The Executive Homes Black & White Tour, 20th April 2017
Executive Homes is excited to invite you to a private viewing of some of Singapore’s unique black-and-white homes.
The term black-and-white refers to a range of housing built during the British colonial period following a look made popular by the Tudor Revival Movement in the late 19th Century. The ‘black’ refers to the timbering on the upper portion of the house, which was usually blackened with a dark brown oil called creosote to help keep insects out and the wood healthy. ‘White’ refers to the brickwork, which was painted with a mixture that sounded very much like a cake recipe, except instead of flour they used crushed seashells!
These beautiful houses are highly desirable and sadly in short supply. Luckily, even if you don’t get to live in one, you can visit a selection of them thanks to an initiative by real estate company, Executive Homes.
Founder Hester Calkhoven has organized a tour of some of the island’s loveliest mansions. A group of current occupants have generously agreed to open their doors to visitors, giving them a tantalizing glimpse inside these architectural gems. The tour visits some of the larger houses built in Nassim Road, Ridley Park, Mount Pleasant and Adam Park, and is led by specialist heritage tour guide, Diana Chua, who can explain the architectural features and fascinating stories behind these homes. This is the fourth tour in the series. Demand for the previous tours was so high that tickets sold out within the week!
All proceeds from the tours are donated to the Netherlands Charity Association, which supports four local Singaporean charities. Vice-chairperson of the Association Sheila Bouwman, says “We are very happy that Executive Homes is sponsoring another Black & White tour for us. Last year’s tour was a huge success, with 27 delighted visitors learning more about these unique architectural gems and at the same time raising funds to help support foreign domestic workers that have been emotionally and physically maltreated.”
What is it that makes the black-and-whites so appealing?
In many cases, it’s their setting. Many of the larger properties are set in large gardens with lawns and centennial trees, often surrounded by jungle, which easily transports you back to the Singapore of the late 19th Century. For some residents, it’s like living in the Garden of Eden. There are fruit trees and flowers, and beautiful birds hopping from tree to tree, not to mention the opportunity to spot the resident monitor lizard waddling across the lawn for a dip in the pool! As urbanization continues apace and plot sizes diminish, there is quite simply nothing to beat these settings.
In terms of the houses themselves, it’s the uniqueness of the style that attracts, every time. These are not just mock Tudor constructions transplanted from the southern counties of England to South-East Asia, they’re unique homes combining Indian and Malay influences and most of all, built to suit the Singapore environment.
The British had already begun refining local architecture to suit their needs in India. There, the local mud hut house was developed into the Anglo-Indian bungalow, with a tiled roof replacing the thatch, wide overhanging eaves, classical columns, a portico and tall windows to keep out the elements.
In Singapore, these bungalows were refined again, taking some of the features of local Malay architecture. One of the most important was the use of stilts, or in this case brick pillars, to raise the houses a few feet off the ground, protecting against flooding and termites (and maybe tigers too!) and helping air circulation to keep the building cool.
With Singapore’s tropical climate, keeping cool has always been important. The solution in the black-and-whites was to have long verandahs around the house to cut off the heat inside. Blinds were then used to keep out the rain or to allow air to circulate through open doorways or windows. Today, many residents continue to use rattan blinds, often painted black and white to match their homes!
Inside the houses, rooms are big and ceilings high, with elegant wooden or tiled floors, and in some cases, the use of lattice screens to encourage air to circulate.
Built for administrators, businessmen and the military
The first black-and-whites were built to house wealthy businessmen and colonial administrators at the end of the 19th Century. Many were designed by the firm Swan and McLaren, whose chief architect Alfred John Bidwell designed the iconic Raffles Hotel.
At the end of the First World War, Singapore was booming thanks to the demand for rubber, and began to attract more and more foreign firms and to expand its civil administration. By the outbreak of the Second World War, Singapore had become a major naval base and even more black-and-whites were built to house military personnel.
While the estates for naval personnel could be found to the north and east of the island, other estates with larger properties were just off Orchard Road offering today’s residents a gorgeous property on a large plot, but still within a stone’s throw of the action on the island’s main shopping street.
Not every black-and-white is a huge mansion though. Many expats who came out to work between the Wars were bachelors on short tours. On Cable Road for example, one trading company commissioned a collection of four bungalows and a mess where all the bachelors would live and take their meals together.
Some of the houses on Stevens Road built for the Public Works Department did away with the verandahs altogether, and ended up looking not too dissimilar to houses built outside London at this time.
Each area will have stories to tell of the residents who’ve lived there. In Mount Pleasant, these stories are not so pleasant… Many of these large Government-built homes were taken over by the Kempeitai, or feared Japanese military police, under the Occupation during the Second World War. Even today, many local taxi drivers will refuse to go along this road after dark in case they meet the ghosts of the victims who met their deaths at the hands of the Kempeitai.
With Independence, many of these beautiful homes were lost forever to urbanization. Thankfully though, many of those belonging to the colonial administration and the military were saved. They were handed over to the new Singaporean Government who decided to preserve them as part of their cultural heritage.
Today, all black-and-whites are managed by a government agency, the Singapore Land Authority. Many have been turned into restaurants, shops, clinics or artist’s studios. Others are still residences.
Tenants are expected to respect the architectural integrity of the property, which means that you are usually required to install your own AC units, water heaters, swimming pool and sometimes upgrade kitchens and bathrooms, and then must remove these items again at the end of the lease. For the chance to live in such a unique property, this is a small price to pay!
Executive Homes was founded by long-term expat, Hester Calkhoven, who has worked as a relocation consultant in both Hong Kong and Singapore since 1995, helping expatriate executives with every aspect of finding a new home and establishing offices in a new country. All the staff are long-term Singapore residents and therefore able to offer a unique insight into the intricacies of the Singapore property scene.
Tickets are sold at S$95.00 per person, with the ticket proceeds being donated to the Netherlands Charity Association. Please contact Hester Calkhoven for tickets on [email protected]