Second-generation expat Nick Oxborrow uses his Blair Road shophouse as it was originally intended: for both work and pleasure. It’s also proof that style is possible on a shoestring, and that it’s not necessary to spend a fortune on designer furniture and stylists to create an impact.
Nick’s eyes almost match the Tiffany blue paint of the kitchen table where we sit chatting over iced water one hot morning. An engaging conversationalist, Nick, 39, explains that he’s spent a good proportion of his life in Singapore. He returned five years ago to pursue business opportunities and now, revelling in the ease of life here and his funky shophouse, has discovered that it’s a place where he is happy to be living again.
Nick was born here; shortly after that, his family moved to Kuala Lumpur, spent 10 years there and then moved back to Singapore. At 13 he went off to boarding school in the UK along with his three siblings, returning three times a year for holidays. “Growing up here, we loved the ease of getting around and the safety. My parents did not worry about us being out until 4am here, unlike in the UK where we weren’t allowed out,” he laughs. At the age of 18, after he’d finished school, Nick returned and worked at Raffles Hotel before heading off to London to pursue further studies.
However, strong family ties (his sister and father live here) drew him back when he became disillusioned with London. “It’s hard living there,” he explains. “The transport is difficult to navigate so it is time-consuming to get around, and I was trying to get a small business established. Plus, I was always watching my pennies. Moving back meant I could launch my event design business. Lots of my childhood friends have come back here to live and work, too, which was another attraction.”
Work and pleasure
“True to its 1920s Peranakan shophouse roots, the building works as a office/home concept,” explains Nick as we walk past hundreds of vases stored on shelves on the spacious ground floor. “My events company is a 24/7 business with functions, events and clients who want to meet at all hours, including weekends. My sister thinks I shouldn’t live and work here, that it should be separate, but this suits my lifestyle perfectly.” Nick admits one of the benefits is that he can have the occasional lunchtime nap, and then work late if he likes.
Curiously, moving to Blair Road in mid-2011 presented a complementary business opening. “I purchased the floral business that the existing tenant had established, mainly because it fits with my core event business nicely,” he explains. An enormous cool room had already been installed at the back of the building when he moved in; it holds a gorgeous selection of flowers.
On the second floor is a large, open-plan, air-conditioned office where Nick and his staff work. He outgrew his first premises in Arab Street, where he set up the company that he’d nurtured in London. Back in London, he found he couldn’t make headway in such a crowded, competitive industry. In Singapore, however, he has found success and, after five years, is an established name in the market.
Nick has a remarkable family history and freely shows me many of the old keepsakes his grandmother left him. From a shelf in the kitchen, he carefully lifts an original Coca-Cola cooler box made of tin. “My grandmother used to carry this in the car boot; it’s even got a water outlet and a bottle opener, not bad for something made in the 50s.”
He is also keen to visit Burma to retrace the steps of his grandfather, who lived there in the 1930s and worked in the mountains logging teak.
“He had to leave during WWII when the Japanese invaded. So he went back to the UK, where he married my grandmother. They moved to the Middle East and lived in Baghdad, and my father grew up there,” he says.
Full of life
As well as the office, the second floor accommodates the outdoor kitchen and large dining room. “The dining room is regularly used for meetings, and the staff lunch in the kitchen most days. I love that the house is often full of people, and there’s lots going on here.”
The striking colour scheme in the kitchen came about when Nick took a Tiffany jewellery box to the local paint shop and asked them to match the shade. He then painted the old bathroom door, re-purposed into a kitchen table, and some benches a friend had given him. Nick agrees this rough and ready furniture suits the eclectic nature of the house.
“It’s by no means perfect, but the furniture suits. I don’t want anything too modern in this house as it would actually highlight the fact that it is quite old and well-lived-in,” he says. He laments the towering condominium under construction just metres from the back of the house and says it used to have a nice outlook over big old shady trees.
Furnishing the eclectic dining room is an IKEA dining room table which is cleverly matched with six chairs, purchased for $50 each from a restaurant that was closing down. A friend’s daughter was enlisted to earn some pocket money by painting them a striking shade of red. The big carver chairs were the property of the house’s owners and Nick happily took possession. “I bought the Indonesian headboard on the wall from a friend of mine. I think it works because it’s big, but not too complicated.”
Nick purchased the gold lamps during one of a few trips to Hock Siong, well known as a place to pick up pre-loved furniture. “I’ve had to be careful when putting this room together because the contents were collected from a variety of sources. I think that keeping it rustic and allowing it to be a little bit scratched and imperfect works well.”
Although the house is admittedly in need of some TLC, it has lovely original features such as Peranakan tiles, decorative wooden balustrades, and a cute porch on the third floor. The porch is part of Nick’s private retreat, which includes a living space, bedroom and bathroom.
As with the other furniture in the house, every piece has a story to tell. The sofas in the living area were purchased for a few hundred dollars when Nick answered a notice at the American Club, and double up as pullout beds when visitors come to stay. Adorning the room are knick-knacks and cherished pieces including some “tourist tat” purchased by his grandmother. “The painting of the golden temple on a rock in Burma was probably a cheap tourist souvenir back in the day, but she had it framed and I’ve kept it.”
He says the bedroom’s unusual and elegant curtains came from her house in Baghdad and must be well over 50 years old. Also in the bedroom is one of Nick’s few investments in furniture: a white Chinese wedding cabinet and a white chest purchased in Dempsey. Both pieces complement the furniture which he has acquired from relatives.
Outside, the quaint patio overlooks Blair Road and in the distance are the remnant railway yards of the old Singapore railway station at Tanjong Pagar. As with so many areas of Singapore, this historic patch is rapidly disappearing and Nick comments that even the original Art Deco tiles on the front cement fence of the house sometimes fall prey to itchy fingers. Still, the patio is a wonderful spot on balmy evenings for impromptu gatherings with neighbours, and Nick says he revels in the friendly Blair Road community that he is part of.
Where is Blair Road?
Blair Road, in the Outram Park area, is lined with terrace houses and is within the Blair Plains Conservation Area. Laid in 1900, the road was named after John Blair, a senior officer with the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company. Most of the houses were built in the 1920s. In close proximity to the Singapore General Hospital and the city, the quiet road runs parallel to Kampong Bahru, which was known for its dodgy KTV bars but is now home to trendy cafés and shops.
Barakkath Frame Maker (inexpensive framing to make simple pictures stylish)
201 South Bridge Road
Fabulation Event Design (creates beautiful events and weddings)
9771 3003 | fabulation.com.sg
Galanga Living (for stylish, shabby-chic items)
211 Henderson Road
6475 2633 | galangaliving.com
Hock Siong (hunting ground for second-hand items)
153 Kampong Ampat
6281 8338 | facebook.com/hocksiongco
Pasta Brava (traditional-style Italian restaurant)
11 Craig Road
6227 7550 | pastabrava.com.sg
Strangers Reunion (for good coffee)
33 Kampong Bahru Road
6222 4869 | facebook.com/StrangersReunion
Vue Privée (wonderful art gallery)
63 Spottiswoode Park Road
6226 2508 | vueprivee.com
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