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Singapore’s Colonial Heritage

By CLAUDIA BERMUDEZ-HYUN, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 19, 2022 5:00 am

I consider myself an island girl, which is rather odd, considering I grew up in the midst of a Latin American savannah, 8,660 feet above sea level and surrounded by imposing, sky-scraping mountains most of my childhood.

It all began when I flew into Manila in my carefree and oblivious mid-teens and discovered in awe the beauty of these islands, the rich culture I belonged to, the distinctness of the Tagalog language and the warmth and kindness of the Filipino people. In love and fascinated by the sea, I hungrily explored our dreamlike beaches and pristine underwater life, learning to embrace and anticipate the unpredictability and feistiness of our equatorial weather. Not long after, I knew I wanted to spend my life in the tropics.

After my college years in Europe, figuring out adulthood, working experiences and, to a large extent, fate, I ended up in Southeast Asia again, this time settling down on yet another unique island: Singapore. 

“What I appreciate the most about living here—being a history geek and art lover—is the preservation of the country’s colonial past and the meticulous conservation of its architectural structures in the midst of its modernism,” says author Claudia Bermudez-Hyun.

My respect and admiration for this country, its government, the education system, its medical advances, and its heritage are unabated. I have immersed myself in their history books, studied their struggles, applauded their victories and celebrated this nation’s triumphs as if they were my own. It’s been my home for the last 20 years and… I’m a fan.

Today Singapore is considered one of the world’s most sought-after cities to live in, boasting the highest levels of human capital development in the world. Only 50 years ago, it was confronted with severe issues of unemployment, poor infrastructure and housing shortages. Often referred to as the Little Red Dot, it has made up for its small size with dazzling modern skyscrapers, luxurious hotels, top-of-the-line hospitals and unique tourist attractions.

Author Claudia Bermudez-Hyun at home

But what I appreciate the most about living here—being a history geek and art lover—is the preservation of the country’s colonial past and the meticulous conservation of its architectural structures amid its modernism. Having a window into the past and being able to glance at life on the island during those years is a gift I have taken full advantage of.

I specifically refer to the Black and White bungalows built between 1922 and 1946 that proudly still stand, housing families and recently restaurants, shops and boutique hotels, giving the island an inimitable charm rarely encountered elsewhere.

The classic Black and White Bungalows are spread around Singapore, often set in quiet, lush and pristine corners of the island.

Their name stems from the dark timber beams and whitewashed walls that prevailed in their construction. Their style is commonly referred to as “Tudorbethan,” a marriage between Tudor and Elizabethan architecture. Commonly built on elevated platforms, using stilts to protect its inhabitants from animals, insects and mostly rainy season floods, they were built with large verandas and open layouts to allow the breeze to permeate, high ceilings and shutter-style windows.

Today, many of these architectural treasures have been beautifully decorated and converted into high-end restaurants, bars, cafés and hotels, making them easily accessible to the public.

Originally occupied by high-ranking government officials, Singaporean elites and powerful businessmen, many were abandoned when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942 during WWII and most were turned into army barracks.

Outdoor verandahs with high ceilings are a classic feature of this type of architecture to enjoy the cool afternoon breeze of the tropics.

Today, many of these architectural treasures have been beautifully decorated and converted into high-end restaurants, bars, cafés and hotels, making them easily accessible to the public.

Visiting this island without experiencing its colonial heritage would be a big miss. I suggest taking a day off from the modern malls and skyscrapers and immersing in the Singapore of the 1920s. 

Visit these areas and have a meal in one of their restaurants:

Dempsey Hill. These once-abandoned army barracks that are surrounded by lush greenery were redeveloped 20 years ago into a trendy and high-end district filled with quaint restaurants, art galleries, spas, shops and cafés. Some of my favorite places with excellent service and food are The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar, CandleNut, COMO Cuisine, Chop Suey, Blu Kuzina, and Ippoh Tempura bar.

The Dempsey Cookhouse and Bar: A place to see and to be seen, this restaurant in a heritage building is somewhere between fine and casual dining.

Corner House @ Botanic Gardens. This colonial house was formerly the residence of the director of Singapore Botanic Gardens, EJH Corner, an expert in tropical, trees, palms and fungi. Today it houses a beautiful French-Asian restaurant. The whole menu is created around the concept of “gastro-botanica” — a contemporary cuisine that puts equal focus on the proteins and botanical elements on the plate.

Corner House: Located at the Botanic Gardens, this Black and White bungalow has been converted into a beautiful French-Asian restaurant.

Tamarind Hill. A Thai and Shen restaurant set within a historic colonial bungalow and perched atop the forested Labrador Nature Reserve, greenery and heritage harmonize at Tamarind Hill to present a gastronomic escape away from the city. With a timeless interior and delicious dishes, the award-winning restaurant is a blend of Asian and colonial influences, mirroring the city’s storied past.

Tamarind Hill: A Thai and Shen restaurant set within a historic colonial bungalow and perched atop the forested Labrador Nature Reserve, greenery and heritage harmonize at Tamarind Hill to present a gastronomic escape away from the city.

Villa Samadhi. Housed in a restored 1920 Black-and-White colonial garrison, Villa Samadhi Singapore is located in Labrador Nature Reserve and offers boutique-style accommodations in Singapore. Furnished in harmony with its colonial surroundings, each of the 20 distinctive rooms seamlessly fuses modern amenities with the hotel’s rustic-luxe character.

Villa Samadhi:Housed in a restored 1920 black-and-white colonial garrison, Villa Samadhi Singapore is located in Labrador Nature Reserve and offers boutique-style accommodations in Singapore.

Seletar Aerospace Park. Once a home for the Royal Air Force, the Black and White bungalows have been conserved and redeveloped as part of their transformation into a lifestyle enclave. The place houses plenty of eateries, with relaxed crowds visiting the area on weekends. Take a stroll around the green site, watch the planes fly by and have a spot of fun at the airplane-themed playground.

Ridout Road. Take a drive or go for a bike ride on Ridout Road, where you will see the most amazing, privately owned Black and White bungalows. Set in the city center, this area is an architectural voyage into time. Other areas to drive through where you’ll find Black-and-Whites scattered around the island are Rochester Park, Portsdown road, Seton Close, Chatsworth Park, Mount Pleasant, Goodwood Hill and Alexandra Park.

Gallop House No. 5- Atbara. This 123-year-old colonial bungalow, the oldest surviving Black and White one in Singapore, is now a gallery known as the Forest Discovery Centre and open to the public. Located in the new Gallop extension of the Botanic Gardens, it’s worth the visit.

Gallop House No. 5- Atbara: This 123-year-old colonial bungalow is now a gallery known as the Forest Discovery Centre and open to the public.

Life in this sublime “Little Red Dot” is full of surprises and hidden colonial architectural treasures. If you have the chance to visit this remarkable island in the near future, go discover them. You won’t be disappointed.