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Jason Lee, Art Collector, London. - PHOTOGRAPHY JASON BY AL OVERDRIVE
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Jason Lee at his London home with a prized artwork by Zhang Ding. - PHOTOGRAPHY JASON BY AL OVERDRIVE
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Nikheel Advani, Hotelier, Caribbean Islands. - PHOTOGRAPHY NIKHEEL BY JULIANA TAN.
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Nikheel Advani at ease in the Caribbean. - PHOTOGRAPHY NIKHEEL, COURTESY.
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Ellen Chew, Restaurateur, London. - PHOTOGRAPHY ELLEN BY AL OVERDRIVE
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Ellen Chew at her London restaurant, Lobos. - PHOTOGRAPHY ELLEN BY AL OVERDRIVE
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Peter Kok, Multimedia Specialist, Dubai. - PHOTOGRAPHY PETER BY ZHANG SHU MIN
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On the road in Dubai with Peter Kok. - PHOTOGRAPHY PETER BY ZHANG SHU MIN

A Life Abroad

Is it all champagne and roses for Singaporeans based overseas? Daven Wu gets the lowdown on the expat high life.
Oct 15, 2016 5:50 AM

NIKHEEL ADVANI Hotelier / Caribbean Islands

No one could ever accuse Nikheel Advani of sitting still and gathering moss. In just two weeks, he has crossed the globe on a gruelling itinerary: from his Turks and Caicos base in the Caribbean where he is the COO and co-founder of the Grace Bay Resorts group, he flew to New York for business meetings; then onward to Chiang Mai to source for teak for his home; Kuala Lumpur for a wedding; and now, he is in Singapore for his annual month-long vacation with his family. "Singapore is such a contrast to the Caribbean," he says with the polished ease of a career hotelier. "That's why we love coming back."

There has always been a very real sense of the nomad about Mr Advani, 45. He was born in Nigeria where his father was posted as a maritime consultant for the Singapore government. When he was three, his family returned to Singapore. He completed his national service, switched from engineering to hotel management at SHATEC, and then headed to Massachusetts for his hotel management degree, and Harvard Business School for his general manager programme.

In the mid-1990s, he was headhunted by the then-new Ritz-Carlton in Singapore to be its banquet operations manager, which he followed up with a post as the group's youngest F&B director at the Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur. So impressive was his performance that he was sent to open the Washington, DC, Osaka and New York properties. Shortly after, he was back in Singapore, this time at the Raffles Hotel as its hotel manager.

In 2004, Mr Advani moved to Turks and Caicos to join the fledgling Grace Bay Club, first as general manager and then, as founding partner of the Club's new holding company, Grace Bay Resorts.

At the time, Turks and Caicos might have been an idyllic paradise with unending horizons, blue sea and talcum white beaches, but the islands, especially the main Provo island, were still very much the frontier. "It was difficult at first," he recalls. "There were no street lights, no real roads, just dirt tracks. We used cistern water. Power was sporadic. I had to learn how to operate the generator. Thank God I enjoy learning!"

But those were also the best of times. Optimism and sheer youthful bravado were the order of the day. Mr Advani set up a hotel school to train the locals to international standards, even as Christina Ong and Adrian Zecha were opening outposts of their more established COMO and Aman brands on the islands.

Mr Advani worked closely with the local government to beef up industry know-how. He brought officials out to Singapore on learning missions. "Turks and Caicos now has great infrastructure with world-class resorts. The whole place is on a fast-track of inward investments."

His company has just signed a development agreement to create a new micro-resort that brings a slice of the south of France to the Caribbean with beach-facing cottages and great food and beverage options.

The travelling and workload are as intensive as ever. Once a month, Mr Advani is on the road. New York and Miami are regular pit-stops, whilst business meetings pull him to Argentina, Africa and Belize. He lectures at Cornell and sits on the boards of the Leading Hotels of the World, The Bodhi Tree Foundation, and the Turks and Caicos International University.

But at the end of it all, he comes home to his wife, two-year old daughter and 10-month old son, and a life that feels a world away from Singapore. "We live on a five-acre property that's two minutes from the beach, and the third largest reef system in the world. Every morning, I swim in the sea for 45 minutes, and then drive to the office, six minutes away. The people are so laid back. And because everybody knows each other, you behave differently. If there's a problem, I pick up the phone. It's all relationship-driven here."

The days are long - filled with property inspections, supervising the final touches of a US$10 million refurbishment of Grace Bay, poring over new projects - but "you can prioritise. Because it's your own company, you can decide how your life flows and choose your own schedule".

