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The history of a Singapore Black-and-White home revealed


Many of us love black-and-white homes for their unique aesthetic qualities. Often, though, we live in them knowing nothing of the history of the physical building or of the people who have previously resided there.

David and Alex Hope had enjoyed the architecture and setting of their black-and-white home up on the hill above the Keppel Club for about six years without knowing much about its background. Sometimes, David used to think, ‘If only the walls could talk.’

A knock on the door one day changed all that. It launched him on a voyage of discovery that would reveal to him fascinating aspects of the course of the Second World War in this region, and eventually lead him to start writing a book about it all – a book that he hopes to have completed by the 70th anniversary of the 1942 evacuation of Singapore.

Black and White home above Keppel Club
Black and White home above Keppel Club

The man behind the knock, Englishman Bill Choppin, had actually been born in the house, which was one of several built on the hill overlooking Keppel Bay by the Singapore Harbour Board as staff accommodation. David invited him in, and Bill sat down and told his story.

Bill’s maternal grandfather came to Singapore in 1888 as a harbour engineer. Bill’s own father, William A. Choppin, was also a dockyard employee. When Bill was nine he went off to boarding school in England, as they did in those days, so wasn’t around when the Japanese moved silently through Malaysia to attack a surprised Singapore. Bill’s mother Nora was evacuated on one of the last ‘safe’ ships and eventually joined him in England.

After the fall of Singapore, both father and grandfather stayed on to wait for a more sinister knock on the door, and after the fall of Singapore they were interned by the Japanese for three-and-a-half years at Changi and Sime Road prisons.

Bill was moved when he saw the master bedroom. His parents’ bed had been in exactly the same position, but in those days there was no air-conditioning and it had been covered with mosquito netting. The other large bedroom, which was once Bill’s, has been divided by David and Alex to make two bedrooms for their two children.

Remarkably enough, after the war, the family moved back into the same house, and lived in it until Independence in 1956, when the Harbour Board morphed into the Port of Singapore Authority (the PSA).

History Time

This story inspired David to start his own research into the WWII period. The actual evacuation was a disaster, with 42 ships and boats being sunk. Lists were posted at the harbour to notify the public which ships and passengers had escaped to safety, and which had not.

At this time, the British naval command did not realise that the Japanese navy had already taken control of Indonesian waters. Laden with women and children, the ships sailed right into their hands.

David set up this website, which has helped him connect with others who share his interest. Through one of these contacts, he has managed to follow the path of one of the evacuation boats, the HMS Kuala. On Friday, 13 February 1942, the British nurses at the Alexandra Hospital were ordered to evacuate; among them was Brenda Macduff, who is now 95 and living in Auckland. They sailed safely to the Indonesian island of Pompong, but were spotted and subsequently bombed and machinegunned by the Japanese.

A few days later, Brenda and the remaining evacuees were rescued by the steamship vessel Tanjong Pinang, only to be sunk on the way to Sumatra. Remarkably, she and a few others were found by the heroic Captain Bill Reynolds and sailed to safety in his converted Japanese fishing boat.

Moved by this incredible story, David and a group recently followed the journey to Pompong Island in commemoration of those who lost their lives there. He is also planning to follow the journey of 5,000 Australian soldiers who were on the Sandakan death march through Borneo, many losing their lives to starvation and disease.

Black and White home above Keppel Club
Black and White home above Keppel Club


The House

The Hopes have been lucky enough to live in this piece of history for ten years. Although there were plans to redevelop the area, recently a two-year reprieve was given. Even the economic crisis has a silver lining!

As with all black-and-whites, you start with an empty shell. Alex and David added on the pool and deck area but left the rest as close as possible to the original. What is now an outdoor storeroom would have been the kitchen, and their current kitchen would have been a serving area.

Over the years, they have filled their home with a mix of Australian and local art, including one that Alex commissioned from Ketna Patel for David’s birthday. It’s a fascinating montage of cleverly disguised photographs of him and the family – fun, bright and personal. Its lacquer finish makes it easy to dust, a good idea in these old houses, whose open windows and vents make them high-maintenance.

‘The art has to be something we like,’ says David, but the couple have gone for a mix of emerging and established artists. Their Australian art collection includes works by Keith Looby, Joe Furlonger, Peter Booth and Clifford Possum. ‘We could collect more,’ he adds, ‘but we are running out of wall space.’ He has a new interest in collecting old Indonesian batik pieces and antique kimono print stencils.

It’s a Jungle Out There

Although the area has seen huge construction recently, the Hopes are still surrounded by nature and can tell some entertaining stories: monkeys throwing rambutan skins at the dogs; large spitting cobras that were eventually caught by eight officers in two squad cars with a large shotgun; the occasional large monitor lizard swaggering along; and two large civet cats that spent a night in one of the trees.

This is an interesting home in so many ways. The Hopes feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to live ‘the black-and-white way’. And ever since that knock on the door, they have truly immersed themselves in the experience.

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