Midway up Mount Pleasant’s wooded slope, a narrow track leads to a grandiose building that is instantly recognisable against the surrounding greenery as a black-and-white house. Joseph Jones steps inside and finds tales of soldiers and terrorists, Gurkhas and ghosts in this magnificent relic of empire.
Bastions of Power
Singapore’s colonial black-and-white houses, a category of housing that includes large, double-storey bungalows, were built primarily by the British administration’s Public Works Department (PWD).
The massive size of the black-and-whites in areas such as Mount Pleasant was partly due to their being built to house the colonial administration’s senior officials, sometimes with their families, but also the need for airiness and spaciousness in this tropical climate. This architectural style flourished in Singapore from the end of the 19th century up until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Kinchem Hegedus, her husband Peter Barge and their two children have lived in this particular Mount Pleasant house since 2005. She believes it was originally built as the residence of the Inspector-General of the British police force.
Julian Davison, author of Black and White – The Singapore House 1898-1941, agrees this is a reasonable assumption given the proximity of several police buildings. Although Julian has found no evidence by way of working drawings (the PWD’s records have either been lost or destroyed), he says that “the style of the Mount Pleasant houses in general indicates construction in the late-twenties or early thirties by the PWD, which certainly did other work for the police at the time, including the Hill Street Police Station and Barracks in 1934 (now the multi-coloured shutter-fronted MICA Building).”
Indeed, this thick spread of jungle was once the centre of an administrative and policing hub for all of Singapore. The old police academy is nearby, and anyone standing at the rear of the black-and-white’s two acres in the 1930s would have looked down the hill to a mess hall for “gazetted” officers (senior police).
The mess, another grand old black-and-white structure, still serves its original purpose for the modern-day Singapore police force. Seventy years ago, unmarried British officers lived, dined and entertained here in fairly extravagant style. Friday night was the weekly dinner-and-dance, a regular social event for unmarried and married officers with their families, attended by the mess servants who lived on site.
Fortunes of War
This residence sprawls more than black-and-whites of its type, with a long covered walkway at the rear that leads to an array of outhouses, servants’ quarters and stables.
The most distinctive and unusual architectural feature is a peaked room that perches pagoda-like atop the roof. It was built, Kinchem was informed by friends in the military, to serve as a lookout point and give the residence a commanding 360-degree view of the surrounding area.
In 1942, Japanese troops would have been seen from this vantage point advancing across the island, with British and Commonwealth soldiers falling back before them, until the front line was barely a few miles from the house. On 15 February 1942, an observer looking northwards would have seen a fluttering white flag being raised above the radio station on nearby Caldecott Hill to signal the unconditional British surrender.
The fall of Singapore would lead to one of the most traumatic periods in the island’s history and mark an unwelcome new chapter in the history of this black-and-white house on Mount Pleasant. As defeated combatants, the British, military and civilians alike, were evicted from their residences and sent to mass camps. Many black-and-whites stood empty, but some were appropriated to house senior officials in the Japanese army. The house where Kinchem’s family now lives became the headquarters for a high-ranking official in the Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai.
|The Kempeitai and the Sook Ching atrocities|
Regarded as the Japanese equivalent of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo, the Kempeitai had followed the Imperial army’s advance down the Malayan peninsula.
When Singapore fell, they swiftly put into operation Kakyshukusei – later referred to by the Chinese phrase Sook Ching, meaning “purge through cleansing”. Its goal was nothing less than the systematic extermination of any Chinese deemed hostile to Japan.
The Japanese government has not denied that systematic killings took place in Singapore, but while they estimate that 5,000 were killed, others, including local historians, put it closer to 50,000.
Rumours abound, says Kinchem, of the murder of Chinese civilians by the Kempeitai in the Mount Pleasant area – part of the terrible Sook Ching massacre. “Comfort women” (women in wartime, primarily Chinese, who were forcibly kept as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers) are thought to have occupied the outhouses and stables at the rear of the house. Kinchem only discovered this when a friend of the family, over for dinner one evening, announced, “I thought I’d been to this house before.” He had worked on the post-war British commission into Japanese war crimes, including an investigation into the use of comfort women.