It may, perhaps, be too much to describe this sun-soaked existence as heaven on earth, but like the best hotel manager, Nikheel Advani is doing a heck of a job selling it.

ELLEN CHEW Restaurateur / London

In the world according to Ellen Chew, one of the surest ways of determining the depth of your character, emotional resilience, and mental strength is to get out of your comfort zone. Or, at the very least, move to London.

The day she found herself ripping out the carpets of her Canary Wharf flat to lay down flooring because she couldn't afford professional help, she thought to herself: "What am I doing? In Singapore, I would just hire someone to do this!"

She painted the walls herself. When her fridge broke down in the middle of summer, it took a month for it to be fixed. Her home wifi took eight weeks to be connected. Meanwhile, a squatter moved into her restaurant space, and could not be legally evicted. She was endlessly played by contractors.

Looking back now, she laughs with a mix of wistfulness and wonder at her younger Quixotic courage. "With my three cats, I moved to London in 2005 to join my partner," Ms Chew says. "I just quit my job in marketing and leasing at Kopitiam and arrived without a job. But I wasn't worried, I was so excited. I figured if I didn't make it, I could always be an estate agent."

Happily, that wasn't necessary. Ms Chew, 48, quickly spotted a gap in the local dining scene for good, mid-range priced South-east Asian food that wasn't of the sweet and sour pork genre.

Today, she runs a mini-empire of restaurants and food kiosks including the Malaysian Chinese Rasa Sayang in Chinatown; a tapas restaurant, Lobos, in Borough Market; several branches of a noodle joint, Noodle Oodle, across town; and a second Simply Duck in the upscale outlet mall, Bicester Village. A second Lobos is due to open in London's gastronomic quarter of Soho in November.

Ms Chew says the difficulties she experienced in the beginning owed much to a lack of understanding of the local British culture. "Singaporeans at home take a lot of things for granted. In the UK, I've learnt that you have to do everything yourself. There's no point getting angry or sad about a problem. You just have to find a way to resolve it."

That illegal squatter? Ms Chew sent in a posse of her burly suppliers and friends, and, by dinner, she was back in possession of the space.

Little by little, one restaurant at a time, she has come to call London home. Because through all the setbacks - restaurant ventures that didn't work out because she'd misread the customer footfall, issues with planning permission, sporadic bouts of homesickness, the terrible long winters, and the mediocre food scene when she first arrived in London - she has never regretted the move.

"Now I understand the culture. And I love it here. People don't judge or look down on you. They're less obviously status conscious. You could be a CEO and still take the Tube."

PETER KOK Civil Engineer & Multi-media Specialist / Dubai

Peter Kok may work and live in Dubai, but there remains a very special place in his heart for Singapore. Ask him what he misses, and he rattles off a lyrical list.

"I miss Singaporean food, the convenience of the coffee-shop, kaya toast with kopi or teh-see, nasi lemak. I miss the rain and the soothing green, and the heavy thunderstorms that wash away the dust and make the air fresh and clean. I live in Sembawang, and I miss the drive to work under the canopy of trees that form a green tunnel along Upper Thomson."

And yet, home for the past seven years has been Dubai, a gleaming city of the future, a metropolis built on sand that is as far removed from his familiar, emerald-green world of Sembawang as you could possibly get.

A civil engineer by training, he is the co-founder and creative director of Avant-Garde de Studio, a specialist in creating and designing unique fountains and multi-media shows that integrate lighting, water, lasers, projections, performers and music.

For Singaporeans, probably Mr Kok's best-known works are the Fountain of Wealth at Suntec City and the water crane dance show at Resorts World Sentosa.

To hear him tell it, setting up his own studio and living out of his comfort zone means having the best of both worlds, but "it was not easy adjusting to life in Dubai," says the 50-year-old who was first posted there by his previous company. "You'd think that Singapore being a cosmopolitan city, it should be easy, but it still took me some time to get used to Dubai and the country in general."

These days, he's well and truly settled in. He is especially appreciative of Dubai's melting pot of peoples, cultures, business and personal environments, especially the ability to drive to the other emirates and other terrains without crossing borders. The winter months are perfect for outdoor barbecues. The twice yearly shopping festivals are fantastic, he says. Cars and petrol are cheap. Two years ago, he bought a Hummer H3 for around S$35,000. "We cannot even get a COE in Singapore for this price!"

