Elsa tells me that English is their first language, and I wonder if is there not a native Singapore language. “Everyone who is schooled in Singapore has to have a compulsory second language,” she begins. “And that’s usually your mother tongue. So for me, I am from a mixed heritage. I’m Chinese and Indian. I could choose either second language at school, and I took Mandarin. But then, it doesn’t stop. You can be completely Indian and take Mandarin as well. No one would care. But you just have to do a second language. I think, when you’re in school it’s a bit of a pain because it’s hard, learning a foreign language. But then obviously when you get into the workforce, it’s really a bonus just to have on your CV that you have this language, in terms of getting a job in Singapore. So the government has done some things right, in that sense. First language – the whole medium of education in Singapore is in English. Singapore was part of Malaysia before, many years ago. It has gained its independence. But Malaysia still has Malay, Bahasa as its first language. But we’ve obviously progressed. Singapore is fifty five years now – independent. It’s still a young country but we’ve come a long way in terms of development.”
She continues: “My whole family is of mixed heritage. I was raised by my grandparents. I think they’re the most wonderful people that I’ve ever had in my life. Just their mentality and how open they were, at that age and that generation. No one was ever turned away in our home. There was always food on the table. My aunties and uncles had mixed marriages and that’s why I grew up with cousins of all sorts of ethnicities. We’re quite a colourful family.” She laughs. “I am married to a North Indian, so he is different as well. Our kids look completely different. They don’t look Indian at all. They have a bit of a mix of everything. It’s quite easy to integrate here. Sometimes people think they’re Māori, sometimes they think they’re Spanish.” She laughs wholeheartedly.
Having mentioned diversity and oil families in New Plymouth I ask if Elsa’s husband works in the oil industry as well. “Yes. He works for an oil service company,” she says. “He’s been with the company for quite a while, fifteen, sixteen years. He’s travelled all over the world. Some crazy countries, but he loves it here. This is home as well for him.”
In relation to current racism, terrorism and other issues in the world, I ask how Elsa feels about that, thinking about New Zealand. “Obviously I think New Plymouth doesn’t have as many immigrants as Auckland, for example,” she says. “So you do feel at times you stick out. Especially in the early days. You do feel different. But I always look at it as a positive difference. We’re educated. We come from a civilised respectable country. Not everyone gets to come to New Zealand. You have to be a skilled person to be able to come here. But some people may not realise that. We are no less than the locals. We stand shoulder to shoulder and we need to support each other in that sense. We shouldn’t be differentiated that way. I find it quite funny because when we first came here people made the comment that we speak really good English. I would tell them: ‘Because English is our first language.’ We laugh. “Quite funny,” she says.
“Is there anything which you think is comparable to New Zealand?” I ask.
“In a lot of ways it is,” Elsa replies. “I think it’s quite relative, isn’t it. It’s what you see is comparable. For me I think New Zealand has a peaceful lifestyle, and balance of work and home. You could have a hectic job but people respect your weekends and days off, and things like that. And then the city is so beautiful. There’s always something to do, in every season. And you don’t have to spend money for that. In Singapore, just to go see something you actually have to pay entry fees to a lot of places. So it kind of restricts people of different income levels. Which is not fair. I think you should be able to go to a park and put out a picnic mat, and not have to pay or bring your kids to a community event and not have to pay for it. We should be able to have simple things in life like that. It’s nice when you are young and you have a career on the rise, but for the older generation where you are not able to earn that much, it impacts your lifestyle and what you can do.”
In terms of religion, there are no cultural differences, Elsa tells me. “I am a roman catholic. I think all religions are a set of values. I do go to church but I’m not fully active in the church community. Initially in the earlier times when the kids were a bit younger, yes, but not so much now. My kids are roman catholic as well. My husband is a Hindu. But he comes to church with us. Christmas and things like that. He’s a free spirit.”
I want to know if there are any traditions they used to celebrate or hold on to from in Singapore that they still do now or have stopped doing. “It’s a bit tricky with not having extended family here. I miss that, I really miss that,” Elsa admits. “Especially during Christmas and Chinese New Year, and Diwali and things like that. Because that’s what it’s about. Having everybody together, having kids have their cousins, you know, that kind of thing. But I do try still to keep those festivities simple at home. We have our own Christmas rituals where we create that same meal that we used to have at home for many many years. And then during Chinese New Year when my mum was alive, there are some things that she used to do for the boys. I try and do that as well because I want them to remember her and her traditions. After all, they are quarter Chinese as well. So they need to be proud of that. And then on my husband’s side, they celebrate Diwali so I try and do a bit of his as well. So yeah, I try and kind of mix it all up. On a small scale,” she adds. “Until they leave home I think I’m going to do that.”
“That’s nice because it gives you your sense of identity and it’s actually important for you too, I think,” I concur.
“I am really proud of what we are as well. Because with having kids I think it’s important that they know their roots and their family history,” Elsa further states.
“Do you now consider New Zealand to be your home country or do you still think of Singapore as your home country. How do you view it?” I ask.
“I view New Zealand as home,” Elsa says. “No doubt. This is where we would like to stay – for as long as I can,” she adds. “We’re permanent residents now. The kids will have to go back for their military service at some point. But then again, if they choose to stay there, it’s their life. They will be adults at that stage.”
“They can always come back,” I sympathise.
“Exactly. We have this business to grow. At least we have our goal to get to.”
“How do you see your future from here? You opened Seletar recently. How do your see your future – short term and long term?”
“I have a really good feeling that this is going to work. And I’m not out there to come out with a bang and fall flat on my face. I want to do things gradually. I’ve got a lot of patience when it comes to things like this. I want to really nurture it and make sure that I do it right, and remember the objective which is sharing diversity of this business through our food. With everything that I am doing in terms of my marketing and my food and collaborations and events and things like that – always having that at the back of my head. I just want it to be an inclusive thing, for people, for us, to put that tiny island of Singapore on the map in New Zealand. Because I think if we do it well, hopefully we’ll be one of the first successful Singapore food businesses. Short term is to put Singapore on the map, I guess long term obviously we hope to expand in whatever that form might be. Bringing it to other regions. And being authentic is really important to me as well. If I didn’t have a Singapore chef to stay true to our recipes I wouldn’t do it. And I’m so glad that we are working well to bring this vision to life. We just have to stay focused to what we are trying to do. I think people in New Zealand are really nice and welcoming to new businesses, which is really lovely. That’s why all the more I want to do it well and want to do it right. We’re all about embracing diversity and bringing our culture and sharing it with this lovely community.”