Overseas Singaporean mama of two Magdaline Poh talks life in Chengdu, China — from its famous pandas and Sichuan cuisine to the kid-friendly farms, parks and mountain resorts
More than 10 years ago, Magdaline Poh moved to China for her career. Little did she know she would meet her husband, a fellow Singaporean, who was also working in Shanghai. They eventually moved to Sri Lanka and Italy together but made the decision to come back to China and now have two children, a five-year-old boy and a 14-month-old girl. She explains to us why Chengdu is a hidden gem for Singaporeans and how the city is also great for families with young children.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I have lived overseas since 2007 when I moved to Shanghai, China for work. At that time, I had worked for about three years as a market research consultant after graduating from the National University of Singapore (NUS). I was travelling frequently to China to manage the local team there. I have always wanted to experience working and living overseas, with the view that this would enrich my career and personal development. An opportunity presented itself when the country manager of the China office left and I proposed to my managing director the idea of posting me to the China office.
That was how I ended up in Shanghai and it marked the start of more than a decade of overseas living. It was in this city where I met my husband, a fellow Singaporean also working in Shanghai. We knew each other when we studied at NUS but we were dating other people then. We met again in Shanghai five years after graduation. Somehow everything felt right and we got married after six months of dating! We just celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary last year.
What brought you to Chengdu, China? How long have you been living overseas?
I left Singapore in 2007 and have been living overseas for almost 13 years. Due to my husband’s work, we lived in Sri Lanka and Italy before coming back to China. He was in the airline industry before and we were posted to different countries depending on his company’s needs. Coming back to China was a deliberate decision on our part. We wanted to be closer to home and at the same time be in a place that offers good work opportunities. When we returned to China, he joined a property management company and we moved to Chengdu in Sichuan province in 2015. My five-year-old son practically grew up in Chengdu. We also have a 14-month-old daughter. We recently moved to Chongqing, again because of my husband’s job; he manages serviced apartments for The Ascott Limited.
Favourite aspect about living in Chengdu?
There are two favourite aspects for me actually. Chengdu is the only city built on plains in southwestern China and also has a mild climate, which leads to quality and varied agricultural produce that shines through in Sichuan cuisine. Before we came to Chengdu, our impression of Sichuan food was just mala hotpot. In reality, Sichuan cuisine encompasses many more elements than just spice. A very good example is the dish nappa cabbage in supreme stock, whose Chinese name literally means cabbage in boiled water, but the boiled water in question is in fact broth made from ingredients including chicken, duck, Chinese ham, dried scallops and pork. It looks deceptively like water but is actually bursting with flavours.
I also love that there are many scenic places in and around Chengdu. We enjoy going to different parks to admire peach blossoms during springtime and ginkgo trees in autumn. During winter, we would visit hot springs and snow mountains. Apart from natural scenery, there are many ancient towns and traditional streets we can go to experience the local history, culture and delicacies.
…And the worst part?
Probably heavy smog and the lack of sunshine during winter. Chengdu averages just over 20 days of sunshine in a year. Having been brought up in sunny Singapore, this difference is keenly felt. You always know when it is a bright, sunny day in Chengdu as the city’s residents will be out in force in parks and open spaces, soaking up the golden rays.
Your most recent purchase
…for your children?
A mobile phone cover that comes with a sling strap. China has gone cashless in the last few years and it is often sufficient to head out with just a mobile phone as I can use my mobile phone to make payments for everything. We often have to remind ourselves to bring cash and credit cards whenever we travel out of China!
How do you think parenting in Chengdu differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
Chengdu has a slower pace of life compared to Singapore and this shows in the local parenting style. I feel parents here are generally more patient towards their children. They seem more relaxed and will go with the flow. I like that they allow their children plenty of time to explore and have fun, and do not appear to be in a rush to get to the next destination.
Weekend outings with local friends tend to stretch from lunch till dinner. They also prefer to gather outdoors such as eating at farmhouses where kids can play on the premises afterwards, or having outdoor barbecues or picnics. Outsiders often comment that Chengdu people know how to enjoy life and I appreciate this about them very much.