Houseguests – Invited and Otherwise
The sometimes grim past of the house is difficult to square with its current incarnation as the well-loved home of a large and happy family. Still, as Kinchem says, “You do have to wonder who slept in the bedroom before us.”
Given the area’s murky history, and the proximity of the Bukit Brown and Mount Pleasant cemeteries, it is unsurprising that ghost stories abound. Kinchem recalls times when taxi drivers have refused to take her home at night for fear of encountering a vampiric pontianak ghost, a white-clothed female spirit who preys on the living and is reputed to haunt the area near the old police academy. One Malay taxi driver, upon picking her up, offered his services as a bomoh, a kind of Malay witchdoctor, to exorcise the house. The Singapore Paranormal Society has also been through the house and claims to have detected multiple “presences” there.
Kinchem herself shows remarkably equanimity about any possible spirits. Her view is that the house has layers upon layers of history, and she’s more than happy to share it all. “I don’t feel any antagonism,” she says, though by her own admission she is the only member of the family who enjoys spending time in the “lookout room”, now her study, at the top of the house.
Kinchem’s spirit of openness understandably does not stretch to suspected terrorists, and when Mas Selamat, quickly to become “Singapore’s Most Wanted”, escaped from a nearby detention centre in 2008, the island-wide manhunt for him began in the residences along Mount Pleasant.
It might have been just a bit of excitement, except that food had gone missing from the fridge and the door to the dining room was unlocked. For Kinchem, alone in the house with her young son Billy and daughter Shannon, it was terrifying. What became of the food remains a mystery: the 15 heavily-armed Gurkhas (elite Nepali mercenary soldiers) serving in the Singapore police, who searched the house the following day, reassured her there were no terrorists hiding there.
The same can’t be said for monkeys. Prior to Kinchem discovering and falling in love with the house, it had stood empty for seven years and was in a state of advanced decay. Animal and insect life was rife and the monkeys from the nearby jungle were loath to relinquish their squatter’s rights.
“We kept receiving calls from the foreman of the site,” recalls Kinchem, “saying the retiling of the roof was being delayed yet again.” Monkeys were flinging the tiles to the ground as soon as the workers had finished laying them.
“I remember driving up one day, soon after moving in,” she says, “to see monkeys scurrying out of the house, across the lawn and up the trees.” Inside were discarded banana peels from a raid on the kitchen. They had even gone upstairs to the study and amused themselves by heaving books out of the open window onto the ground and the roof below.
“There were muddy paw prints around my computer monitor, where they had tried to throw that out, too,” says Kinchem, who spent the afternoon leaning out of the window with a broom trying to retrieve books from the roof.
When Kinchem and her family move back to their farm in Australia (in Jamberoo, New South Wales) this year, they’ll be sorry to say goodbye to their Singapore home. Peter is a farmer at heart, and has been trying to cultivate vegetables on a small aqua-culture plot near the stables. He used to have a coop full of chickens, till hungry pythons left only one traumatised survivor.
What are likely to be Kinchem’s fondest memories of the house? Children playing cricket on the lawn on Friday afternoons, she suggests, the adults sipping cocktails as the sun goes down. “It is a great house for parties,” adds Kinchem; she has hosted many of these in the huge downstairs parlour.
“I’ll also miss the birds, the breeze and the monkeys,” she says with a smile, looking out through the open doors at the jungle surrounds.
The future for the black-and-white houses on Mount Pleasant remains uncertain. While the buildings are listed as heritage architecture, the official policy is to give priority to buildings of “shared memories”, where there is a clear common interest amongst Singapore’s various ethnic groups.
For a long time, the only Singaporeans to be found inside black-and-white houses were domestic servants; then there is the dark association between some black-and-whites and the Japanese Occupation. It would be understandable if not all Singaporeans viewed them so affectionately. Yet they represent a uniquely Singaporean and particularly eye-catching architectural style, and the island would be a poorer place without them.
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