Over the past 50 years as a tour guide, Mrs Geraldene Lowe-Ismail has walked all over Singapore collecting stories from people and places, and sharing them with others. It is her way of preserving Singapore’s history, heritage and memories.
It was a tomb that looked like any other until tour guide, Mrs Geraldene Lowe-Ismail, took a closer look during a heritage hunt back in 1989. Overgrown with weeds and covered with dirt, the decrepit grave belonged to one of Singapore’s noted philanthropists, Mr Tan Tock Seng.
A founding member of the Singapore Heritage Society, Mrs Lowe-Ismail was thrilled by the discovery but she also shared her dismay during an interview: “It’s a shame that nobody is taking care of the tomb. It is on an almost inaccessible slope in Tiong Bahru. Something should be done about it.”
Her discovery of the forgotten grave was just one of many stories Mrs Lowe-Ismail collected over 50 years of conducting walking tours exploring every inch of our tiny island.
One of Singapore’s most famous tour guides, Mrs Lowe-Ismail has been guiding groups of tourists and locals on heritage tours since 1967. But more than that, she is on a mission to collect, preserve and pass down memories of Singapore, including its people, places, and stories.
One of Singapore’s pioneer tour guides, Mrs Geraldene Lowe-Ismail has been guiding groups of tourists and locals around Singapore. Photo Source: Geraldene Lowe-Ismail
She collects stories from the people she meets and then passes them on to others. Through this process, she hopes to preserve the memories of Singapore in the minds of people today.
“Why did I know so many people who would tell me their stories? Well, I’m curious and I actually talk to people, get to know them and ask questions,” she said.
“I would sit in Chinatown or Little India or go to festivals, find someone who would speak in English or Malay, or sometimes we just talk partly in made-up sign language, and ask him or her to tell me what’s going on.”
Geraldene Lowe-Ismail examines a piece of stitching at a sorority off Serangoon Road, while the seamstress watches on. Mrs Lowe-Ismail regularly meets people and collects stories about their lives. Photo Source: Ronni Pinsler Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
In life, she found adventure around every corner. She was 4 when the Japanese invasion forced her family to flee Singapore on an Australia-bound ship “packed like sardines”.
“Through my mother’s company, we got on a boat to India but they sighted a German submarine off Penang and there were jets flying across from Thailand,” Mrs Lowe-Ismail recalled. “So, we ended up turning around and going to Fremantle in Australia.”
Her mother returned to Singapore after the war while Mrs Lowe-Ismail remained in Perth for more than 10 years to attend boarding school.
As luck would have it, Mrs Lowe-Ismail took on an administrative role in an airline in Singapore after completing her schooling. She continued in the industry and worked with various companies, including Air India and Anglo-French Travel, first as a travel agent and later on an administrative assistant. On top of her full-time position, Mrs Lowe-Ismail also worked as a part-time tour guide. Her jobs – and personal holidays and long breaks – took her all over the world and she explored various parts of Europe, including Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and London, as well as cities like Durban and Johannesburg in South Africa. On her trips, Mrs Lowe-Ismail learned about the rich history and culture of the world, and this experience sparked her passion in collecting, preserving and sharing the stories of her home, Singapore.
“In the ‘60s, I used to run tours to Cambodia for wives of expat businessmen. These were rugged tours, bringing people into the villages and longhouses,” she said.
“We used to fly in these old DC-3 planes. People stood in the aisle with chicken and ducks. Only a curtain divided the passengers and the pilot. Once, I went into the cockpit and saw that there was only half a windscreen.”
When she got married in the mid-1960s, Mr Lowe-Ismail started working as a freelance guide full-time. It afforded her the flexibility to work and to parent. Most importantly, it was a way to continue indulging her passion for collecting and sharing stories.
“In the 1950s, the tour buses weren’t air-conditioned and we were lucky if we had a microphone. We walked around Orchard Road and the Padang, and pointed out the landmarks,” she said. “Then we’d stop at Raffles Hotel and have a Singapore Sling.”
As an ambassador of sorts for Singapore, Mrs Lowe-Ismail’s clients included high-profile individuals such as visiting dignitaries, VIPs, and their spouses. She made it a point to discover more about her guests so she could customise a comfortable and enjoyable Singapore experience.
“I remember the Italians went through places like Hong Kong or Thailand before reaching Singapore, which was the last stop in Asia. By the time they got here, they were quite aggressive and holding on to a lot of frustration,” she shared. “They might have gotten ripped off somewhere with expensive shopping or they hadn’t drunk their Italian-style coffee in two weeks. So, the first thing I do usually is to bring them to a cafe for proper coffee.”
“I also became known as the bread lady because I always showed up with loaves of baguettes in my big bag whenever I knew I had a European group. These people missed their bread so much by the time they stepped foot in Singapore,” she added.
Mrs Lowe-Ismail guides a group of women through a tour of Serangoon Road. Photo Source: Ronni Pinsler Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
Besides tour guiding, Mrs Lowe-Ismail is also passionate about heritage buildings because of their intrinsic heritage value. These buildings have withstood the test of time and in many ways, they are a testament to both a country’s colourful history and rich culture, she said.
She marries her two passions – heritage buildings and memories of Singapore – in many of her tours. In fact, Mrs Lowe-Ismail’s tours of black-and-white houses in Singapore were so well-known, it became one of her signature calling cards. After more than 50 years, Mrs Lowe-Ismail remains on a mission to not only conserve historical structures in Singapore, but also to preserve our collective memories and heritage.
“We must adaptively reuse our preserved buildings. We must also keep alive our recollections and experiences,” she said.
“And this [storytelling] is something I’ll continue doing for as long as I live.”
Written by: Esther Au Yong
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign