Expatriate Enclaves in Singapore

In two earlier blog post I introduced the four traditional cultural enclaves in Singapore, and then followed it up with another post on the southeast Asian enclaves in Singapore. There is one other group of cultural enclaves in Singapore – French, Korean, Japanese and Anglo-American cultural groups.These are, broadly speaking, the expatriate enclaves.

Let’s start with the first of these four cultures to arrive on these shores the British and by extension, Anglo-American cultural enclaves because of a shared language.

The story of the arrival of the British in Singapore is written in every Singaporean child’s history textbook. A self-made colonial officer by the name of Stamford Raffles arrives on the island, decides its a good place for a port and manouveurs to make the port a British possession by creating his own king of the island and signing a document with the king he created. It’s written in a more elegant way in the textbooks but the substance is the same. The British and English speaking individuals have been in Singapore ever since. However the generations of Anglo-Americans who arrive in Singapore are not the same.

The earliest were colonials were civil servants, soliders and traders who put up in beautiful black and white bungalows all across the island. This group of individuals returned mostly in bulk in 1972. Only a few stayed on and cast their lost with Singapore – people such as Francis Thomas. Their children were mostly Eurasian and I have covered this part of Singapore in the first post on cultural enclaves.

The next batch of Anglo-Americans to arrive in Singapore came from the late 1960s till the 1980s. These were sailors from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Britain. This group of Anglo-Americans were here during the Cold War era and did not really take root in Singapore, serving mostly as transient workers. Who enjoyed the food and the tropical experience, as well as the nightlife – a story most well represented by the 1970s film by Peter Bogdanovich (starrring Ben Gazzaniga), Saint Jack.

These are again not the group of Anglo-Americans today. Today’s Anglo-Americans are expatriates. While there isn’t a street that can be attributed to them, there are many districts that locals consider stereotypical cultural enclaves – these are the famous nightlife spots of Holland Village, River Valley, Boat Quay and Robinson Quay. Where you can grab a pint, that’s where the Anglo-American enclaves are. Of the four cultural enclaves that I will introduce today, this is a little mroe iffy and certainly a lot more of a stereotype of the Caucasian expatriate as a whole than an Anglo-American cultural group in particular. But that’s the stereotype.

The next group however, I am a lot more confident. That’s the French speaking cultural enclave. The French have been in Singapore as long as the British have. Perhaps their greatest influence in colonial Singapore was in the Catholic Church where the vast majority of the church in Singapore (the churches, schools, hospitals etc) were set up by French missionaries.

Today’s modern French presence is less religious and more everything-else centric. There are three areas in Singapore where you can find a French cultural enclave. Tiong Bahru, Joo Chiat and Serangoon Gardens. All three are estates with private housing that are most similar to a suburban environment that would be familiar to the French. Younger French expatriates and established individuals live in Tiong Bahru, In fact a famous bakery opened in Tiong Bahru, called Tiong Bahru Bakery, and the boulangerie was opened by a Frenchmen, Gontran Cherrier and more French cafes have opened in the area to cater to the hipster as well as the French crowd in the area.

Serangoon Gardens in northeast Singapore is another private district popular with the French expatriates with young families because of its proximity to the Lycée français de Singapour (the French international school in Singapore).

The Japanese people first arrived in Singapore at the same time as the French and British, however whereas the British arrived in Singapore as colonial overlords and the French as traders and missionaries, the first Japanese to arrive in Singapore were prostitutes. This was because Japan in the late 1800s was undergoing a period of turmoil – the Meiji Restoration. And young girls from Nagasaki and Kumamoto Prefectures in Japan were encouraged to engage in the flesh trade to help the national effort.

Obviously Japan today is a very different place. The history of Japan in Singapore is complicated by World War 2 and the Occupation of Singapore and the larger East/Southeast Asian region.

But Japan and Japanese have a very respected and well like position in Singapore today. The Japanese next returned to Singapore in the mid 1960s as Singapore’s economy began to welcome international firms (including Japanese ones such as Mitsubishi and Panasonic) to set up manufacturing bases here with some of them settling down and rooting themselves in Singapore. Japanese expatriates today arrive in Singapore to work in the city, but contrary to expectations the Japanese population in Singapore is largely female. This has to do with the fact that Singapore’s work culture is less patriarchal than Japanese one and the country has a reputation for being very safe for women. Many young families have also moved to Singapore and in this case they perform a whole variety of work.

In both cases the Japanese in Singapore live near the west of Singapore with districts such as Queenstown and Pasir Panjang particularly popular with them. You cannot really tell that the district is more Japanese then the rest of Singapore because of the relative obsession in Singapore with all things Korean and Japanese (there are too many Japanese restuarants and speciality stores everywhere), you can only tell by listening closely in the area.

Then we have the hottest group of expatriates today. Well I don’t mean looks, I mean hallyu, Korean Wave.

The Korean wave has taken over the Asia and North America (it is still imprevious to Europe though) and Singapore is no exception.

I was being playful. Koreans were in Singapore way before KPop and Hallyu caught fire, but the interest among locals for all things korean followed the rise of hallyu. The Korean presence in Singapore followed the entry of Korean companies such as Samsung and Daewoo and then grew just as it did with the Japanese population into other areas such as research and finance.

Two little Koreas have emerged in Singapore. Korea is a mountainous country and funnily enough most Koreans in Singapore live where the hills are, in Bukit Panjang, Bukit Batok and Bukit Timah (Bukit being malay for Hill).

As for where to find the most hip and authentic Korean food, that would be at Tanjong Pagar and Telok Ayer in Singapore.

What other large cultural enclaves in Singapore have I not mentioned? Comment below!

ON THE MAP (Serangoon Gardens & Tiong Bahru)

ON THE MAP (Tanjong Pagar Road)

ON THE MAP (Queenstown)

ON THE MAP (Holland Village)


An immigrant is an immigrant regardless of the country they are in. That’s the ideal. Life is not so fair.

In many societies, where you are born, what you do, how you look and how much money you have unfortunately determine your hierarchy in society. People want to be associated with you not because of you but because of what you represent (for example, a phenomenon called Sarong Party Girls where an asian woman is drawn to a Caucasian man not for any personality traits but purely because of his race – it is a form of racism when you think about it).

The same happens in social and cultural enclaves.

Although Koreans, Japanese and Caucasians are economic immigrants to Singapore (just as south Asian, Chinese and other southeast Asians are economic migrants too) they are not treated the same. Very often, these individuals belong to the white collar work force while the other Asian cultures are heavily represented in the blue collar work force. The former group are hence given the nice term expatriate while the latter are called migrant workers when at their core its the same thing, they are economic migrants (as I am, in Sweden now). To be sure, there are many white collar workers from among the south, east and southeast Asian population, but the community is rarely viewed as such in society.

Now, lest you think this is an indictment of Singapore, it isn’t. Singapore is not an exception in this, the same sort of social casting takes place everywhere in the world. The nations may change, but the judgement call is usually the same. If someone comes from a developed nation, they are usually seen as better people, whereas if someone is from a developing nation they are usually seen as worse people – the nation of birth being a proxy for the content of character. This is a statement of fact.

This article is not about social justice, it is about capturing social realities and it is a reality that there are many white collar expatriates that have formed communities in Singapore.


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