Singapore’s oldest working tour guide tells us about fussy Americans and the robber monkeys of the Botanic Gardens

I am naturally curious and interested in people. I think [to be a tour guide] you have to have that knack of drawing people out and asking them questions without being too upfront about their profession or their hobbies.

When I was very young, we lived in Katong. It’s changed so much, though. It’s hard to stem the changes but like the Red House Bakery, it’s finally going to get restored so that’s nice. In a way, they should leave things alone and not try to control too much.

I used to love going to Changi beach when I was young. I used to go swimming there, it was so serene before the airport was built out there. Not many people go there anymore.  

When the war started, we stayed and stayed. We ended up getting a boat to India but they sighted a German submarine off Penang and there were jets flying across from Thailand. So we ended up turning round and going to Freemantle.

We were on the first flying boat from Sydney to Singapore. It took 3 days to reach with overnight stops in Darwin and Jakarta.

I went to Italy to study the language, when I was 24. That’s where I first became a tour guide. I worked for a hotel and the tour operator had run out of guides so I just got on the bus.

Tours were just the same things said four times, “This is the coliseum” in French, German and Italian and English. People started complaining they weren’t getting any information. That was when I changed and started doing something different.

I started to do tours to Cambodia in the ‘60s. We used fly in these old DC-3 planes, which were like buses. People would stand in the aisle with chicken and ducks. There was no division from the pilot, it was just a curtain. I went up and looked and half the cockpit didn’t have a windscreen. They were just flying on top of the palm trees.

I’ve been travelling all my life and enjoyed a lot of great trips. I think that’s good preparation for a tour guide; you understand the constraints that people have, with jetlag and different climates.

What’s most important for me is that I try and chat with the group before the tour so I get a sense of who they are. Then I try to tailor the tours to suit the interests of the person.

It’s fun to show people whatever they’re interested in. We have so many facets of life that are hidden, even to the locals who don’t realise what’s so fascinating because they see it everyday.

In the 1950s, the tour buses weren’t air-conditioned and we were lucky if we had a microphone. We had all the windows open, we’d usually go around Orchard Road and Padang and point out the landmarks. We’d stop off at Raffles Hotel and have a watered down Singapore Sling.

The monkeys would grab the tourists handbags they would jump from the trees at the Botanic gardens.

Back in the old days, Americans were quite difficult to handle, they were quite fussy but they gave big tips. They would never get down from the bus because they would see drains and cats and dogs everywhere and they didn’t like the smells too much.

I was the first to start doing walking tours. It was fun because you end up in the heart of Little India in the middle of Deepavali and you get to share all the experiences, the food and the customs.

I was training tour guides before I became a guide. I used to lecture every Saturday and then 50 weekends a year I would do an on-site visit on Sunday.

I decided to give up full time work after I got married. When I had my three children I decided to become a freelance tour guide myself. I finally became a qualified guide in 1967.

People who travel now are younger, they’re more educated, savvy and worldly. In the early days, it was mostly older people, because they had the money to travel but it has now changed.

I’m very involved with the heritage board and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). I spend one day a week going to URA and identifying old photographs to tell them what the buildings were, what it was and who lived there because they don’t have the records, all they have are photos.

I’d lie in front of the bulldozers to save a building. There are so many buildings I’m sad to see go. Why kill something that’s already there and so interesting?