10 mixed-race women in SG tell us their stories and experiences
“People get a kick out of me swearing in Hokkien or singing Chinese New Year songs,” says one
by Goh Yee Huay /
December 27, 2020
Credit: Veronica Tay
These 10 women don’t look it, but they live, talk and are Singaporean born and bred. On Her World’s 60th, we pay tribute to the flourishing diversity of women with mixed ethnicities and heritage, who share their stories and experiences.
10 mixed-race women in SG tell us their stories and experiences
NIGERIAN CHINESE | NOELLE WOON, 22, MODEL
“As a Blasian (black Asian) in Singapore, people find me cool and unique rather than weird. They ask: “Where are you from?”, “Is your hair real?” But once I speak, they know I’m Singaporean – my accent is so strong that it throws them off.
I’m glad to be mixed, as I have the traits of two races. For example, I naturally have a lot of rhythm because of my African side. I have a modelling contract and having an exotic look helps to bring across a different style in high fashion apparel.
However, I feel predominantly Chinese as I grew up with a single mum and the rest of my Chinese family. I have no exposure to African culture, although when I speak to African people, I learn more about the culture, and they are very open to showing me what it is like.”
EUROPEAN MELANESIAN CHINESE | MICHELLE AYN TESSENSOHN, 46, LIFE COACH
“My Dad is Eurasian with Chinese, British, Portuguese, German and Melanesian heritage. My Mum is Dutch Burgher (Eurasian from Sri Lanka) and has Sinhalese, Dutch, Irish and Scottish blood. My parents met at a mutual friend’s party.
I recently learnt about my Melanesian roots after my paternal aunt took a DNA test, but I have no conscious connection to the culture. I identify most with my South-east Asian heritage – I always need to be near the sea, and I don’t do well in cold climates.
I went to a convent school and I speak Mandarin, but people don’t process that I’m local even when I’m speaking in Singlish or Mandarin.
Being Eurasian helps me connect with more diverse groups as I understand what it means to hold different cultures. It was a big culture shock when I went to the UK to study and realised how Asian I was at heart.”
Courtesy of Michelle Ayn Tessensohn
CHINESE INDIAN PORTUGUESE | IRIS CHAI, 39, PR CONSULTANT
“I grew up living with my grandparents, who are from China. They listened to Chinese radio, watched Channel 8 programmes, and spoke to me in Hakka. So I identify as Chinese.
I’m comfortable in my own skin now, but I used to wish I looked more Chinese. I was asked almost daily about my heritage, and I didn’t know how to deal with such situations. It had an impact on my confidence, knowing I look different.
But with age, I’ve learnt to cope. These things no longer make me feel any less myself.”
Courtesy of Iris Chai
ARAB PERANAKAN CHINESE | INEZ ALSAGOFF, 22, STUDENT
“People have a set of expectations of me because I look different. My standard introduction would be that I’m Arab-Chinese.
I grew up eating Peranakan food and wearing kebayas, and my elders speak Malay. I can’t speak Mandarin or dialect or Arabic, and I least resonate with my Arab side.
I’m often labelled as ‘exotic’, and most assume I’m Malay. Makciks and pakciks speak to me in Malay and laugh when I struggle to reply. Chinese aunties and uncles are shocked when they hear me order food in my limited Chinese.”
Courtesy of Inez Alsagoff
CHINESE SWEDISH | STEPHANIE COLHAG YEO, 29, FOUNDER OF OUTFYT ACTIVEWEAR
“My social etiquette, mannerisms and ethical beliefs stem from my Swedish heritage. So much so that the ethos behind Outfyt is based on Scandinavian cultural beliefs, such as our ethical and sustainable approach; Scandinavians have great respect for the environment.
My mum is from Stockholm, Sweden, and my Dad’s dialect is Hokkien. I can speak Swedish and Mandarin. I have the best of both worlds as experiencing two cultures has taught me how to adapt to different situations.
I often forget I look different, but the plus side is people easily identify with me. In China, people thought I was from Xinjiang. In Bali, it was Indonesian-Chinese. And nobody bats an eyelid when I speak Swedish in Sweden. In Singapore, people think I look more ‘ang moh’ and in Sweden, people think I look more Asian. But I know who I am intrinsically, and that is all that matters.”
MALAY ARAB INDIAN | NADIA RAHMAT, 29, EVENTS COORDINATOR AND MODEL
“A few years back, I was featured in a photography project by Mihaela Noroc called Atlas of Beauty, which depicted women around the world – my photo was used to represent Singapore. However, some locals criticised that it wasn’t ‘Singaporean’ enough.
The amount of support I got outweighed the negativity though, as it sparked conversations about race and identity.
I feel a strong sense of belonging to Singapore, even though I have Malay, Arabic, Iranian, Turkish, Pakistani, Jawa, Minang, Bengali and Siamese roots, among many others. My dad is Malay-Arab-Indian, and my mum is Malay.
I lean towards Malay traditions, but I see my looks and mixed heritage as a testament to how racially diverse our country is. It just goes to show that no one can really be labelled as just one race.”
“I’ve always felt that I can’t relate to any part of my heritage fully. That is why I consider myself, first and foremost, a Singaporean.
My dad is Sikh and my mum is Eurasian, but I was brought up in a Malay foster family. Although I can speak Malay, I am not Malay; even though I’m Sikh, I do not know the language or culture. Yet I can’t call myself Eurasian.
I have a Malay upbringing: fasting during Ramadan and celebrating Hari Raya Puasa with my foster family every year. I even eat with my right hand. I seldom celebrate Christmas with my mum, but we exchange gifts every year.
I went to neighbourhood schools, where I got teased for my long full name. The way I look, however, is a good conversation starter in my work. Not once has anyone guessed my ethnicity, and I simply tell them that Singapore is a multiracial country.”
ENGLISH JAPANESE CHINESE | NICOLE MIDORI WOODFORD, 34, FILM DIRECTOR & LECTURER AT NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY
“My father is Eurasian – half-Japanese and half-European (British, Irish and Portuguese-Goan). My mother is Singaporean Chinese. I’ve amalgamated both my parents’ cultural backgrounds into my own diverse identity.
Bonding over cooking with my Chinese and Japanese grandmothers, Christmas with my dad’s side of the family, and Chinese New Year gatherings with Mum’s family, are some of the memorable moments from my multiracial family.
As a filmmaker, it has become part of my storytelling identity and shaped my outlook in life.”
ARMENIAN PORTUGUESE CHINESE | VICTORIA GALISTAN, 37, REAL ESTATE AGENT
“During my PSLE Chinese oral exam, the examiner was impressed because I could speak the language even though I don’t have a Chinese name. I grew up being asked about my ethnicity, so I learned how to say ‘mixed parentage’ – Dad’s Armenian-Portuguese and Mum’s Chinese – in Mandarin.
I feel Chinese at heart as I’m very close to Mum’s side of the family. Chinese food is what we eat at home. We buy new clothes, bedsheets, shoes for Chinese New Year. I even get on my knees to wish my parents before receiving a red packet.”
Courtesy of Victoria Galistan
ENGLISH IRISH PORTUGUESE DUTCH PUNJABI | SONYA BRANSON, 29, MODEL
“I have grown used to explaining my multiple ethnicities (‘Wah! So many can meh?’) to people. It’s part and parcel of every Grab ride. ‘Are you Singaporean? Sure or not? Don’t look like leh.’, ‘Is your father that Richard Branson?’
My Eurasian dad, who has English, Irish, Portuguese and Dutch blood, and my Punjabi mum, met at the National University of Singapore; I have an elder brother and a younger sister. I went to mission schools and junior college, and was raised conservatively with Asian values. One of the things I love about my heritage is being able to enjoy both my Eurasian and Indian grandmothers’ cooking.
I feel people are a bit wary when they first meet me. They can’t categorise me easily and have no ‘guidelines’ on how they should treat me. They take more time to warm up, and many get a kick out of me swearing in Hokkien or singing Chinese New Year songs. I fully identify as being Singaporean.”
This article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Her World.