Singapore’s Black-and-White Houses: Colonial Splendour with a Dash of History

Alexandra Park Black and White BungalowsTucked away in little-known genteel housing enclaves around Singapore lie throwbacks to the country’s colonial past. Back in the late 1800s to early 1900s, Singapore’s British rulers built lavish villas, called bungalows, all over the island to house their high-ranking officials and civil servants. Today, a mere 500 or so out of the thousands of the grand mansions built still remain, the rest casualties of urban development.

Affectionately called “Black-and-White” bungalows because of their predominant use of dark timbre beams and white-washed walls, these charming holdovers from Singapore’s colonial past are now accorded conservation protection by the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority). While the interior of the house can be modernised, the general architecture and exterior including all doors and windows must be restored and retained. The houses can also only be painted in black and white.

The Black-and-Whites are now mostly owned and managed by the State and are leased primarily to expatriates, ironically many from the UK who are keen to experience colonial-style living. These expat residents adore the charm and feel of these century-old houses, although not many may realize that each and every one of these Black-and-Whites has a history indelibly tied to the war years.

THE LOWDOWN

The Black-and-White bungalows are 2-storey villas boasting sprawling gardens on large plots of land. Architecturally distinct, their style has been described as “Tropical Tudorbethan”, with shades of influence from the Arts and Crafts and Art Deco design styles of the time.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

The bungalows incorporate local and tropical design elements into otherwise very stately British homes. Many of the houses are built on elevated foundations, a nod to the indigenous Malay style of houses built on stilts. The ground floor is open and spacious, while the main living quarters are on the upper floor. The reason is practical – to isolate the living space from wild critters, as well as ensure the house is above any flood waters.

Large verandahs feature prominently in the front and sides, and the bungalows were capped with broad overhanging sloping roofs, all of which served to prevent direct sunlight from entering and thus heating up the house. The pitched roofs also channel rainwater from the frequent tropical showers away. In addition to the high ceilings, the bungalows feature plenty of balconies, open spaces and louvred windows to amplify cross-flow breezes, an important consideration given Singapore’s tropical climate – in the days before air-conditioning.

Most of the bungalows had a main house, accompanied by a separate structure which served as the servants’ quarters.

At Alexandra Par - pic by Expat Living

Alexandra Park Black-and-White – pic by Expat Living

The Black-and-White bungalows are today located mainly in the south-central areas of Singapore, in tony areas such as Nassim Road, Goodwood Hill, Dempsey Road, Rochester Park, Adam Park and Alexandra Park, to outlying areas in the north such as Seletar, Sembawang and Changi where troops used to be stationed.

Fewer than 100 of the mansions are privately owned, with the majority now owned by the government and managed by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and its appointed real estate firms such as DTZ. Interested residents may bid to lease specific properties, at rates which range from under S$5000 a month to S$25,000 or more for a lavish property.

VISITING

Alexandra Park is a wonderful example of a colonial residential estate. My friend and I visited it early one morning and had a most pleasant walk touring the estate.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

The estate is off Alexandra Road, a busy road which was constructed in 1864 and named after Queen Alexandra (1844-1925), the wife of King-Emperor Edward VII (1841-1910). The leafy winding roads within the estate appropriately sport names like Canterbury Road, Winchester Road and Cornwall Road, lending a very British air to the area. Stately Black-and-Whites dot the landscape, some hidden behind lush foliage. With the rolling hills and forest greenery of Hort Park nearby and Kent Ridge Park in the distance, you’ll find it pretty hard to believe you’re in Singapore.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

According to historian and author Julian Davison in his book “Black and White: The Singapore House 1898-1941”, the oldest house in the estate is 6 Russels Road, also known as the Plantation House, and was built just after the turn of the century in 1900. The next oldest houses are at 5 and 7 Royal Road, with the latter also known as Bukit Damai and was once the residence of a commanding officer. The stately mansion is now home to a retired British oil man, Neil Franks and his family. Winchester Place, a large building on Winchester Road which used to be the officers’ mess and is now also a private residence, was built some time before 1910.

Most of the houses in the estate were built between 1935 and 1940 however, by the Far East Land, Air and Sea Forces to accommodate their military personnel. Prior to the bungalows being built the area had been home to a pepper plantation. Incidentally, further up Alexandra Road is Alexandra Hospital which used to be the British Military Hospital. When the hospital opened in 1940 some hospital staff were also housed at Alexandra Park.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

On the tranquil walk my friend and I took through the winding estate, quite a few of the houses seemed to be unoccupied, although most showed signs of an idyllic expat lifestyle. The tree-lined lanes made for a lovely neighbourhood, with the nearby green forests a bird sanctuary as well. We heard and saw a multitude of birds, and even came across a bird watcher with his telescopic lens trained on one of the houses, or rather a bird perched on a tree in the compound of the house. Well we hope he was watching the bird.

We also saw this interesting little fella, a Fir Tussock Moth caterpillar. In the background you can hear the cicadas.


Other discoveries we chanced upon were 3 majestic mature trees protected under NParks’ (National Parks Board) Heritage Tree Scheme – the Penaga Laut at the junction of Canterbury and Berkshire Roads; a Bodhi tree further along Canterbury Road and the Common Pulai on Royal Road.

Heritage Tree: Penaga Laut

Heritage Tree: Penaga Laut

During the war years from 1942 – 1945, the Japanese troops took over these Black-and-White bungalows all over Singapore. In other Black-and-White estates such as Adam Park, there is evidence that the Japanese used the houses as Prisoner-of-War (POW) camps. Given the houses’ past, it is no wonder then that locals, especially the older set, are generally not keen on living in these Black-and-Whites and are more than happy for this to remain the preserve of expat society.

LOCATION

Here are where the Black-and-Whites are concentrated around Singapore now.

Black.white_.enclaves_ Honeycombers

Black-and-White Bungalows around Singapore – graphic from Honeycombers Singapore

Here’s a map of the Alexandra Park enclave.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

HOW MUCH TIME

About an hour and a half to 2 for a leisurely stroll around the lovely Alexandra Park estate.

TAKE NOTE

There is no parking along the residential roads, so best to park in the Hort Park carpark when you enter the neighbourhood. This is where you can also use the bathroom and have a drink from the water cooler.

TIDBITS

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

  • There are 4 old clay tennis courts on Winchester Road in Alexandra Park, believed to be the only clay courts in Singapore. Built in the 1930s for the British residents, the courts have over the years been leased by different organisations, most recently the Clay Court Tennis Academy. The courts unfortunately appear to be disused now.
  • Alexandra Hospital, the ex-British Military Hospital, has a gruesome bit of history. In 1942 during the war when the Japanese forces occupied Singapore, some 200 staff and war patients were brutally massacred by the Japanese troops who stormed the hospital one day, in retaliation against Allied forces who had fired at the Japanese from the hospital grounds. Staff at the hospital now swear that the hospital is haunted.

USEFUL LINKS

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

1. Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) State Property Information Online (SPIO): Bid to rent a Black-and-White bungalow.
2. Gereldene’s Tours: Septuagenarian historian Geraldine Lowe-Ismail conducts popular Singapore heritage tours, including tours of Black-and-White houses.
3. URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) overview of a conservation Black-and-White bungalow
4. Magazine article on Singapore’s Black-and-Whites
5. Expat Living: Interview with Singapore war historian Jonathan Cooper on unearthing the history of Singapore’s Black-and-Whites
6. Expat Living: Index of articles on Singapore’s Black-and-Whites

Advertisements

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve: Crocodile Spotting

Although the main attraction of the acclaimed wetland reserve is its birds – more than 260 local and migratory bird species have been recorded at Sungei Buloh, of late it is another type of wildlife that has been stealing the limelight at the reserve.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveEver since a newspaper reported in December 2013 that a group of young schoolchildren on a field trip came within 20m of a 3m long crocodile across a footpath, other visitors have been visiting the reserve in search of crocodiles too.

On a trip to the wetland reserve just last month, I too secretly hoped to be able to spot a croc. As luck would have it, my friend and I saw not one but 2 of these magnificent creatures, and thankfully both were in the water at a more than safe distance away.

THE LOWDOWN

The coastal areas of Singapore were largely swamp land in the 1800s, with mangroves especially abundant in the north and west coasts. As Singapore developed rapidly over the years however the island became increasingly urbanized, and much of the coastal areas were redeveloped.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

In 1986 a group of nature-loving bird enthusiasts realised the importance of the swamp area around the Sungei Buloh river as a migratory bird stopping ground, and petitioned the government to protect the site, which had been zoned as an agro-technology park. The government surprisingly acquiesced, and the Sungei Buloh Nature Park was created in 1989 as a bird sanctuary and nature haven. The park was officially opened in December 1993.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveIn 2001 the park was accorded nature reserve status, and with an enlarged area was renamed the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in 2002. The reserve went on to become Singapore’s first ASEAN (Association for South East Asian Nations) Heritage Park in 2003, and is now one of thirty-three parks in the region recognised as an important nature conservation site (Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is Singapore’s other contribution to the ASEAN Heritage Park list). The Sungei Buloh reserve is also one of only two conserved mangrove swamps in Singapore today, with the much smaller Pasir Ris Mangrove Swamp being the other.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The 130 hectare reserve in the far north-west is a rare piece of wild Singapore preserved. Bursting with flora indigenous to the wetlands in the region (approximately 250 native and naturalized mangrove species have been recorded), the reserve is also replete with wildlife.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

East Asian-Australasian Flyaway

Most importantly and prominently are the birds, for which the wetlands were primarily conserved for. The reserve’s annual bird census has recorded up to 5000 birds in a month at the reserve, although in recent years the numbers have declined significantly. Birds on the East Asian-Australasian flyaway use the mangroves as an important refuelling stop, on their travels from Australia all the way up north to Russia. At low tides the mudflats teem with life, from shellfish, worms and snakes, to mud-skippers, crabs and mud-lobsters, much of it rich pickings for the weary birds.

On land all manner of insects, as well as squirrels and monitor lizards roam freely, while the occasional wild boar and even otters have been spotted in the reserve.

The recent star however has been the estuarine or saltwater crocodile. These seemingly menacing reptiles have added a dash of dangerous excitement to the reserve for visitors. Although crocodiles have long been reported at the reserve, the numbers that have taken up residence in the reserve have risen from 2 in 2008 to about 10-12 today, heightening interest in the wetland reserve’s newest “attraction”.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveVISITING

I visited the reserve early in the morning (8 am) when there was hardly anyone around, and the air was cool and pleasant for a walk in the reserve’s secondary forest. Plenty of birds were already up and about and were singing up a storm, creating quite the din. The tide was out though so the landscape was just brown and muddy, not altogether attractive.

The entire trail throughout the reserve is about 7km long, however you can choose to do shorter sections of the trail. We covered most of the park trails, however some of it frankly wasn’t very interesting. There is a prawn pond at the far end of the trail for instance as the area had once been used for prawn farming, however this turned out really to be just another murky pond.

There are viewing hideouts around the trail for you to sit quietly and observe the birds and other wildlife, as well as an 18 metre high lookout tower called the Aerie in the centre of the reserve. Not having any birdwatching equipment, we found it hard to spot many interesting birds with the naked eye. We did catch a glimpse of what might have been an Osprey or Grey Eagle perched high on a branch in the distance though, thanks to a birdwatcher’s telescope.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

About the crocodile sightings, as soon as we entered the reserve we spotted a submerged croc off the main bridge in the shallow water, although this one appeared to have had its tail nipped. Some 3 hours later as we crossed the main bridge again to leave, this time when the tide had come in, we saw a bunch of school kids excitedly pointing to something in the water and realised it was another croc floating among the mangroves. There was also a photographer with some serious equipment training his lens on the croc, which didn’t seem to be moving at all however. Here’s a pic of a less restful croc taken at the reserves recently though.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Be sure not to mistake the Malayan Water Monitor for a croc though. The reserve is full of these monitor lizards, known to grow to as large as 2 metres long. When the sun came out and it got warmer towards late morning, more of these cold-blooded reptiles crawled out to soak up the warmth from the sun. As you walk along the trails you’ll probably encounter a few monitor lizards along the path, and if you hear rustling in the bushes there’s a high chance it will be one of these giant pre-historic looking lizards. Beware these carnivorous creatures, they swallow their prey whole!

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The wetland reserve is undergoing a transformation at the moment, so construction works are taking place and some areas were closed (the theatrette, and parts of the boardwalk trail). According to the Sungei Buloh Masterplan unveiled in 2008, the authorities are upgrading the wetland reserve to make it much more than just a nature park. Instead it aims for the reserve to be a premier wetland hub, with a state-of-the-art education and research facility. There were plans mooted to include guest accommodation even, for students and researchers to conduct studies in the reserve.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The wetland reserve will be much larger, and will include the newly upgraded Kranji trail on the east side, and the Lim Chu Kang coastal area on the west side. In the news recently in fact was the announcement that 5 developers have expressed interest in the project to develop the historic Cashin house on the pier to be linked to the Sungei Buloh trails.

According to the masterplan, the current Sungei Buloh reserve will be considered a core conservation area with reduced access by the public to protect the sensitive ecosystem, while the new Kranji area will be earmarked as the recreational area. The intent of the overall plan seems to be to do much more with the wetland reserve, after all ecotourism is all the rage now – and there is money to be made from this. The new bigger and better phase one enhancements of the wetland reserve is scheduled to open in the last quarter of 2014.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Aerial View – Pic courtesy of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Do visit the wetland reserve now while entrance is free. Once the upgrades are completed an entrance fee will be charged. Singapore’s Night Safari, our popular nocturnal zoo which sees 1.1 million visitors annually, charges about US$30 per adult entrance ticket. Do the math and you’ll understand why the Singapore Government is shelling out big bucks to enhance the reserve and turn it into a major attraction.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Grey Heron

LOCATION

301 Neo Tiew Crescent

This is a remote road in a remote corner of Singapore, deep in the heart of Singapore’s farm area.

Open:
7.30am to 7.00pm – Monday to Saturday
7.00am to 7.00pm – Sundays & Public Holidays

HOW MUCH TIME

About 3 – 4 hours to walk to the end of the park and back, at a pretty leisurely pace.

TAKE NOTE

  • There are no toilets along the trail, so be sure to visit the loo at the main visitor centre before you set off. The trail map provided did indicate a toilet along the trail however we could not locate it, possibly because of the current construction and redevelopment works at the reserve.
  • The lone cafe is currently closed so bring your own refreshments. There is a vending machine and a water fountain in the visitor centre though.
  • Mosquito repellent – absolutely necessary.
  • There are free guided tours organised every Saturday at 9.30am, as well as pre-booked guided tours available for S$6. The tours are fairly short though (1 hour), so you might want to just explore the reserve on your own.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveTIDBITS

  • Singapore is ranked 6th out of 100 countries for mangrove diversity. Our mangrove forests contain half of the world’s recognised native mangrove species.
  • Monitor lizards are considered a delicacy in some cultures. The Filipinos eat it fried (tastes like fried chicken), the Indonesians make it into a curry, and I’ve read that Foochows and other Chinese traditionally drink monitor lizard soup to improve their skin. Yums.

USEFUL LINKS

* Thanks to Miin and her new Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera for some of these awesome pics!

