Easaw Thomas’s interest in horticulture and botany is borne out by the lush landscaping at his Singapore property.
Ebullient medic and polymath Easaw Thomas invites us into his eccentric Bukit Timah bolthole.
By Jonathan Evans
From street level, number 2 Wilby Road in Singapore’s affluent Bukit Timah seems, if anything, nondescript compared to its grandiose neighbours. Foliage tumbles from the front garden over a wooden fence, while an unkempt, once-white pillar modestly bears the address. But behind a black gate, a steep driveway circling around an Art Deco conservatory is lined with forest trees, offering an early hint of its owner’s predilections.
In this cosy nook, flanked by lithographs of maharajahs in the Empire era and Bengali contemporary art, sits genial polymath Dr Easaw Thomas. Co-winner of the National Parks Board gardening competition in 2006 and world corporate secretary for the International College of Surgeons, this anaesthetist, horticulturalist and oenophile starts recounting his life story with childlike enthusiasm.
Keralan by descent and born in Malaysia, the perma-smiling Dr Thomas moved from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore as a nine-year-old boy. “That influenced me a lot,” he recalls. “My relatives were here, so they’d take me to the forest. I bought this house in 1990, rented it and planted as many trees as I could.”
The medic beckons me over to behind the main body of the house into a broad courtyard. A pathway bifurcates a koi-inhabited pond, while a treehouse – Dr Thomas’s bedroom – stands imperiously over the lush tropical scene.
“In 1998, my tenant told me he was going to Zurich, so I took over the place. There used to be a two-storey house in the middle here, and I took it down on the suggestion of my architect. Then this whole concept of building it ‘into the hill’ came to fruition.”
The arduous process of reshaping the earth behind the old house – which had been built in 1937 – and installing new rooms and a garden on the upper levels, took two years.
First, the doctor brought in wooden pillars from Kerala to prop up a veranda facing the pond (it now functions as a mini-art gallery). A spiral staircase above leads to two enormous bedrooms filled with sunlight and warm decorative tones, with door handles crafted by Salvador Dalí. A sizeable gazebo above the driveway was also transported from Kerala.
At the time of purchase, the house had a market value around SGD2.45 million (USD1.75m); 27 years later, it’s worth as much as SGD40 million – more than the recently contested family home of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.
“It’s near everything, and there’s a lot of greenery,” Dr Thomas says of the location. “The original Malaysian railway used to be here, and there’s Bukit Timah Hill and [former racecourse] Turf City. But the reason why I bought this house was the undulation of the land. I just loved the ‘waves’. I’m sure if someone else had bought it, they would have made it very flat. The monsters!”
The mystery tour continues. The doctor shows me an artwork he created from scrap bamboo, now tied together in an eye-pleasing formation, with Murano glass wall decorations either side. Grinning like a recalcitrant schoolboy, he opens a “secret” door that swings back to reveal a stacked cellar of red wine.
“I had a problem with my heart, so somebody told me to start drinking wine,” recalls the good doctor by way of explanation. “I’d always liked alcohol – well, whisky – but then I moved on to wine, and started cooking to match dishes with it.”
Back in the main body of the house, the proud homeowner leads me on a whistle-stop journey through a collection of art and furniture that the word “eclectic” barely begins to describe. He frequently punctuates his commentary with the question, “Do you know where this is from?” I guess, mostly incorrectly, but it’s a mind-expanding adventure nonetheless.
Within 10 minutes I’ve surveyed hand-carved, century-old American roll-top tables, an Inuit painting, a Ming dynasty urn, an Indian take on Aboriginal art, a Mongolian painting of Genghis Khan, a chilli sculpture from Malaysian artist Kumari Nahappan, an artwork from Italian architect Gio Ponti depicting the four seasons, a round table by Scottish designer Rennie Mackintosh, a Malaysian tree made into deer antlers and a caricature of himself drawn by “an Indonesian lady from Sulawesi”.
I tell him that he has, to say the very least, wide-ranging tastes. Yet somehow, the muted colours, wooden surfaces and blend of classic and contemporary converge into something resembling visual harmony.
“I look crazy, don’t I?” asks the doctor, rhetorically. “It looks oddball. But people are very comfortable here. We had a wedding with 100 guests! It rained, so they all came inside.”
I point out the cream-coloured sofa that takes up half the living room and tell him it’s the largest I’ve ever seen. “That’s a de Sede sofa from Switzerland,” he says. “I got it cheap; no one wanted this size. It’s moveable in any direction you want, because it’s all in separate parts.”
This fondness for scoring bargain artefacts is evident in the courtyard too, where the doctor has repurposed a series of objets trouvés amassed from around Singapore: a gorgeous dressing table and mirror, a Parisian bistro sign, a glass dining table.
“Everything here was thrown away,” he exclaims, as if still struggling to comprehend the idea. “Can you believe it? Look at this, man! [He points at the dressing table.] This whole piece, someone threw it away.” On the bedroom level of the extension, he’s taken cast-off shutters and whole doors from shophouses, and affixed them to the walls.
“You’re okay with heights, yes?” the doctor suddenly asks. Nodding nervously, I follow him on to the precarious ledge above the pond where he’s cultivated his rooftop garden, and gaze admiringly at the preponderance of his favourite flower.
“I put orchids everywhere,” Dr Thomas enthuses. “A lot of them are wild – they’re not hybrids.” The white-and-yellow orchids are offset by scarlet capsicum sculptures. “It adds colour to the greenery, when you look from below – the red really strikes you.”
It’s a fine example of how, despite the seemingly scattershot approach to design, Dr Thomas has brought together disparate elements while taking a holistic view. From the living room, he points out the semi-circular band that props up the orchid garden, and wraps appealingly around the courtyard facing the house – a counterpoint to the curved porch at the entrance. For him, this sensuous aspect of the design is a key factor in his home’s appeal.
“The C-shape – I’ve got quite fond it. The human mind loves that welcome. People love it is because it’s embracing you.”
Indeed, this inviting layout and international flavour – coupled with the doctor’s talents as a generous, extrovert host – have seen visitors arriving from far and wide to admire his multifaceted dwelling. The jungle-like old curiosity shop has attracted hundreds of guests from Indonesia, the UK and the United States.
And for as long as he is able, the doctor will open his home gallery, botany project and museum to anyone who’s interested. With typical magnanimity, he tells me: “Life is too short to keep things to yourself!”