Asian luxury in black & white
These Singapore colonial classics are keenly sought after due to their grand style and increasing rarity
Singapore is known for its modern high-rises and small spaces, but scattered around the city are scores of prized properties that offer a different way of life: stately Tudor homes resting on wide swaths of green that preserve a piece of the city’s colonial days.
These houses, called black-and-whites because of their whitewashed exteriors and black-stained timber details, are modelled after the mock-Tudor architectural style favoured by late Victorians. Distinctive Eastern influences have been added to the design in a nod to life in the tropics: broad verandas, wide eaves and tall shutters to keep out the sun’s glare, as well as masonry piers to elevate the house and help alleviate dampness. The parcels of land with the best of these homes are typically the size of football fields.
“They are the perfect answer for people looking for a bit of greenery and some space,” says Diana Chua, a Singapore guide. “They offer a different lifestyle.”
The houses, a favourite among expats, are across Singapore, from central areas such as Nassim Road and the upscale Goodwood Hill to coastal settlements in Seletar and Sembawang.
They vary in size; more exclusive villas range from about 800sq m to 1020sq m. Townhouses and one-stoery homes in the same style start at about 185sq m.
Ken H. Khoo, a property investment company director, bought a two-storey, five-bedroom villa on Cable Road in Tanglin for about $US4.3 million in 2005. The 465sq m building, a classic 1920s tropical mock-Tudor design, once housed a cafeteria for the staff of McAlister & Co., a European trading company.
Khoo and his wife, Simone, spent $US1.4m to reconstruct and expand the house, adding a basement and an annex. The home, which they share with their five children, is now about 745sq m, with six bedrooms and eight bathrooms. It has three sitting rooms, done in contemporary style. Outside, on the 1375sq m lot, they have a 15m lap pool, an open sitting area and a carport for six vehicles. A similar colonial villa in the area is listed at about $US25m (about $33m).
Khoo says he bought the home because it had character. “I’ve always liked old houses,” he says. “There aren’t many black-and-white-houses available for sale that are freehold”, in which the owner gets the house as well as the land it sits on.
The best black-and-whites no longer exist, says historian and academic Julian Davison, who wrote Black and White: The Singapore House, 1898-1941. Many have been torn down to accommodate development. Some that remain have been converted into offices, restaurants or galleries.
“What is singular about the black-and-white house in Singapore — and Malaya — is the marriage between the ‘ Tudorbethan’ style of Victorian England and the colonial-bungalow style introduced to Singapore from the British Raj in India, which makes them rather different to ‘Tudorbethan’ villas in Shanghai, Hollywood and elsewhere,” says Davison.
Built primarily by the British from the late 19th century until World War II, the black-and-whites once housed high-ranking officials, military men and society’s elite.
The 19 colonial-era villas in Adam Park, for example, were built in the 1920s for architects, designers and civil servants from Britain. Later, they were used as World war II prisoner-of-war camps.
Sales are rare in part because few of the black-andwhites are privately owned. Those that are include most of about 100 black-and-white houses slated for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore. (The government limits approval for foreigners to own landed residences, though condo-like properties can be purchased.)
Most of the black-and-whites are now state properties that are leased. More than 90 per cent of the 500 managed by the Singapore Land Authority, a government land agency, are rented out as residences; some are leased for commercial use, says a spokeswoman. JTC Corp, a government infrastructure-planning agency, manages roughly 150 black-and-white houses in the Seletar and Buona Vista industrial parks.
Demand for pricier black-and-whites has softened as the government moderates the inflow of foreign workers and as companies shrink expat packages. Rents for the mansions have come off highs in 2010 to 2012, alongside cooling property prices in Singapore.
The 33 black-and-white villas at Mount Pleasant, for example, rent for $US8600 to $US23,500 a month, property manager Ascott says.
New Zealander Mandy Riggir, who has lived in