

Eurasian Singaporeans tell SundayLife! that such mix-ups over their nationality are part and parcel of their lives.

Take, for example, Madam Rosalynn Heramis, 36, who runs a business providing transportation services.

She is of Spanish, Filipino, Portuguese and Chinese descent, but people often mistake her for Indonesian, Nepalese or Indian.

"Every other day, I get called a 'wai guo ren'," says the brunette with long wavy hair, using the Chinese term for "foreigner".

"An auntie at a coffee shop once said I had an Indian-sounding name and big eyes, so I must come from India. I felt irritated, but I didn't hold it against her as it was an honest mistake."

Mr Graham Ong-Webb, 39, who has English, German, Dutch, Chinese and Indian blood, is often taken for an American or Israeli.

Says the political risk consultant with a fair complexion and brown eyes: "Once, I showed my pink IC to a wonton mee seller who didn't believe I was born here, saying anyone can be Singaporean if he stayed long enough."

Mr Michael Shelley, 57, has English, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai and Indonesian blood and is often assumed to be a British national because of his fair skin colour.

Says the general manager of an events company: "Sometimes, shopkeepers call me names in Hokkien or Malay, assuming I don't understand what they are saying.

"When the comments are too negative, I just walk out of the shop without buying anything. I don't want to give my business to such nasty people."

According to the Singapore Census of Population 2010, there are 15,581 Eurasian residents - comprising citizens and permanent residents - here.

As of the end of last year, 2,128 are members of the Eurasian Association of Singapore, a self-help group which serves the Eurasian community here.

The association's president, Mr Benett Theseira, 49, says: "As the name Eurasian suggests, we are descendants of a marital union between a European and an Asian.

"Those who appear more Asian might be mistakenly identified as Chinese, Malay or Indian. For those who appear more European, they might often be identified as a foreigner."

He adds: "Ask any Eurasian Singaporean and he or she will definitely have stories to relate of mistaken identity. Most Eurasians find it unacceptable that despite their families being in Singapore for many generations, fellow Singaporeans still do not recognise them as such."

Indeed, home-grown Eurasians say it is frustrating, sometimes even troubling, to be mistaken for a different nationality.

As Mr Colin Schooling, 66, said in his interview with The Straits Times: "Don't forget Eurasians are part of the Singapore population."

Mr Dean Hunt, 21, a university undergraduate whose father is British and mother Chinese Singaporean says he is often mistaken for an exchange student from Britain.

"When I speak to them in my local accent, they say I don't 'meet' their expectations of me. I once thought of learning a British accent. But now, I think it's best to be myself."

Mr Ong-Webb has also learnt to live with unwarranted comments.

"After so long, I've accepted that people will always make assumptions based on what they see. But deep down, I still hope others can accept that I'm a fellow countryman rather than an outsider."

Other Eurasians try to make light of the situation.

Says Madam Heramis: "I'll deliberately answer in Mandarin to see the shocked looks on their faces. It's interesting to hear which countries others think I'm from."

There are perks of boasting an exotic parentage too.

Mr Shelley jokes: "I've never been short of pretty and sexy girlfriends. They all want to show off to their friends that they are dating an 'ang moh kia'.

"I won't even tell them I'm actually Singaporean. Don't want to shatter the illusion." "Ang moh kia" means "Caucasian kid" in Hokkien.

Says his wife, Madam Ruby Tan, 51, a Chinese Singaporean who works as a corporate trainer: "When I first met Michael, I thought he was British because of his fair complexion and green eyes.

She adds jokingly: "It's actually better that he is Singaporean. If he were British, I'd have to follow him to Britain."

bang@sph.com.sg