By: Katie Roberts
Hands up who hasn’t craned their neck to catch a view of the majestic black-and-white homes hidden in lush greenery on Orange Grove Road? Or perhaps even fantasised idly about living there? Christina and James Copinger-Symes and their four children spent seven years living in this 118-year-old house. Before they moved out, our photographer went inside to give us the peek that we’ve been quietly hoping for, while Katie Roberts interviewed them about the history of the house and their fond memories of it.
In 2004 the couple relocated to Singapore with their three then small children. As with so many families, the move was initiated by their jobs. James had previously lived in Singapore as a small child during the early 1970s and later in Malaysia.
James’s earliest recollections are of living in two black-and-whites during his time here. One was in Ridley Park, and four decades on he was able to locate it from memory. So, both Australian-born Christina and UK national James were keen to live in a black-and-white, especially one with a large garden for their children. They are both clearly passionate about retaining the character of black-and-white homes and making the most of the benefits of the traditional design, rather than modernising it.
How did you find the house?
Christina: It seemed as though it was meant to be. The system has changed since 2004, but back then finding a black-and-white happened via word of mouth, or placing your name on the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) waiting list. It was not as stringently regulated as it is now.
When the call came about the house, James was in Hong Kong and I didn’t feel able to say yes while he was away and not able to see it himself. So I reluctantly let it go. A week later we had another call, and the agent said the first person had been posted to India and it was available again. So we went and looked at it together, and took it immediately.
James: I first saw the house from the restaurant at the top of the Shangri-La Hotel when I travelled here on business in 2003. That was about 18 months before we moved to Singapore. I recall thinking it had a lovely big garden and what a good place it would be to live. It wasn’t until almost four years later, when we were living in the house, that I returned to that same restaurant and realised I was overlooking “my house”. So, yes, it was meant to be, in a strange way.
Nearly all the black-and-whites are owned by the SLA and I think it is absolutely fantastic to have such great houses in a bustling city like Singapore. I believe this is the only city in Southeast Asia that has kept and cherished so many beautiful swathes of black-and-whites and old shophouses. These old houses lend a unique flavour and style to Singapore – a living heritage – and to have kept so many standing in this climate for over 100 years is commendable! I hope my children will be able to visit their old house with their children in many years to come.
Do you know the history of the house?
James: This is one of four houses built on a large tract of land where Tanglin, Orchard and Orange Grove roads intersect. Together they are the oldest private residences in Singapore, built in 1895 by A. L. Donaldson who constructed many homes around Singapore to house the British military, judges and officials. Three, including this one, were built in the same two-storey layout, while the fourth was a single-storey bungalow. There was also one very large home built at the same time, which has since been demolished.
Christina: We invited Julian Davison, the author of Black and White The Singapore House 1898-1941, to dinner. He was able to relay some of the history, including the architectural significance of several of the arches in the portico at the front. Apparently they are one-of-a-kind and were quite a feat to build.
James: Julian managed to track down the original plans of the layout of the enclave of five homes and some of the floor plans – Singapore has an excellent archive service. The two-storey residences were built for men in the colony, not for families. This is assumed because each of the three upstairs bedrooms had a separate staircase to an individual en suite downstairs. In those days, plumbing upstairs was probably not possible. The plans also show stables where the horses would have been kept. Kitchens don’t feature, as they would have been in the servant quarters located away from the main residence.
Whilst Julian has been our best source about the history of the house, we have also learnt a lot from previous tenants or their children who have frequently pitched up in Singapore to visit their old home. We always invited them to wander around for as long as they liked.
We were fascinated to hear from one person how the house was “rescued” in the early 1970s. Apparently, the house was then unoccupied, the garden completely overgrown and even trees starting to sprout inside, when a French couple (the husband had been sent to Singapore to manage a precursor to what is now Air France) spotted its potential and arranged to “reclaim it from the jungle”. Hard to imagine now, just a few hundred metres from Orchard Road!
I would urge all current tenants of black-and-whites (or any homes in Singapore) to extend hospitality to previous tenants. You stand to learn a lot, they all have interesting stories, and the previous tenants are most appreciative – I have experience as a tenant both “ex” and “current”. I am ever grateful to the Bowdens, tenants of my former Ridley Park black-and-white house, and now great friends, for letting me in to relive memories from 40 years ago.
What did you most like about the house?
Christina: Our children Tom, Camila, Caroline and Jake all enjoyed the pool and large garden; they climbed the trees, caught frogs, ate bananas from the banana trees and even had campfires sometimes. We enjoyed the wildlife our house and garden attracted. Many beautiful birds visited us, and we regularly saw squirrels, snakes, bats, shrews, rats, spiders and their amazing webs. We even had a monitor lizard living under the pool for a while!
Despite being in the middle of town it is very private, and feels secluded with no one overlooking it. It was a great lifestyle for them as small children and we are so grateful to have been able to give them this experience. We loved the large outdoor living areas where we dined and entertained regularly. Plus the location was unbeatable for proximity to Orchard Road and the children’s school at St Joseph’s Institution International.
Describe the layout of the house.
Christina: The arrival portico leads into the entrance hall, which has a magnificent winding staircase. On the ground floor there is a drawing room, a dining room which we converted into the children’s playroom, a kitchen and bathrooms. We modified the kitchen so we could put in a table and make it more of a family space. The large, covered outdoor area was dubbed “on the white” because of the white tiles we laid. This was one of the many things we did to improve the property and make it family-friendly. We covered the existing red bricks with tiles and put up a roof to cover the outdoor space. It became one of the places where we ate regularly and spent time together.
Upstairs are three bedrooms and two en suite bathrooms. All the upstairs verandahs were enclosed, so we built another bathroom off the master bedroom, and I turned another part of the verandah into my study. The spacious landing at the top of the stairs leads into another drawing room, which we used for watching television and casual occasions.
Outside, we built a pool and a standalone covered area that we called the atap, a Malay word. We had a barbecue and used to dine there regularly. The previous tenants had relied on air-conditioning, but we opened the house up by removing glass partitions on shutters and allowing the air in.
Where are you living now?
Christina: We moved to another black-and-white! This time it’s a shophouse in a terrace. It came down to the wire settling on it, but we’re really happy here. It has the same colonial feel we are used to, our furniture looks at home here and it is in a fantastic, central location.
Like That One (for unusual and one-off furniture pieces)
2 Bukit Batok Street 24
St Joseph’s Institution (international school)
38 Malcolm Road
6250 0022 | sji.edu.sg
The Green Grocer
Nikoi Island (family getaways)
Rimba Resort (family getaways)
Sibu Island, Malaysia
Papa Palheta Coffee (great coffee!)
150 Tyrwhitt Road
LoubeLou (children’s wear)
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