French expat captures a Singapore that’s more than ‘country of millionaires’

Nurul Azliah
·6-min read

Anybody who has heard of Singapore likely thinks of it as home to glitzy skyscrapers, futuristic gardens, and a population of so-called crazy rich Asians. But one French expat is working to change that perception by documenting its more relatable side.

For 14 years, Marie Dailey, 56, has explored nearly every nook and cranny of the Lion City on foot with her Canon 5D or Leica M10, from the streets of Geylang at nightfall to watch Singaporeans indulge in durians, to dip her toes along with other Sembawang residents in the only hot springs before the area became modernized.

Dailey finds charm in simple Singapore, including places like the vast Choa Chu Kang cemetery she calls the “countryside,” as well as neighborhood corners where bird owners watch their pets compete in “singing” competitions.

She zooms in on people and objects we rarely give a second glance, focusing on neatly arranged cups at a coffee shop, an old man determined to push his trolley of flattened boxes through the rain, or an unsuspecting man reading a newspaper on a lazy afternoon. At times, Dailey likes to play with shadows cast by the harsh afternoon light, creating dramatic silhouettes of bird cages, passers-by, and HDB stairwells.

Eighty-three of the thousands of photos she has taken since 2014 now gloss the pages of her newly launched photo book Daily Singapore, which is refreshingly free of the overly promoted Marina Bay Sands luxury resort or extravagant Jewel Changi Airport mall.

“I’m not saying that it’s a poor country, but it’s presented as a country of millionaires,” Dailey told Coconuts. “And I just wanted to show that no, not everybody is a millionaire. There are people that live in simple apartments and live very simply.”

Dozens of billionaires call Singapore home, including British inventor James Dyson and Zhang Yong, who owns Chinese hotpot chain Haidilao. But Dailey would rather shine the spotlight on Singapore’s immense high-rise public housing blocks where the vast majority of residents live and the things they do. The blocks are more commonly referred to as HDBs, which is an acronym taken from the Housing Development Board.

Photo: Marie Dailey
Photo: Marie Dailey

From Paris to Singapore

Despite living in the private estates of Serangoon Gardens, where a sizable French community resides, Dailey spends ample time outside of the neighborhood visiting the nearby HDB areas and their markets, which she said reminded her of life back in France.

“For example, the markets and the way of life in HDBs, it’s kind of the way of life in France, especially when you go out of Paris,” she said. “You go to the markets on Sunday and then you meet your friends for lunch. So I think there is a parallel in that sense.”

Although she can’t say the same about the way Singaporeans and the French work.

“But for the culture in general, I think people work much more hours in Singapore and in France we have much more vacation,” she said.

Dailey first picked up the camera when she was a little girl living in Paris and has taken photos as a side project throughout her life; even while living in Taiwan, Indonesia, and the United States; before eventually settling down with her family in Singapore, where she teaches at a local French school.

She also launched a Singapore outpost of an American movement promoting female street photographers. Along with Singaporean photographer Charlene Winfred, who this year returned from working in Iraq due to the pandemic, around 30 members of the WomenInStreetSG group have met since October to take photos together at places such as Raffles Place, where they met on a recent afternoon.

“I think for me, it’s also very nice because as a foreigner, it’s sometimes a bit difficult to get to know Singaporean photographers so it’s been very nice to get to know women photographers that are from Singapore with this group,” she said at the meeting with her kindred spirits.

Through street photography, Dailey was also able to get to know neighborhood aunties, uncles, and even the migrant workers tending the gardens and housing estates. Most of them were happy to have their photos taken, according to Dailey, and some would even buy her a cup of kopi, or coffee, while chit-chatting about birds.

“Some of my friends that I met that are Singaporean think that it’s easier for me because I’m a foreigner. I don’t know, maybe people want to ask me questions also? So they want to know more about who I am and why I’m here and how long I’ve been there, so I think it’s really an exchange,” she said.

Photo: Marie Dailey Photography
Photo: Marie Dailey Photography

Through a foreign lens

Being part of the expat community can sometimes feel like living in a bubble, Dailey said, and one has to really make an effort to get out there and immerse themselves in Singaporean life.

“Your kids go to international schools and then you are also meeting people from your own culture because you meet the parents of the kids. So sometimes it’s really an effort,” she said. But with the COVID-19 pandemic restricting travel, Dailey noticed that more people, including expats, were getting to know Singapore better.

Dailey goes on walks around Singapore at least once a week and recently explored Toa Payoh, Geylang, and Yishun, where she experienced a heartfelt moment during the July elections when a group of residents bid farewell to a politician who had represented the area for a long time. Though she couldn’t remember the name, former Nee Soon MP Lee Bee Wah did announce her retirement from politics at the time.

Her favorite times of the day are 6am to 9am and evenings from 5pm to 7pm, when there’s good lighting.

But after spending six years documenting Singapore, Dailey has found it difficult to say goodbye to places no longer around or at risk of disappearing. Among them were the Sungei Road flea market, popularly known as the Thieves Market, that closed in 2017 after over 80 years, and the Dakota Crescent estate now being demolished after 60 years.

What also saddened her the most was witnessing the exhumation of the Chua Chu Kang cemetery several months ago to make way for a military airbase.

“For me, it was more like I was seeing a part of Singapore history disappear … It was also a very peaceful area; it was like the countryside. You could see the countryside as far as you can look and this is very rare in Singapore now,” she said.

Daily Singapore retails at S$98 on her website.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct Marie Dailey’s age. She is 56 years old, and not 66.

Other stories:

In the twilight hours of Sungei Road Thieves Market
Singapore’s beloved Dakota Crescent estate finally reduced to rubble

This article, French expat captures a Singapore that’s more than ‘country of millionaires’, originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company.

Watch more Lifestyle content on Yahoo TV: