Englishman Paul Baragwanath has been living in this 1945 black-and-white semi-detached bungalow for 18 of the 28 years he’s been in Singapore. Previously in another black-and-white in Medway Park, he had “twenty-four hours to vacate it” when he left his then job to set up his own company – a thriving business that provides underwater ship repair services.
All the houses in this stretch of Malcolm Road are two-storeyed semi-detached dwellings. “When someone told me about this place, I called up the managing agent and said ‘I don’t need to see it – I’ll take it,” he recalls. Being so conveniently central, Malcolm Road is a very desirable location.
“But I knew there’d be work to be done,” he says. “In those days, you got the four bare walls and that was it.” The paperwork dealt with, he moved into the Tanglin Club for six weeks while the contractors did their thing. No structural changes have ever been allowed, so the original house is pretty much intact. It had been standing vacant for a while before Paul took possession, and before that “an old expat” had lived here for some time.
A paved driveway leads to a big bar that gets plenty of use. “I spend a lot of time out here and it’s great for entertaining.” Are there any drawbacks to living in a black-and-white house? “The only drawback, as far as I’m concerned, is that you can’t buy them, because they are heritage properties,” is the wry answer.
It’s rather unusual that we start our tour upstairs, but tea is waiting for us there. Paul and his partner Salinah spend much of their time in the upstairs living-room, off which the two bedrooms lead. Before Paul had it glassed in and installed air-conditioning, it was an open-air space with one lonely ceiling fan, he says. “We’re all completely aircon-spoiled,” he admits. The neighbours, who have children, use this large space as a third bedroom.
It’s beautifully intact: only two of the floorboards had to be replaced a couple of years ago when they were found to have rotted; the others are all original.
An interesting feature of the master bedroom is a large panel in the high ceiling that could be opened to create a through-draft to suck out the rising hot air. There were initially just shutters here, no windows at all; and the high doors also encourage air-flow when they’re open.
Vietnamese paintings add a splash of colour to plain white walls, and a red carpet with a design of a girl and a monkey does the same for the wide expanse of floor; Paul, who was born in the Chinese Year of the Monkey, had it made to his own design many years ago, he says.
The roomy en-suite area is now closed in, but used to be open to the air. At one end of the long space is Paul’s shower room; at the other Salinah’s bathroom. He sticks to his side, he says, but accuses her of using both. Well, of course she does!
Walls, floors and cabinets display the myriad souvenirs that the couple has picked up over decades of travelling, both separately and together. Apart from a great trip to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe two years ago, the highlight seems to have been a round-the-world trip for Paul’s 50th birthday. When Salinah got going on the planning of it, the two-week jaunt Paul had in mind turned into a two-month odyssey that included Bangkok, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Panama, Cuba, New York, Venice, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Monte Carlo and London.
“I would never be able to take a two-month holiday if it weren’t for Skype,” enthuses Paul. “You can be sitting in Cuba and talking to your office as if you were there with your staff. It has revolutionised the way we do business, like the fax machine did many years ago.”
I eventually have to ask the question: What’s with the trademark pouting red lips that adorn various parts of the house?
“It’s my personal logo,” admits Paul. “I have it tattooed on a discreet part of my anatomy. I remember the day I left home to join the Royal Navy to become a clearance diver. On the day I was leaving (which just so happened to be my mother’s birthday), with tears in her eyes, she advised me never to have a tattoo. Well, when I was in the Navy, I never did. It was only afterwards that I had it done.”
Baragwanath is a good old Cornish name, and a complicated family tree takes pride of place on a wall of the dining room. In case you’ve heard of the huge hospital of the same name in Johannesburg, yes, there is a connection. Paul’s great-grandfather, Orlando, donated the land on which it is built and they named the hospital after him.
Interestingly, the massive, ornately carved rosewood dining table, dresser and chairs were made back in 1984 by Changi prisoners in terms of a rehabilitation programme. “You could design it, and they would make it. This furniture will last forever.”
After many years together, the couple got engaged in November last year and have set the date to get married in Las Vegas in September this year, on Paul’s birthday. “That’s so I’ll never forget my wedding anniversary,” he explains.
I’ve barely dented the arsenal of high-tea offerings, but it’s also high time that I was on my way. “Where did the past two hours go?” I wonder aloud.
“Never mind two hours,” retorts Paul. “I’ve been here for 28 years, and it feels like yesterday that I got off the plane.”
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