By Karien Van Ditzhuijzen
I love old things, things that are cracked or chipped on the edges. Those chips tell a story; a history. Shining marble, or slabs of steel and concrete do not excite me much. Our current house has plenty of cracks: Plants grow between the tiles on the roof, termites gnaw on wooden beams, and the wooden windowpanes crumble to touch. Yes, the drains get clogged and the snake-infested bushes will overgrow any planted flowers if not trimmed back weekly, but who can withstand the charm of a Singapore black-and-white house?
Just across from the Hollandse Club, on the other side of Adam Road, lies Adam Park, an area of beautiful mock-Tudor buildings with more history than even I would bargain for. When you turn left off the main road, you feel like you leave not just the bustle, sounds and smells of the city behind, you feel like you are shedding a century. Walking away from the noise of the road, up the small cul-de-sacs lined by palm trees, every step forward feels like a step back. It is not hard to image the memsahibs on the verandahs, sipping tea, while their Cantonese amahs in matching black-and-white outfits minded the children. But it has not always been this peaceful here.
The Adam Park houses were built during the last golden age of colonial Singapore; the roaring ‘20s. Nobody would have predicted the tumultuous events these houses would witness. In 1942, the area was the scene of a real battle – using a metal detector you can still find bullets in the gardens. During the four-day long Battle of Adam Park, British and Australian troops barricaded themselves in the houses, trying to stop the Japanese advancing towards the city. The shooting damaged the houses badly, yet not much later they were used to house again British and Australian soldiers – now as prisoners of war.
Sitting here, looking over at my lush and peaceful garden, where the most violent outbreak is a fight amongst my offspring, it is difficult to imagine that 200 soldiers would have been interned inside this very house. It brings some perspective to my children’s complaints about not wanting to share a bedroom. But the house has ample space if you look – we converted one of the verandas into the third child’s room. Some of the prisoners would have slept in the open space between the pillars underneath the building.
When the prisoners of war were shipped to Thailand to build the infamous Burma Death Railway, the Adam Park houses were done up and made available to rich Japanese merchants, until the end of the war when the British returned to reclaim them. Rumour has it that at independence in 1965, all of Singapore’s black-and-white houses were sold to the new Singapore government for a symbolic single dollar. Whether this price is true or not, they are still owned and maintained by the current government, that thankfully realises their value and conserves them – at least for now.
We are lucky to live in our amazing house, crumbling windowpanes and all, it is a living museum and a testament to the rich and complicated history of this city-state. I guess the remaining question is: What will the future hold?