In the Land of My Ancestors

As Singapore celebrates its 58th birthday this year, SG Lifestyle interviews Shanghai-based Singaporean, Richard Tan, who also turns 58 this year, to talk about his journey as a Singaporean living overseas for more than 25 years.

SGLS: What made you leave Singapore to relocate to China?

Richard: My wife Linda and I have been working and living in China for over 25 years. We first landed in Beijing in 1997 before we relocated to Shanghai in 2000.

Back in 1997, China was still relatively closed so there were no global events with the likes of the Beijing Olympics or the Shanghai Expo. We moved to China with the intent to stay for two or three years, explore the country and experience the culture. However, China was transforming and growing rapidly between 1997 and the early 2000s. Its transformation appealed to us so much we both decided to stay to witness and be part of China’s development.

Two years became 20 years and we are still here today. We now have two children, who were born in Shanghai in 2004 and 2007 respectively.

Richard in front of Tiananmen Square in Beijing (Circa 1997)

SGLS: How did you feel when you first landed in Beijing? 

Richard: I remember the day we landed in Beijing, clear as day. It was February 1997 and it was cold and wintry. The late Mr Deng Xiaoping, supreme leader of the People’s Republic of China just passed away. The entire country was in mourning and a state funeral was held. All commercial activities were halted and everything on local television was in black and white. We’d never seen anything like this before, so it left a deep impression.

Feb 1997. Beijing in Mourning (Image: Twitter)

My wife, who is also Singaporean, and I worked very hard in the early years as China was at its initial phases, catching up with the rest of the world. We both held management roles in the advertising and media sector and coming from a country where everything functions like clockwise, working in China where there were no established systems and SOPs (standard operating procedures) was a big culture shock.

However, we persevered as we genuinely wanted to contribute to the development of China. It was after all, the land of our ancestors.

Of course, things have changed. China is now a powerful country, with many metropolitan cities and is one of the key engines driving the growth of Asia.

We are both glad we stayed.

SGLS: What do you miss most about Singapore?

Richard: Our local food! From Janggut Laksa at Roxy Square in Katong to Tiong Bahru Bak Chor Mee and everything else that can be found in our hawker centers. However, in the past 10 years, more [Singaporean] food choices are available in China. I now often frequent Geylang Geylang and Jumbo in Shanghai for Singaporean food.

The second thing we miss about Singapore is its efficiency. Everything is thoughtfully planned – from urban development to public transport that runs like clockwork. Singaporeans who have never lived in another country will never understand how lucky they are, to be living in a country like Singapore.

Lastly, I miss the diverse talent pool and work ethics that are deeply entrenched in Singapore’s DNA. Singaporeans have a strong sense of responsibility that is not so common in other countries. I also miss the unity and teamwork we get in Singapore, where people of different races and religions come together to get things done. This is what makes Singapore so unique.

Richard and Linda with their son, Ryan and daughter, Jordan in Shanghai (Circa 2015)

SGLS: You have two children who grew up in China. Do they identify with being Singaporean? 

Richard: Our children were born and raised in China, so they don’t really resonate with their Singaporean roots as they studied at international schools and have friends from many different countries.

However, their perspectives about the world at large are different from other Singaporean teenagers as they have been exposed to so many different people from other countries. My wife and I think this makes them a lot more open and inquisitive.

We have faith that when they relocate to Singapore one day, they will have no issues integrating into our local community.

SGLS: How do you think being a born and raised Singaporean helps in making you so successful today?

Richard: My grandfather left China for Malaya (when Singapore was still part of Malaysia). He took on the job of a coolie (daily wage worker) to make ends meet. Therefore, I was raised to be frugal and my parents taught us to work hard.

All male Singaporeans have to undergo at least two years of National Service. When I was serving the nation, the Singapore Armed Forces trained us to be calm, composed and not to crack easily under pressure. This became beneficial to me as working in China was tough at first, especially in the volatile advertising sector. My army training taught me discipline, to be optimistic and resilient.

Richard and his family at the Bund, Shanghai in January 2020, before Covid lock-downs

Bonus Q: Do you have a special message for Singapore this National Day?

Richard: Happy Birthday Singapore! I wish all my fellow Singaporeans a happy national day and may we all continue to live in peace and harmony always.


Interview by Angela May Tan, Features Writer, SG Lifestyle.

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  1. Nice perspective on an overseas based Singaporean. I’d like how he shares more on his future plan ; will he want to move back to sg to retire or somewhere else, NS for his son etc

    Happy ND !

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