The iconic Black and White houses of Singapore are as sought after today as they were in colonial times. Not all of us get to snoop around inside these gracious emblems of Singapore identity, so we tagged on to Singapore heritage trail with well known local guide Geraldine Lowe-Ismail, and imagined what it would be like to swan about in a grand old home.
Geraldine, a septuagenarian passionate about Singapore, recently received the Ultimate Achievement Award at the Singapore Experience event. Her vast knowledge of Singapore modern history means she is well placed to curate unique tours for those wanting to learn a little more about how people lived here in the past. On our 4 hour bus tour with her we visited occupied Black and White homes, artists inspired by these iconic houses and the people who furnish them.
First, a bit of background (Black and White 101)
Black and White bungalows hark back to a pre-WWI Singapore, around the end of the 19th century. Commissioned by wealthy plantation owners, commercial firms, the British Armed Forces and the Public Works Department, they were typically built out of bricks with whitewashed walls, black window treatments, wooden floors and breezy high ceilings.
By the time of the Japanese occupation (1942-1945), construction had largely ceased. Boyd Anderson’s epic book “Amber Road” gives a faithful and romantic rendition of this time.
Today, Black and Whites remain predominantly the reserve of the expat, given the widely held Singaporean belief that they are haunted. All 500 or so surviving houses are owned by the state, and tenants are required to bear the cost of installing modern conveniences (air conditioning, hot water, wiring etc). It’s not for the faint hearted.
First Stop: The China Collection
Not only do we set foot in a Black and White house at first stop, the house doubles as a showcase for a store that specialises in decking out these grand old homes. China Collection is an antiques boutique lovingly established by Anne Lockett. Anne is passionate about Chinese furniture and has a great eye for all items big and small that look right at home in a Black and White. She sources pieces bi-monthly in China with her son Doug, so there is always some new collectible to covet.
China Collection, 20 Malcolm Road , Singapore, 308259, Open Mon to Sat 10 am – 5 pm, Sun 12 pm – 5 pm.
Second Stop: Artist Clare Haxby Fine Art
Next, we make a beeline for 41 Malcolm Road, a circa 1925 estate once home to the Singapore Stage Club. These days it is home to British born artist, Clare Haxby. If you are not already familiar with Clare’s work, she creates lovely paintings of Singapore homes that make beautiful collector pieces. Her house is a charismatic mish-mash of gallery and elegant abode. Stepping through to her out-house studio, we catch the artist mid-creation and find out more about her love affair with Black and White houses.
Clare Haxby Fine Art, 41 Malcolm Road, Singapore 308276
Third Stop: Highlander Coffee
OK, this caffeine stop is not housed in a B&W, but in another famous Singapore house type: a shophouse! Situated in a charming shophouse on Kampong Bahru Road, brothers Phil and Cedric are slaves to the bean and offer up terrific coffee. It’s the perfect place to savour the sights we’ve already seen and get ready for 2 more.
Highlander Coffee, 49 Kampong Bahru Road , Singapore 169362, Monday to Saturday 9 am – 5.30 pm.
Fourth Stop: (Former) Paper + White residence
Riding a caffeine high, we arrive at 41 Marang Road, Mount Faber. Home to the stylish Davina Stanley (who has now departed back to the UK), owner of successful interior design and event styling company Paper + White, it’s just as refined and chic as you’d expect. It recently graced the pages of Home & Décor magazine and is the perfect display of the new Paper + White furniture collection. When Davina took hold of this home, it had lain empty for many years and the jungle had burst through the living room windows.You’d never know it now. Davina restored the home to its former glory and views her role as that of custodian for future inhabitants. The family has since vacated the property so on your tour expect either a fresh new take on this home.
Last stop: Alexandra Park
Piling back on the bus one more time, we are treated to a meander through the leafy, Black and White laden lanes of Alexandra Park. In its hey day large tracts of this land were used as pepper plantations, with elephants clearing the fields, and tigers prowling in the shadows. The architecture reflects its heritage with houses perched on protective stilts and elephant outhouses. At once the eldest and the largest single cluster of bungalows we had witnessed on the tour, it is a fitting end to the day.
Geraldine also runs other “Singapore heritage trial for small groups to interesting places, often off the beaten tracks”. Contact Geraldine to arrange a tour on [email protected], p: 67375250, or on Facebook, Cost $70.