Did you give birth to your children in Chengdu? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
I did most of my prenatal checkups in Chengdu but I gave birth to both my children in Singapore. The local medical and confinement practices are different from Singapore’s and I was more comfortable giving birth in Singapore as I would also have more support from my family.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-babies?
I was a business consultant before I had my kids. Work was very hectic, involving long hours, tight deadlines and frequent travels. The furthest I have travelled for work was to a small city in Brazil. That trip left a deep impression because my luggage was lost in transit and I arrived in Brazil in the summer wearing a down jacket and boots as I had come from wintry Shanghai. My work was pretty stressful but I enjoyed completing challenging projects and helping my clients solve their business issues. Of course, it was also very rewarding financially. I started out as a market researcher and was promoted to country manager for Greater China before I left the company.
With the arrival of my firstborn, I became a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) as it is difficult to find reliable and qualified nannies to take care of very young children in Chengdu. Infant care and childcare for toddlers less than three years old are almost non-existent. Most local parents keep their young children at home until they attend preschool at three or four years old.
Currently, I take on freelance consulting projects sourced through my business contacts from when I was working full time. I am fortunate to be bilingual in English and Chinese, which allows me to do translation work too. I also started an online store a while ago, selling accessories. Compared to consulting projects, this was a low-value, high-volume business. I let it go eventually as I felt that the business returns did not justify the time and effort I spent to keep it running.
As a SAHM, it is important to me that I stay in touch with what is happening in society and that I continue to develop as a person. I have always been intrigued by the stock market so I took up a course to learn how to do stock analysis. I also help my husband plan activities for guests in his serviced apartments such as organising qipao appreciation classes, a Sichuan mahjong club and gingerbread house-making activities during Christmas, which allows me to meet new people and socialise.
Not working full time also means I have pockets of time to pick up new hobbies like Chinese calligraphy, painting and baking. I try to exercise as much as possible and recently did my first six-kilometre fun run along the Dujiangyan, a small personal achievement as I am not an avid runner. Overall, these various activities enable me to have a more balanced life in addition to caring for my family. Some people I met commented that it is a pity for me to put my career on hold at such a young age. I believe it is a matter of priorities and family holds the top spot for my husband and I. Most importantly, we are content with our chosen lifestyle.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Chengdu?
Koyama serves pretty authentic Japanese food, with plenty of non-spicy options for children. It can sometimes be difficult to find food suitable for young palates when Sichuan peppercorn is so ubiquitous. The restaurant has private rooms, which are perfect for larger families or gatherings, with very clean adjoining washrooms. There is no need to worry if the children are too noisy or if they get restless and start playing around. Lunch sets are reasonably-priced at around CNY80 (SGD15.71) and come with free ice cream, red bean dessert or coffee.
Top five places in or around Chengdu you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.
- Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding – Pandas are China’s national treasure and 70% of the country’s pandas are found in Sichuan. A trip to Chengdu is not complete without seeing pandas. The research base has well-paved roads that are stroller- and kid-friendly. It is around 30 minutes from the city centre by car and most visitors would spend about two to three hours there. This will suit parents travelling with babies or toddlers who may not want to spend the entire day outside or who prefer a more relaxed itinerary.
- Kuanzhai Alley – Located within the city centre next to a metro station, this is another tourist attraction suitable for families comprising traditional alleys and courtyards preserved from the olden times, rich in history and culture. The entire area has been rebuilt and now houses plenty of restaurants, cafes, teahouses and souvenir shops. The teahouses offer entertainment suitable for the young and old such as Sichuan face-changing operas, shadow plays and puppet shows.
- Huanglongxi Ancient Town – It is about an hour’s car ride from Chengdu city centre and is probably the most famous ancient town near Chengdu with key sights such as ancient streets, temples and a justice court. A day trip there is fun and relaxing for families. One can simply stroll down the streets taking in the sights and sounds while trying signature snacks like longevity noodles and sesame cakes.