Bidadari Park (and Future Housing Estate): Burying the Past

White-throated Kingfisher @ Bidadri - Lim Swee Kin

White-throated Kingfisher @ Bidadari – Photo by Lim Swee Kin

Unbeknown to many, a hilly wooded area off Upper Serangoon Road has become a bird sanctuary and popular birdwatching spot. An amazing 146 species of birds have been spotted in this 24 ha patch of green to date, including migratory birds and a few rare endangered species as well.

To those of us more used to garden-variety sparrows and pesky mynahs, learning about the beauty and diversity of the many birds in Singapore is an eye-opener, especially when these birds conveniently congregate in a single area.

This wooded bird park is actually part of what used to be Bidadari Cemetery, one of Singapore’s earliest cemeteries. The graves have since been exhumed though and the earth allowed to settle and rest. In its place a park has sprung up, however sadly this is all temporary. To the consternation of bird lovers, nature enthusiasts and conservationists, on this very site will rise the highly-touted and much anticipated Bidadari Housing Estate.

Blue-winged Ptta @Bidadari - Lim Swee Kin

Blue-winged Pitta @Bidadari – Photo by Lim Swee Kin

THE LOWDOWN

The land once belonged to the Sultan of Johor in the mid-1800s, and was the site of a grand residence – the Istana Bidadari (Bidadari House), from which the area takes its name. In later years, during the early 1920s wealthy Arabian family the Alkaffs built a magnificent Japanese-themed garden with a large lake nearby, called the Alkaff Garden.

Military burial @ Bidadari 1954 - National Archives of Singapore

Military burial @ Bidadari Cemetery circa 1954 – Photo from National Archives of Singapore

After the land was acquired by the Municipal Council of Singapore (the administrative body pre-Singapore’s independence) for use as a cemetery, the first burial at Bidadari Cemetery, a Christian one, took place in December 1907. A Muslim section was added 2 years later to the initial Protestant and Roman Catholic plots, and a Hindu section added eventually in 1925.When the cemetery closed 66 years later in 1973, there were altogether approximately 147,000 graves.

Many of early Singapore’s prominent members of the community were buried in Bidadari. Among them were Chinese physician and community leader Dr Lim Boon Keng (Boon Keng Road), known as the “grand old man” of Singapore’s Chinese society; Mr Ahmad Bin Ibrahim, Singapore’s Minister for Health and Labour in the 1950s and 1960s (Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim in Jurong); and Dr George Herbert Garlick, a prominent medical practitioner (Garlick Avenue in Bukit Timah). Accomplished architect Alfred John Bidwell didn’t get a road named after him, however he is well remembered in the iconic and much-loved buildings he designed that are preserved today – the Raffles Hotel, Goodwood Park Hotel, and the Victoria Theatre.

Bidadari Housing Estate

The graves in Bidadari Cemetery were exhumed from 2001 to 2006 however as the government had big plans for the site given its attractive central location. The Woodleigh MRT Station sitting right on the ex-cemetery grounds was opened in 2011.

In August 2013, the Ministry for National Development (MND) unveiled grand plans for an ecology and heritage-friendly housing estate. The 93 ha estate with 10,000 public housing (HDB) units and 1,000 private apartments was announced to be a “tranquil urban oasis” promoting “garden living at Bidadari”. The estate will feature a 10 ha Bidadari Park leveraging on the current park terrain, and with the beautiful raintrees thankfully left intact. At the centre of the park will be an Alkaff Lake reminiscent of the old Alkaff Garden lake in the area almost a century ago. Upper Aljunied Road cutting through the estate will be turned into a pedestrianised Heritage Walk, to help residents learn about the area’s rich heritage as they stroll along the leafy boulevard.

The first HDB flats will go on sale in 2015 and are likely to be completed by about 2018. Since many of Singapore’s popular housing estates were once cemeteries before too, chief of them Bishan which is now home to million dollar public housing flats, Bidadari’s past is not expected to deter eager house hunters and future residents.

