Homecoming: how a house, connected to my roots, meant the world to me.
Once I had a house in Singapore. Given that around 82 percent of Singaporeans live in HDB apartments, house-dwellers are an increasingly rare species these days. Of course, this wasn’t always the case. In the 1950s and early 1960s, when I was growing up in Singapore, most people lived in a house of one description or another, even if their domestic arrangements were no more than a cramped and fusty cubicle in an overcrowded shophouse down in Chinatown. Back then, I lived in a comfortable bungalow off Braddell Road, the privileged prerogative of a European childhood in the last days of the colonial era – my family has been in Singapore since the 1880s, when my great-grandfather was a captain in the Straits Steamship Company. Much later, my architect father, who was born in Singapore in 1920, started out by working for the SIT, or Singapore Improvement Trust, the colonial forerunner of HDB, before going on to establish the Singapore branch of Raglan Squire & Partners, today’s RSP. But I am not writing about that far-off time here; rather I am speaking of the 1990s, at which point the man who could step out of his front door directly onto terra firma was either extremely rich or else favoured by the gods; I was one of the latter.
Back to Bright Hill
Twenty years ago, Bright Hill was a pretty quiet sort of place, a leafy suburban street, comprising two-storey post-war houses set down in generous gardens, at the back of which was huge piece of open ground, the size of half a dozen football pitches, which abutted the grounds of the Bright Hill Monastery and Temple complex. The open space had formerly been a Chinese cemetery, but the graves had been exhumed some years before and the site levelled to create an enormous padang. Though there was an HDB estate close by, Bright Hill itself still retained a peaceful, bucolic air, a quality which continued until the end of the century.
The house was a large, rambling sort of place – I think it was probably designed with an extended Chinese family in mind, because there were two kitchens, four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a study, a studio, and verandas and patios all over the place, which meant there was plenty of room for the many who came and dwelt under its roof. As resident writer and principal tenant, I laid claim to the study, which gradually filled up with books until there was hardly space left to put a laptop. After the study, my next favourite place was the kitchen. This was where everyone would gather in the evening to talk to whoever was cooking – meals at Bright Hill tended to be communal affairs – and to share a glass of wine and review the events of the day. When the meal was ready, we would repair to the back veranda for dinner, invariably accompanied by a couple of guests, or perhaps a visitor from overseas – Bright Hill was nothing if not sociable.
Bright Hill was like a halfway house, betwixt and between, a portal to a not-so-distant time when there were still kampongs and fishing villages and kelongs out on the horizon where the sky met the sea.
First-time visitors to Bright Hill were incredulous. “It’s so unlike Singapore,” they would say. “Not really,” I would reply, “just Singapore a long time ago, when the world was still young and myself with it.”
A second childhood’s Eden
If the past is a foreign country where they do things differently, then equally the present is a place of exile from which there is no escape. Bright Hill, however, was like a halfway house, betwixt and between, a portal to a not-so-distant time when there were still kampongs and fishing villages and kelongs out on the horizon where the sky met the sea. This was the Singapore of my childhood. It was also the Singapore that I used to dream about during years of banishment in England, where I had been sent off to boarding school, especially in winter when the cold winds blew and the sun took to its bed for days on end. When, however I finally came back to live in Singapore after an absence of 25 years, I found this faded Kodachrome vision of my childhood to be as chimerical as the dreams themselves. Except, that is at Bright Hill where behind the garden gate, the clocks actually began to turn backwards.
We kept chickens and ducks, and even rabbits for a while, though they were pretty soon gobbled up by the neighbourhood python, as indeed was the odd chicken from time to time. Part of the garden had been planted as an orchard and there were mature durian trees, rambutan and pulasan, nangka and breadfruit, jambu air, and any number of banana varieties. As the years passed, though, what had once been lawn and flowerbeds slowly began to be replaced by jungle. A bamboo that I had picked up half-dead in a pot at the side of the road shot up 200 feet in the air – my neighbour on that side of the house would periodically appear at my front door with an electric chainsaw to inform me that shoots were growing through his mother-in-law’s bathroom window and could I kindly do something about it. Once the garden had returned to secondary forest, I never ventured into it without an axe in case of a chance encounter with a spitting cobra.
The property as a whole had acquired a rather mysterious air, a kind of lost-city-in-the-jungle atmosphere.
By this time, the property as a whole had acquired a rather mysterious air, a kind of lost-city-in-the-jungle atmosphere. The lovely Xueyi, who was one of the last residents to live at Bright Hill, was returning from work one evening when she heard me in the kitchen singing a nonsense aria in my specially-trained, wayang-falsetto voice. Walking just in front of her was a mother and her young child. “Mummy,” said the little girl in a tremulous voice, “is that a haunted house?”
And then one day the axe fell. Our aged landlord, Mr Tan, who had owned the house since the 1950s had died a few months previously and his sons understandably wanted to redevelop the property – the land alone was worth millions. “Ah, but we’re not going to knock the house down,” they said, “we grew up next door, it means a lot to us too – you can rent it again when we’ve finished.” It was a considerate offer, kindly meant, but the new rent was to be five times what I had hitherto been paying. Our Paradise was lost!
And so today, the house still stands, but the jungle is gone, the neighbours are revealed, the padang beyond the garden fence has been turned into a light industry park and the pythons have slithered away down the longkang in search of new hunting grounds. The Malays have a saying, nasi sudah menjadi bubur, literally, “rice has become porridge.” In other words, once a change has taken place, it is irreversible, and just as porridge cannot be turned back into rice, so the past is passed and there can be no going back to that house on the hill which I once called home.
Words and photographs by Julian Davison
Published by the Singapore Memory Project and Studio Wong Huzir