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Colonial paradise in Singapore: Tour this black-and-white house in Alexandra Park

By: Verne Maree

British by passport, Eira Day (née Dyne) was born in Singapore, as was her father Harry before her. In fact, the history of the Dynes in Singapore goes back to 1911, when granddad Henry Richard Lubbock Dyne came out here to join law firm Donaldson & Burkenshaw. So it seems only fitting that Eira should finally realise her dream – to live with her husband Simon and their sons Charlie (15) and Max (12) in one of Singapore’s historic black-and-white houses. Here’s the story of the family’s smart move to a slice of colonial paradise in historic Alexandra Park.

‘I don’t have a beautiful home,” Eira warned me in advance. “All we have is just a few bookcases with walls around them. And an amazing view.” Good thing I didn’t take this characteristically modest and unassuming woman at her word, because what I find when I invite myself to morning coffee in York Road is one of the loveliest homes imaginable, blessed too with a wonderful sense of place.

And that famous view! The vista over Hort Park valley to distant Kent Ridge is phenomenal – so wide, so green, so unspoilt, so unlike most of Singapore that it’s hard to remember that you’re even in Singapore.

Smaller British colonial houses like this were built in the late 1930s and early 1940s as part of the strategic pre-WW2 drive to house the new British Army personnel who were sent to beef up the military strength of the colony. Eira believes that her house and the one next door, both single-level bungalows built in the grounds of a bigger house, were nurses’ accommodation. The grander, two-storey houses would have accommodated senior military personnel. This is something that can be seen in many of the black-and-white estates: big house number 5, for example, clustered with smaller houses numbered 5A, 5B and even 5C.

Eira and her four siblings grew up in Bukit Timah’s Yarwood Avenue, in a big family house with a two-and-a-half-acre garden. “So I’ve always hankered after a home with a garden, either here in Alexandra Park or in Medway Park. We’ve finally achieved that – and I’m so glad we waited for the right place to come along. It’s so peaceful and relaxing here that I feel like I’m on holiday every day.”

Flexible Space

Even these smaller black-and-whites are comparatively spacious, and those in the know are not put off by the fact that they’re advertised as having just two bedrooms. For one thing, the bedroom space in this house, for example, has been reconfigured for three bedrooms; for another, steps lead up from the back of the house to outbuildings that previously accommodated kitchen facilities and servants’ quarters, but now provide for guest bedrooms, Simon’s study and a storeroom.

What’s more, it’s usual to add on wooden decking to extend the living and entertainment area. As the previous tenants were good friends of theirs, Simon and Eira were not put off by the apparent smallness of the house after the managing agent (CBM, which took over from DTZ) had removed all the old decking and the swimming pool. They’d seen the house as it used to be, and knew they’d be able to install an even longer deck protected by a higher roof that would hugely extend the effective living space and welcome cooling breezes from across the valley.

It was worth the investment, says Eira, because the family hopes to live in this house for a long time. Their initial two-year lease can be extended biannually for a period of up to nine years – and even that seems to be flexible, she notes.

Protected by wind-, rain- and sun-filtering bamboo chick-blinds, the alfresco deck is predictably the heart of the home. As it’s provided with Wi-Fi, she and Simon are able to work out here. Simon is involved in wildlife and tourism businesses around Asia; Eira has a daycare centre in Tampines that caters for local kids.

“We even have a yoga class here a couple of times a week,” says Eira. “It’s perfect!”

Necessary Improvements

It’s difficult to tell exactly what the interior of the original house looked like; suffice to say that it’s very different from its neighbour, having been “patiently rebuilt” by the previous tenants, who lived here for 15 years.

Apparently, the house was in pretty poor condition when its previous occupiers moved in. The man of the house replaced all the roof beams, making the master bedroom, especially, more open and “barn-style”, in Eira’s words.

When Eira and Simon moved in last year, there was no air-conditioning at all – not even in the bedrooms. To have that option, and to “stop birds from flying in and shitting”, they blocked the open trelliswork above the windows with Perspex.

It’s a relatively cool house, and Eira explains that the intermittent problem of haze (smoke pollution from seasonal burning of plantations in Indonesia) is the main reason she and Simon decided in favour of air-conditioning the living room. They also glassed in the small area off the living room that is now nominally her study – “but is actually just where I keep my files”, she says.

At the back of the house is a useful scullery, a laundry area and a kitchen that’s “not huge, but big enough”. The wooden decking has been extended around the house, and a herb garden planted.

Most of the extra furniture they needed, especially for the big deck, came from Craigslist: “The two wicker chairs and the big Chinese cabinets, for example, were an absolute bargain.” Above the door leading back into the house from the deck hangs Eira’s collection of cow-bells from all over Southeast Asia – Cambodia, Indonesia and more.

Smart Move

The family condo in Amber Gardens, where the Days had been living for the 14 years before they moved in here, is now rented out. Eira liked its East Coast sea views, but not nearly as much as this one. “I still open the door every morning, look across the valley and go ‘Wow!’”

 

This story first appeared in Expat Living’s May 2015 issue.

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