In a city of shoebox apartments that get smaller (and pricier) by the minute, a black and white house is considered by some the ultimate dream abode. But before you move in and start planning that fabulous Gatsby-esque housewarming party, get the full story on these primo real estate gems.
Living in the past
Built by the British from the late 19th century, black and white houses in Singapore enjoyed their heyday during the 1920s and 30s when they were home to top-ranking government officials, high court judges, and plantation owners. But during the Japanese Occupation from 1942-1945, the houses were abandoned by their colonial owners and taken over by Japanese soldiers instead.
Today, there are approximately 500 houses remaining, scattered around Singapore in exclusive, leafy enclaves like Dempsey Road, Rochester Park, Portsdown Road and Adam Park.
Most black and white houses are owned by the state and are regarded as national monuments. That doesn’t mean you can’t rent them though. The important thing is that you have to keep the original look and feel of these historic homes. Yes, that means no painting over with neon colours!
Of course, most people are happy and proud to live in one of these historic homes and choose them for their colonial splendor. So apart from the touch of whitewash and a bit of coating on the black beams, most are more than happy to retain the original look.
What are the interiors like?
The rooms are large and airy with plenty of light and black and white tiles and wooden floors are the order of the day. If you love decorating with antiques and adore everything that’s retro, a black and white house is perfect for you.
The high-ceilinged rooms also lend themselves well to more modern furnishings, provided you go with classic materials and neutral colours. And of course, if you love Asian furniture, you can have a field day when you decorate your black and white house.
Another thing to consider when decorating such a house is to think BIG! Modern houses are positively poky by comparison. Those who prefer smaller indoor spaces often use curtains or blinds to divide the space up a little more. To those used to modern apartments, the rooms seem huge!
Given the hot climate in Singapore, it’s hardly surprising that big windows, spacious verandas, and lush gardens are important features of black and white houses.
Although modern expats often install air conditioning, the veranda is still a favourite place to relax with friends over some dinner, or a nice glass of wine.
Most of these historic homes are set in beautiful gardens filled with tropical plants and visited by birds and wildlife. Swimming pools are a modern feature that has been added to many of them. Who says you can’t beat the heat just because you live in an older building?
Art and Architecture
Architectural publications still feature Singapore’s black and white houses today. There have even been entire books devoted to the art of these homes. They are not only beautiful but practical too. The problem that the designs address is primarily that of the Singaporean climate — which certainly hasn’t gotten any cooler!
The roofs have large overhangs to provide shade, but the light still streams into elegant rooms. After the Japanese occupation, many of these homes fell into despair — but since then, most of them have been lovingly restored with the addition of a few subtle mod-cons that we see as absolute necessities today.
Black and White enclaves worth knowing
Formerly an enlistment centre in the 1970s, Dempsey Road needs no introduction: it’s a thriving foodie hotspot with likes of Jones the Grocer, The White Rabbit, and PS Cafe as tenants.
40 black and white bungalows were built in the 1940s to accommodate British soldiers stationed at Pasir Panjang Military Complex. It now houses several bars and restaurants like One Rochester and Da Paolo Bistro Bar.
Also known as ‘Little Bohemia’, the peaceful neighbourhood of Portsdown is also a flourishing artistic community with black and white walk-up apartments and bungalows, art galleries and photography studios.
Singapore’s newest art cluster with 16 galleries (and counting), restaurants and bars was formerly a military encampment for the British Army.
A mostly British residential neighbourhood with a grisly past — it was once the battle site between the British and Japanese forces and Prisoner of War (POW) camp.
Located in the North, it was once the location of His Majesty’s Naval Base of the British Royal Navy. The most iconic black and white house there is The Beaulieu House, which is currently a seafood restaurant.
How to get your hands on one
In 2007, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) introduced an open-bidding system where black and white houses are leased on two-year terms. Prices are determined by property demand and, given how hotly contested (and rare) black and white houses are, be prepared to fork out an astronomical sum – the highest ever sum recorded was $36,000 a month for a property in Cluny Road.
Equally, as is the case with all property in Singapore (and anything that works on supply and demand), if you’re in the right place at the right time, it is possible to clinch a black and white for a much smaller bid.
Be sure to check out the SLA website or SLA’s State Property Information Online portal (SPIO) regularly for a listing of available houses and contact details of the managing agents. Interested parties must then submit their bidding form and a refundable deposit at the SLA office.