Singaporean mama of one, Juliana Loh talks about life in Hong Kong
Globetrotting Singaporean mama Juliana Loh shares what life is like as an expat family living in Hong Kong. From giving birth during the height of the pandemic where she says anyone who tested positive for Covid-19 would have to be isolated, give birth alone, and be separated from their newborn after birth, to raising her son to be able to speak three languages—English, French and some Cantonese. Here she talks about the highs of HK life from its dynamic energy to the lows “I think motherhood can be very isolating wherever you are in the world, coupled with being time-poor and often physically limited. It takes a lot of effort and luck to find your tribe or “village”.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Born and raised in Singapore, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from National University of Singapore as a Theatre and European Studies major. I am the youngest of three children—my two elder brothers and I grew up in Serangoon Gardens and my mother was a stay-at-home mum (SAHM). I am currently a full-time mum, part-time copywriter, proofreader, and lifestyle journalist based in Hong Kong. I write a blog too.
I had the opportunity to live and work abroad when I was 24. My first overseas stint was an opportunity to work at Fabrica, Benetton Group’s communication research center in Italy with young creatives under 25 from all over the world. I started my career in copywriting and journalism, and worked on the now-defunct magazine COLORS along with many other Benetton projects. I’ve since lived and worked in Beijing, Macao, and Hong Kong.
What brought you to Hong Kong? How long have you been living overseas?
This is my second stint in Hong Kong, I’ve been here six years now as a trailing spouse. Prior to this, I lived and worked in Hong Kong from 2011 to 2012 before joining my husband in Macao. We relocated back here in 2017 for his job. I’ve lived overseas for 18 years—nearly half my life.
Favourite aspect about living in Hong Kong?
Dim sum and milk tea!! Also the autonomy to work as a trailing spouse and the dynamic energy of Hong Kong. Just take a look at the old people climbing up the steep slopes of Mid-Levels with their walking sticks—their spirit is unbreakable!
And the worst part?
Covid-19 restrictions were very difficult for us—borders were shut, we were living in a parallel universe of fear and paranoia, parents separated from babies, ever-changing rules and restrictions, closed playgrounds, and being constantly harassed to mask my newborn. Hong Kong’s urban planning isn’t built for families with young children, it’s not pram-friendly and the design of infrastructure in daily life isn’t inclusive towards people with young children or disabilities.
How do you think parenting in Hong Kong differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
I have never been a parent in Singapore so I’m not sure how it differs and can only make the comparison to how I was raised. Hong Kong is full of third culture kids and their families, which made us feel right at home. It’s a community that embraces change and differences. I also really appreciate that my son is able to pick up Cantonese here in Hong Kong (I’m Cantonese and Hokkien). There wouldn’t be the same opportunities to learn or speak it in Singapore.
There are a million playgroups and classes from the moment babies are born and they even interview toddlers for admission into elite schools. I guess I appreciate that we have options and choices as well as lots of open-ended outdoor play options like hiking trails, beautiful beaches, and farms although the free water parks in Singapore probably trumps everything. There is no equivalent in Hong Kong and most of the fun activities we do with our child here comes with a price tag.
Did you give birth to your child in Hong Kong? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
Yes. It was at the height of the pandemic and anyone who tested positive for Covid-19 would have to be isolated, give birth alone, and be separated from her newborn after birth—which made all expecting mothers very anxious. For more autonomy, we chose to go private and had to undergo Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests the week of my due date. Fortunately, due to medical circumstances, I had a scheduled caesarean section so I didn’t have to get a very expensive PCR test every 48 hours until I went into labour. I was very lucky to give birth at a private hospital and it was thankfully uneventful and comfortable with very supportive doctors, nurses, and midwives.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
I spent most of my pre-baby career in advertising and luxury hospitality and had the opportunity to travel extensively for work. I gave up my career to move to Macao to join my husband and set up my own company in Hong Kong as I was not allowed to work on a spouse visa in Macao. I worked with global clients on branding, marketing, and content strategy projects in the luxury hospitality industry and was travelling every week. By the time we moved back to Hong Kong in 2017, I had survived cancer and also dialled back on work. As I could work remotely, I often travelled with my husband when he was on business trips. It was very carefree and spontaneous.
The post-baby and post-Covid-19 life couldn’t be more different, with neither work nor travel and all my priorities have changed, centred around trying to keep this pet human alive and help him thrive. Now that my 2.5-year-old has just started going to school, I’m working on slowly reclaiming my old life—or carving out a new one—and taking on more freelance work, trying to find the delicate balance between sanity, my health along with staying relevant as a human being and managing mum guilt.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Hong Kong?
Limewood at Repulse Bay. The kid’s menu is great, there’s a sea view, and it’s just a stone’s throw from the beach.
Top five places in or around Hong Kong you would recommend to parents travelling with kids.
