When I first moved to my current house, I didn’t quite understand the impressed exclamations of friends and acquaintances alike when they found out I lived in a black-and-white. For me, the house was charming and quaint, but I never really realized the historical significance of the structure itself until much later, and how a lot of people wanted to live in one but can’t. I also didn’t realize how lucky I am in my neighborhood. Singapore is such a big modern city, filled with impressive buidings and tall condominiums, not to mention the vast public housing estates that I have come to realize that living in an actual house, with a yard and an actual neighborhood much like the ones I grew up in has become a rarity here. So I thought I’d record what’s around the neighborhood and post it here, for, er, posterity’s sake.
Entrance to Hooper. It’s a very short block tucked away from the the bustle of Bukit Timah Road. It’s supposed to be named after a minor British official named Edward Hooper. Another interesting tidbit: Digging through Google, I found out that former president S.R. Nathan used to live for awhile in one of the houses here, but I’m not sure which.
Entrance to the street on the right side is marked by a block of shophouses that house a kids’ tuition center, a boutique and other shops that I haven’t explored yet even if it’s just a short distance from where I live. There used to be a specialty bookstore here called Gohd Books, that sold in first-editions and other nicely printed editions of popular and classic books. They also used to hold classes on Sumerian language courses, among other esoteric stuff. But they closed down the brick-and-mortar shop — maybe they realized there wasn’t a big market for Sumerian language classes? Also in this building was Papa Palheta, purveyors of fine and artisanal coffee beans, and hangout of young hipsters. I never really got to take advantage of Papa Palheta because every time I go, it was full and I felt old amidst the young 20somethings sipping their lattes.
On the left side, is a Shell station and another row of shophouses, this time housing a pau shop — I always end up buying the char siew buns as well as the big pork buns — an interior design firm, a cake shop, antique shop and car shop selling foreign car makes. I always get a kick when I pass by all the Porsches, old VW bugs, Ferraris and other exotic cars there.
One “drawback” about living here is that it takes about 10-15 minutes’ walk to get to the MRT or a bus stop that will take me to town. It’s not an onerous walk though, as the greenery more than makes up for it. But if one is in a hurry in the morning — like I always am — I take a cab. From having lived here, I’ve come to classify cab drivers in three types: Those who have no idea this street exist (“Huh? Where izzit, ah? Direct me, can?”), those who know it (“Near petrol station, is it?”), and those who go, “Aiiyoh! Before got school here, used to come here.” And inevitably, I always get this question: “Eh, how much rent you pay, ha? Expensive or no?” Which is a very Singaporean question to ask, by the way.
Hooper Road park with wooden benches under coconut trees. I plan to take my morning/afternoon coffee/drink here one day and just spend the afternoon reading. The thing is, there are tall coconut trees and I always worry that one will fall on my head! Also in this park is a small playground that in my two and half years of living here, I’ve never seen filled with kids. I see some playing on a weekend afternoon, but never a lot and not with a boisteriousness I associate with kids in a playground. There’s a commentary right there on the kids here in Singapore (or maybe just kids these days), but I’m not going to analyze it further. It’s a pity about the playground though. It needs more laughter and running around and noise and just plain fun!
All the houses on the street are terraced black-and-whites. The bigger two-storey ones are on the right side of the street while the ones on the left side are all one-story bungalows.
People always get suitably impressed when I tell them that I live in a black-and-white that I did some digging on their history.
Apparently, the black-and-white is unique to Singapore. Shophouses, for instance, are common throughout Asia, wherever the Chinese have settled. Other kinds of houses also echo the styles of immigrants who have moved from one part of Asia to another. The black-and-white though is in a class of its own.
When the Brits colonized India in the 17th century, they established a presence that extended all the way to Singapore two centuries later when Sir Stamford Raffles bought the island from a local Malay ruler to establish a trading port here. By the second half of the 19th century, Singapore was a bustling commercial port, with many British and Western expats establishing residence here. When they built their houses, they copied what was in vogue in England at that time, which was the Tudor Revival, characterized by the use of wood for the upper stories of a two-story structure, a break from the traditional brickwork. Wooden houses were perfect in tropical Singapore and so the Brits adopted it. The wooden elements of the Singaporean versions, like the beams, were painted either dark brown or black, in stark contrast to the whitewashed walls, and thus giving birth to the term, “black-and-white.”
When these houses first appeared in Singapore, they were commissioned by the elite rich British expats and the members of the colonial government. Which is why we’d see many of the bigger black-and-whites in areas associated with expats in Singapore — Tanglin, Dempsey, Leonie Hill, and some parts of Scotts Road and Orchard. Black-and-whites became really popular after WWI when Singapore’s economy boomed and a whole class of expats came to live here — from bankers, shipping magnates, rubber barons, merchants as well as the officials of the British colonial government. Just before WWII, the Brits decided to make Singapore a major naval base east of the Suez canal and so commissioned more black-and-whites to be built, this time for military personnel.
Today, fewer than 500 black-and-whites stand and they all belong to the government, which leases them out. These houses were mostly the ones lived in by officials of the Brit colonial government and the military. After Singapore gained independence, the British government handed over ownership of these houses to the newly formed Singaporean government. However, most of the privately owned houses that were built in the first two decades of the 20th century were demolished to make way for Singapore’s urban development. Price of progress, eh?
The one I live in and maybe all the ones on Hooper were probably built for military personnel around the 1930s-40s, as they are smaller than the ones on Scotts, Tanglin and Dempsey. And you’d think that given its history, the neighborhood would be filled with whites and other expats. But on a very informal observation, most of my neighbors are locals — maybe 80% — while the rest are expats.
Leasing a piece of history has its drawbacks, btw: Apparently, tenants are not allowed to change anything in their houses, since these are historical artefacts. Meaning, they can add modern conveniences such as lighting, heating, electric/water/Internet/telephone cables — even swimming pools — but they have to remove them once their lease is up.
OK, end of history lesson.