On Gisella Harrold’s first trip to Singapore, she ate thosai for a dollar from a Holland Village coffee shop and commuted around the island in non air-conditioned buses. Calling her mother in Munich, Germany cost ten dollars for three minutes of international talk time, and Gisella’s aunt, whom she was staying with, stood over her shoulder with a stopwatch to ensure that her seventeen-year-old niece did not exceed the purchased minutes.
It was 1981, and the Singapore Gisella landed in was worlds apart from the one she lives in today.
But it was enough to leave an impression on the teenager, who spent a month during her graduation trip staying with her aunt and uncle at their Pandan Valley home.
When her graduation trip ended, Gisella went home to a job with Deutsche Bank.Her job involved postings to cities such as Tokyo and London, where she met her English husband who worked for the same company.
And when he was posted to Singapore in 1995, Gisella was only too happy to come back.
“I like the idea of living in a country instead of just visiting as a tourist,” says Gisella, who was excited to make Singapore home, after her first vacation here.
But living in a new place proved challenging at first, as it involved the process of carving out new daily routines, finding social and interest groups and immersing in the local culture.
It was especially tough for Gisella, who had joined her husband in Singapore without a job of her own. Without an office and colleagues, she initially struggled to find a social network to fit into.
“No matter how much you like or want to go to a place, when you move it is always an adjustment,” says Gisella, “The locals are not sitting around waiting to become friends with you.”
Gisella (third from left) with her friends in Singapore
So she went to them instead, joining museum volunteer group Friends of the Museum (FOM) to meet new people and learn more about Singapore at the same time. One of her first projects was to come up with a programme and activity booklet for a heritage tour around Chinatown, which would be conducted for students as one of the Ministry of Education’s learning journeys.
While planning the tour, Gisella and her team spent many afternoons walking around Telok Ayer, looking for educational aspects in the architecture that were as new to Gisella as they would be to the students learning about them.
Gisella, who is interested in both history and world religion, found out that bats, which decorated the window frames of some shophouses, were considered a blessing because the Chinese character for bat is similar to the character for prosperity.
While Deutsche Bank eventually offered Gisella a position at its Singapore office, she continued volunteering with FOM, where she enjoyed meeting like-minded friends from a variety of backgrounds. As a docent, or guide, for the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), and later as the volunteer in charge of docent training, Gisella managed and interacted with a team of local and international guides from various countries, including India, the PRC, Japan and even Kazakhstan.
Doing her part
Among the many things she enjoys about being a docent, Gisella finds it particularly meaningful to impart knowledge to the student groups and members of the public whom she guides.
“I can pass on my love of history and of Singapore to people visiting the museum, and tell them a story so they see the museum not just as a temple of boring artefacts, but as a place where stories come alive,” said Gisella.
These days, she usually leads the ACM Gallery-in-Focus tours that feature selected exhibits linked by a particular theme, such as the story of Buddhism told through ACM artefacts.
And she is glad that her children, who were both born and raised in Singapore, can contribute to society in their own ways. Vincent, the elder of the two at nineteen, is undertaking his National Service as a firefighter with the Singapore Civil Defence Force, where he has responded to suicide attempts, car accidents, and fires caused by cars combusting.
“It is hard work, but he is alright with it. National Service was part of the package when we became Permanent Residents in 2001,” said Gisella.
Gisella’s children take after her not just in doing their part for society, but also in their desire to experience other cultures. And Gisella has not slowed down - the hobbyist photographer remains an avid traveller who has visited both temple complexes such as Borobudur in Indonesia and Bagan in Myanmar in the name of research.
“I put my photographs together in books so that one day, when I’m 80, I’ll remember the time I was fit enough to see the world,” says Gisella, and her memories of life in Singapore will live on.