Tamar Park – It is right by Central Ferry Piers with the iconic Hong Kong skyline as a backdrop for great photos. You can rent bikes and trikes for free with a HKD 100 deposit and walk, run or play along the promenade that leads east to Wanchai or all the way west to Kennedy Town. Along this route, there are playgrounds with slides and climbing walls as well as colourful tunnels for a spot of hide and seek. You can also settle down for snacks or a picnic on the grass patch and enjoy the sea breeze.
Ocean Park – There are theme park rides for older children and activities for toddlers. My toddler loves the carousel and the gravel pit with running water for free play located right across the locomotive train for kids. The aquarium is beautiful and there’s great gelati. The food at Ocean Park is edible but expensive for what you get. My son really loves Tuxedos Restaurant that offers a front row view of penguins as it is adjacent to the enclosure. We always go at 11.30 a.m. to be seated for the noon feeding.
The Mills Fabrica – This refurbished old mill has something for everyone. There are lifestyle concept stores, exhibitions, work-in-progress research on making fashion sustainable, upcycling projects, etc. There are also dining outlets and a huge indoor playground for kids. You have history, architecture, education, and play under one roof.
Pamela Peck Discovery Space – It is the equivalent of Kidztopia, with an outdoor track for bicycles and scooters, a water play area, a rock climbing wall, and an indoor play area divided into different themes such as a fishing boat, a Hong Kong wet market, a supermarket, a restaurant, a live stage, a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) cabin, and a construction site. Tickets need to be booked in advance for a three-hour slot.
Casita – The perfect wet weather plan. The playroom is full of toys including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) toys and crafts suitable for children aged 0 to 12. It is a happy space for lots of singing and dancing. My toddler comes here for Zumbini classes and we come here often when it rains. Snacks, coffee, and tea are on the house. Most of all, the people that run this space are lovely!
Is there something that you do to keep your child in touch with his Singaporean roots?
Apart from weekly calls with my parents, I cook Singaporean dishes that I grew up on—Hainanese chicken rice, Nonya chicken curry, and my mum’s meesua in pork bone broth.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Hong Kong
– for a child:
– for a mama friend:
Something from The Lion Rock Press or Goods of Desire. Lots of cute Hong Kong-themed souvenirs!
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
I think motherhood can be very isolating wherever you are in the world, coupled with being time-poor and often physically limited. It takes a lot of effort and luck to find your tribe or “village”.
On raising multilingual children …
I grew up in a multilingual household (English, Cantonese, Malay, and Hokkien) but am only proficient in English and Cantonese. I hope to do better for my son.
At 2.5 years old, he’s very comfortable switching between English and French. He also uses Cantonese words as we have a local nanny who speaks only Cantonese six hours a week. He picks up Cantonese from me too as I use it in daily life. This is important to me as it is a part of our heritage and roots. He’s also born in Hong Kong so it’s only fitting he speaks Cantonese.
He goes to a English-Mandarin bilingual nursery. Mandarin is his weakest link so I’ve been speaking both English and Mandarin to him. It isn’t ideal as I know One Parent, One Language (OPOL) is the recommended approach for a child to learn a language properly. I am hopeful he will adapt like I did and eventually he will be able to code-switch. His nursery has a summer immersion programme in Beijing, a place we love and hold dear as I lived there for five years and met my husband there. The plan is for him to do summer camps in Beijing.
In France, everyone speaks only French—myself included—as my in-laws don’t speak English. We spend a couple of weeks in France at least twice a year and his grandparents intend to visit us once or twice a year.
So there! It’s very messy but I feel the responsibility to offer options. He appears to be on this crazy growth trajectory and shows lots of interest in language and music so we are riding the wave. As a SAHM, I have the privilege to invest the time and effort to help him on this multilingual journey.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your child?
Pandan chiffon cake, curry spices, bak kut teh spice packs, and homemade sambal belacan.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
Nonya chicken curry with rice. It’s a one-pot dish with potatoes and chicken—my mother always adds cabbage so it ticks all the boxes for nutrition.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Hong Kong if you moved away?
The food. Nowhere else does barbecued roast pork and dim sum like Hong Kong.
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
See my parents and then head out to the hawker centre to eat my weight in hawker fare.
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
The humidity and heat.
Thoughts on your child moving back and joining Singapore’s education system?
We are likely to stay in the international school system as long as we can still afford it given that we move every couple of years. I imagine it would be very stressful and difficult for my son to catch up with his peers if he joins the local education system if and when we do return to Singapore. I’m considering sending my son to Singapore International School in Hong Kong, which has a good mix of Singaporean and international students.
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
I think Singapore is so safe and efficient, we take it for granted it is the same everywhere else. Living abroad has given me a different perspective and how good we have it in Singapore—no public transportation strikes, no protests and riots, not having to worry about pickpockets or ending up on the wrong side of town and getting mugged in the streets in broad daylight. Living abroad gives us a dose of the real world and makes us realise that the things