Walking the Talk

Geraldene Lowe-Ismail’s mission to share stories on Singapore’s heart and soul with tourists and locals alike earned her many lifelong friendships.

BY SASHA GONZALES
PHOTO JUSTIN LOW
 

G

eraldene Lowe-Ismail wants first-time visitors to Singapore to know that the island-state has so much more to offer than glossy skyscrapers, round-the-clock dining and shopping, and efficient public transport. “This is one of my pet peeves,” says the veteran tour guide, who has been conducting walking tours around the country since its independence in 1965.

“These days, tourists want to explore places on their own, but many still don’t quite know where to look, and they end up missing out on a lot of what makes this island special, from our beautiful old cathedrals to the quaint shophouses, stately black-and-white colonial bungalows, and bustling cultural enclaves.”

Lowe-Ismail, who turns 77 this year, had no idea that she would become a tour guide, let alone Singapore’s longest serving one. Last year, she received the Lifetime Achievement for Outstanding Contribution to Tourism award from the Singapore Tourism Board.

At 17, Lowe-Ismail found work at the Air India office greeting and checking in visitors. Later, she moved to a travel agency and soon started taking tour guide courses. Before long, she was conducting tours around the city on a freelance basis. “Embassies and organisations soon began calling me to take their visitors around,” she says. She became known for her unique themed walking tours which, unlike typical city tours, showed guests the little-known sides of Singapore.


FRIENDS FOR LIFE

Having interacted with thousands of people over the years, Lowe-Ismail has forged many close friendships. These former guests offer to host her when she travels to their country. The longstanding friendships are a wonderful avenue for her to share more about Singapore and inspire a deeper appreciation for its history and culture.

Trish Haag, an American who lived in Singapore with her family from 2003 to late 2005, is one of Lowe-Ismail’s ex-clients who has kept in touch. She shares: “Her tours were special because she took you to places visitors wouldn’t even think to visit. She knows so much about the country and she imparts this knowledge with a smile. Without her, I wouldn’t know as much about Singapore or have as big an appreciation for its many cultures as I do now. I really treasure my friendship with her; we’ve stayed in contact all these years and I’m hoping she’ll visit me in the United States when her busy schedule allows.”

These days, Lowe-Ismail shuttles between Perth and Singapore. She still conducts tours once or twice a week when she’s back in Singapore. One of her favourite tours focuses on Singapore’s traditional trades, many of which are fast dying out. She says: “In Chinatown, you used to be able to see woodcarvers, noodle-makers, and makers of joss sticks and giant paper houses.

“Sadly, we’re on the verge of losing these trades completely because people don’t want to do them anymore. It would be great if we could preserve them in a handicraft village. That way, visitors can learn about these traditional skills.”

Her international guests are often surprised to discover Singapore’s colonial past, something that Lowe-Ismail loves filling them in on, such as the stories behind the names of its streets, many of which are named after English, Irish, Indian, Peranakan, Jewish, and even Armenian pioneers.

But don’t call her a citizen ambassador.

“I’m certainly privileged to have a role that lets me tell the story of Singapore,” says the sprightly Eurasian. “But anyone can do what I do, as long as they enjoy interacting with people and have a good knowledge of the country and its heritage. Of course, it’s also important to have a real love for Singapore. When you really love a place, it shows.”

 


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