- Zhegu Mountain – For families with slightly older kids who are feeling adventurous, definitely consider a trip to one of the snow mountains on the fringes of Chengdu. I would recommend Zhegu Mountain because there are some notable ethnic minority villages such as Taoping Qiang Village and Ganbao Tibetan Stone Village on the way. These villages have their own unique architecture, culture and cuisine, serving as good rest stops for meals or simply for kids to expend some energy before continuing on the road trip. As Zhegu Mountain is about six hours away by car, most visitors will have to stay overnight in one of the nearby counties. I would highly recommend Ramada Hotel at Gu’ergou. There are indoor and outdoor hot springs located on the hotel grounds, one of which is specially designed for children with a play area and slides. The ascent up Zhegu Mountain is hassle-free and private cars are able to park opposite the snow play area – very important when you are carrying children or lugging their sleighs at about 4000m above sea level! Once at the ski slopes, private ski coaches are available for hire at very reasonable rates of about CNY200 (SGD40) per hour.
- Taikoo Li and Chengdu International Finance Square (Chengdu IFS) – Many international brands and restaurants with international cuisines can be found here. A key tourist attraction, Daci Temple, is also located at Taikoo Li. This temple dates back more than 1,000 years and is an oasis of serenity in the bustling shopping district. We particularly like Chengdu IFS for its kids’ bowling alley and ice skating rink. There are nursing rooms and family washrooms in the mall. Strollers are also available for rent upon request at the concierge.
Any advice for surviving a flight with young children?
Prepare plenty of their favourite snacks to use as incentives to encourage good behaviour. Plan activities to keep them occupied such as sticker activity books, drawing pads and board games. We allow our son to watch cartoons on the iPad only during flights so this has become a special treat for him. We just have to settle him nicely into his seat with some snacks and he would quietly watch cartoons during the flight. I recommend getting a set of junior noise-cancelling headphones not just to cancel out the plane’s engine noise but also to be assured that the volume is not turned too high. It also helps to travel at a time of the day when the kids are less likely to be cranky.
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
We travel to Singapore several times a year to catch up with family and friends. In Chengdu, we participate in events organised by the Singapore Consulate-General such as Chinese New Year lunches and National Day celebrations. My son’s school celebrates International Day annually and we bring Singaporean food to share with his schoolmates and teachers.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Chengdu…
For a child?
Panda memorabilia such as a plush toy, a cap or a jacket. Another option would be a traditional Sichuan opera toy figurine that changes its mask each time you swipe the headgear.
For a mama friend?
An ornament, a piece of clothing or an accessory with Shu embroidery. Shu is the ancient name for Sichuan and Shu embroidery is one of the major schools of embroidery in China. Some embroidered pieces are double-sided, using the same outline but different patterns on both sides.
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
The toughest is the lack of support from grandparents and extended family members because they are in a different country. As people say, it takes a village to raise a child. In a foreign country, the mother usually is the main caregiver while the husband focuses on work. It can be very physically, mentally and emotionally demanding on the mother.
On raising multilingual children …
It is important for children to be immersed in the languages you want them to learn on a daily basis. Both my husband and I are fluent in English and Chinese and we use that in our communication at home with our children. My son also benefits from interacting with local children in school and I would say his level of Chinese fluency is rather advanced for his age.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?
I always stock up on over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol and cough syrup as well as health supplements for my children when we travel to Singapore. The brands of drugs available here are mostly unfamiliar to us. As Chengdu does not have a lot of sunshine, it is recommended that infants and children take vitamin D supplements. For myself, I always bring back several packets of coffee powder from Ya Kun. My husband and I are coffee drinkers and we like to have a cup of Singapore-style kopi (black coffee with condensed milk) in the morning.
Your top makeup tip for a busy mama?
I feel that semi-permanent makeup is a worthwhile investment and a real timesaver. I had eyebrow embroidery done after I gave birth to my son and it is so much easier to get ready in the mornings. All I need was some BB cream and a touch of lip gloss to put together a natural “no makeup” look.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family:
Chicken wings, mushrooms, red dates and goji berries steamed with ginger strips, sesame oil and Huadiao wine. This is comfort food for us, especially during the cold winter months. My son loves mushrooms so I make it a point to add more in the dish. For me, I could eat a whole bowl of plain rice with the flavourful stock spooned over it.
What’s the one thing you miss most about Chengdu since moving away?
I will definitely miss the friends we made in Chengdu. Chengdu people are very warm and accepting of foreigners. They treat friends sincerely and are generous in their time spent with you. I appreciate that last trait very much in our fast-paced society.