It especially helps that he has tapped into a warm, inclusive expatriate community. "I have a group of close Singaporean friends that I meet with regularly to cook and eat together. I guess that's what Singaporeans do. We meet and eat. Last weekend, we celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival and I cooked nasi lemak. Friends brought sambal sotong, curry chicken, beef rendang, satay, and otah and we had a big feast with lanterns for the kids. Once in a while, we go to Fujairah where there is a Singapore-style restaurant. It's about a two hour drive from Dubai!"

Which, somehow, still leaves plenty of time for Mr Kok to indulge in his other passion - collecting typewriters. "I have a special love for typewriters. I just love the sound the key-strokes make. I bought my first typewriter at a weekend market in Europe and since then, I've been on the hunt for more."

And how. Mr Kok now has a collection of over 600 antiques (most of them carted over from Singapore) dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "Whenever I need some quiet time, I hide myself in the room, cleaning and repairing, and making them work again. That gives me lots of satisfaction."

It's an unexpected insight into a man better known for his show-stopping creations, but then again, as Mr Kok points out, "Living abroad opens your eyes to the fact that there are different ways of doing things." Living large is one such way.

JASON LEE Art Collector & Curator / London

Jason Lee is a man who appreciates the finer things in life. Exhibit A is his gene pool. "We recently discovered that my family tree can be traced back 19 generations and nearly 2,000 years in China. I am the direct descendant of Taizong, the second Tang emperor of China."

Exhibit B is Mr Lee's apartment in Marylebone's Montagu Square, a swanky residential quarter in London. It is so perfectly curated with contemporary paintings and vintage objets d'arts that it could just as easily double as a major art gallery.

Over the years, the collector and independent curator has mixed and matched on his walls everyone and everything from Andy Warhol's Mao screen-prints, Keith Haring and Prem Sahib to rare Meisen snake-handled vases, 19th-century bronze candelabras, and Antony Gormley statues.

"My collection is ever expanding, so it can look like a gallery," says Mr Lee, 44. "But I'm a private person, so very few people have come to see the collection."

The trajectory of his career, watermarked by an almost sixth sense for Young Turks from new markets, has been underscored by fearless bravado and impeccable timing.

The scion of a Malaysian oil plantation family, Mr Lee arrived in London 22 years ago, ostensibly on a gap year before university. Armed with a two-year working holiday visa, he landed a gig as a PR photographer on Tony Blair's prime ministerial campaign. "I came to the UK at a very exciting time in the mid '90s. The Internet was just exploding, and all sorts of possibilities were opening up for young talented people. So, there was a great deal of optimism and a 'can-do' attitude to work and life."

Not that it was all plain sailing. "It took me a while to settle down because I didn't know anyone," Mr Lee recalls. "In fact, I found it harder than I anticipated, mainly because of the cultural difference, the eccentricity of the British people, and their sense of humour."

Eventually, the differences began to equalise, and the love affair with London truly took hold. "I wanted to become an artist when I was a kid, but my parents were a bit worried about me. To please them, I did graphic design." To extend his visa, he enrolled in graphic design specialising in multimedia at Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design, and parlayed his talent for computer coding into a handsome salary. In between fielding calls from headhunters, he began to buy art, starting with early 19th century paintings, French bronzes and antique furniture.

Very quietly, he established himself as an important art collector. In fact, he was one of the first in the West to begin acquiring contemporary Chinese art, a considerably more modern bent that he later expanded to contemporary Turkish art.

It's no surprise that Mr Lee regards London as the epicentre of an international cultural environment. "It is at the centre of the global art world, and it's easy to get to most parts of the world. I travel quite frequently and the convenience is a great asset. I wouldn't be as flexible and mobile living in Singapore, nor would I be so connected."

But beyond the business opportunities that London provides, it's clear that Mr Lee has come to claim the city as his own. "I don't feel like an expat in London as I have been here for such a long time." In fact, his centrally located Marylebone home is set in a very quiet residential area in one of London's famous garden squares. "The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix once lived on the same side of the square."

Though Mr Lee will be the first to admit that he lives a fairly international lifestyle with friends all over the world, his lifestyle betrays his cultural mores. "When I cook, I cook Asian food and I live around the corner from Royal China Club, one of the best Chinese restaurants in London. Of course, Singaporean and South-east Asian cuisine is the best. I still feel a connection with Singapore."

Mr Lee returns to Singapore two or three times a year to see his family, bookending his trips with excursions to Hong Kong, Thailand or Bhutan for meetings and reconnaissance expeditions, "although I have now lived in London longer than I lived in Singapore".

"So, London is home, but Singapore is a great place and where my family is. It doesn't feel foreign to me."

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