VISITING

Bidadari

The park adjacent to Upper Serangoon Road is split into 2 sections by Upper Aljunied Road. The hilly wooded bird-haunt area is north of Upper Aljunied Road and used to be the Muslim part of the cemetery, while on the other side wide open green fields with paved paths in between stretch away where once the largely Christian cemetery stood.

Birdwatching @ Bidadari - Straits Times

Birdwatching at Bidadari – Photo by Straits Times

My friend and I sadly did not manage to see any of the more uncommon birds in the wooded area, although we did catch a glimpse of 2 hornbills in flight just as we were entering the park. We also heard bird songs aplenty throughout the park, but I guess you need the powerful binoculars birders typically lug around to be able to spot the birds, and you do have to know where to look for them.

The open parkland on the other side of the road was nice for a morning stroll especially among the large matured trees, and many resident joggers were enjoying a brisk run to start their day. Walking in the vast empty park, I imagined that this is what Bukit Brown Cemetery is going to be like once all the graves are exhumed, also to make way ultimately for a housing estate.

Bidadari Park

Bidadari Park

In any case, be sure to visit the Bidadari Memorial Garden next to the Mount Vernon funeral parlour as well. Opened in 2004, the garden commemorates the history of Bidadari Cemetery and some of Singapore’s early pioneers. 21 selected headstones have been preserved in the small memorial garden. The original iron gate and gate post of Bidadari Cemetery bearing the lion emblem of the Singapore Municipal Council were relocated and now front the memorial garden.

Bidadari Memorial Garden

LOCATION

Along Upper Serangoon Rood, junctions of Bartley Road and Upper Aljunied Road.

Best to take the train and alight at Woodleigh MRT station which is right at the doorstep of the park. Or if you really want to drive then you might be able to park at the entrance to the Mount Vernon funeral parlour as I did.

HOW MUCH TIME

Just to walk around both sides of the park will probably take you about an hour and a half. Many birdwatchers spend hours patiently waiting with their birdwatching gear at the park though.

Banded Woodpecker @Bidadari - Sheau Torng Lim

Banded Woodpecker @ Bidadri – Photo by Sheau Torng Lim

TIDBITS

  • According to NParks (National Parks Board of Singapore), there are over 300 species of birds that are native to Singapore.
  • Mount Vernon funeral parlour, Singapore’s private funeral parlour with 8 funeral halls run by 2 commercial operators – Mount Vernon Sanctuary and Singapore Casket, is also slated to make way for the new Bidadari Estate. There are low-rise columbariums as well as a 9-storey pagoda housing “niches” of cremated ashes. A total of 21,000 niches are being relocated to other more far-flung columbariums.
  • Woodleigh MRT station on the North-East Line was completed at the end of 2002, however only opened in June 2011 once the projected ridership of 2000 per station was supposedly achieved. Coincidentally however, the station opening happened 2 months after the township of Potong Pasir (which the station is in) was wrested back from opposition rule by the dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) after 8 years.
  • The British used Singapore as an Indian penal colony up until 1865. Many of the early Indian settlers in Singapore were convicts sent here to work as construction labourers, and they helped to build many of Singapore’s early buildings and monuments. Some of these early Indian labourers stayed on in Singapore, and when they passed away were buried in the Hindu section of Bidadari Cemetery.
Bidadari

Variable Squirrel or Finlayson’s Squirrel

TAKE NOTE

  • There are some small unpaved paths leading to quieter areas in the wooded section. Do not go to these areas of the park when it is dark as it is pretty quiet in there, and for women especially don’t go alone.
  • The more uncommon Variable Squirrel or Finalayson’s Squirrel is resident at Bidadari. Originally from Thailand and Myanmar, they too may have to be relocated out of Bidadari.

USEFUL LINKS

Bidadari Map

Map shows the housing estate as “Under Construction” although construction has not begun yet