The streets around the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) are ones that once spoke to me. It was on these streets and some that are no more that as a schoolboy, I had spent four years wandering through a little more than three decades ago, developing a strong attachment to them as they were back then. My schooldays in the area ended at the end of 1980, and leaving that behind me, I did not realise that that it was the world around it that I so loved that I was to leave behind as well.
I often wander down the same streets today, hoping to find that world that in the distractions of my passage into adulthood was swept away by the winds of change that blew over the area in the decade that followed my last days of school. It is not the voices that I had been familiar with that now greet me, but the screams of a deafening silence that I am unable to close my ears to. The world that was coloured by the uniforms of school children scurrying to school or thronging the many book shops the area had a reputation for; its silence broken by the passing of those who lived, worked and shopped along the well worn sidewalks and five-foot ways; is but a pale shadow of its former self, rendered silent and colourless by the world we have chosen to embrace.
Once a world dominated by the towering spires and domes that flavoured the area, it is now a world where the same spires and domes have become mere reflections on the glass and steel edifices that now tower over the area. It is in these reflections that the voices of that old world are sometimes heard. They no longer are the loud and confident voices I had grown accustomed to, but fading whispers which I struggle to hear over the loudness of the silence that has befallen the area.
One whose whispers I can sometimes hear is the soul of the magnificent domed building that is today’s SAM. The building, gazetted as a National Monument in 1992, was where I attended school – St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI), one that I spent four wonderful years going to. Although a lot has changed since it held airy classrooms behind the green louvered wooden doors that are now painted grey, it is a building that I still have a deep attachment to. Beyond the coolness of the climate controlled galleries that now fill the spaces behind the grey doors, there are many areas in which I can hear those whispers of its forgotten past.
It is no longer through gates manned by school prefects identifiable by the green ties that stood out against the all white uniforms we wore that I now pass through – the half height walls on which iron grilles had stood are no more, but across a lawn that I rebelliously can now walk across to arrive at the portico on top of which a famous statue stands. The lawn had been a garden populated not just by shrubs, but also a weather station and a fountain that I don’t remember seeing come on.
The famous statue is that of St. John the Baptist de la Salle, showing what seems to be the way to two boys beside him. St. John the Baptist de la Salle was the founder of the De La Salle Brothers – a Catholic missionary organisation dedicated to the education of boys from poor backgrounds. Aside from the many jokes we heard about the statue that wore a coat of silver paint back then, it was famous as a landmark for the area, having stood in its place above the portico since 1913. The bronze statue was cast with money donated, coincidentally it may seem, by an old boy of the school John La Salle on the occasion of the school’s Diamond Jubilee in 1912. The statue is a replica a marble sculpture by Cesare Aureli that stands in Saint Peter’s Basilica.
To the right of the portico is another area that whispers loud enough to be heard. The shallow fishpond coloured green by algae lay and the guava tree which lent its shade to the pond is now an area that has been paved. The pond had been a convenient point for several of us to meet. Immediately behind the area where the pond was, the corridor beyond the arches of the building had been one that led towards first the staff room and turning left at the end of it, the tuck-shop. The tuck-shop was on the ground level of a building which had above it, the Brothers’ Quarters, along Queen Street. The building is one that has since been replaced by a new building. The Brothers’ Quarters with flagpoles mounted on the ledge on the second level was where we faced as we said our prayers, sung the National Anthem and recited the Pledge during our school assemblies that were held on the tarred surface of a courtyard that has now been made much smaller. At right angles to the Brothers’ Quarters with its back to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, was another building that lined the courtyard that has been replaced. This held rooms for several societies including the Co-op and the 2013 Hippo Scout troupe’s den.
Across from the Brothers’ Quarters was the building (still there) which held the dark school hall (now the very bright Glass Hall) on the lower floor, and the school’s chapel (now the Chapel) on the upper floor. The chapel was where as schoolboys we could sit in quiet contemplation. The chapel stripped of its benches and Sanctuary does still fill me with a sense of calm and peace. It does still thankfully bear some reminders of its days as the school’s chapel: the floor tiles; the ceiling panels; and the plaques that served as the 14 Stations of the Cross a Catholic place of worship is never usually without.
The building we see today, wasn’t always how it had looked like. It took on its distinctive appearance in 1903 when the curved wings and the portico were added. The school the building was home to dates back long before 1903. It started its illustrious life as Saint John’s School on 1 May 1852 on the premises of an old Catholic church on the same grounds. It establishment in 1852 was due largely to the efforts of a French missionary priest, Father Jean Marie Beurel. Father Beurel, who arrived in Singapore in October 1839, had spared no effort in the early years of his posting to Singapore in trying to enlist the services of the De La Salle Brothers to set up what was to be the first De La Salle school in the Far East. Father Beurel was also instrumental in the construction of the new prior to that – the Church of the Good Shepherd (which is the present Cathedral of the Good Shepherd) and also in bringing the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) to our shores two years later in 1854.
The complex of buildings that housed CHIJ and also the Cathedral are ones where the spires that dominated the area stands, along with that of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (then referred to as ‘Chinese Church’) on Queen Street. The three (or parts of then in the case of CHIJ) have also been gazetted as National Monuments. The most beautiful of the buildings that hold up the spires is the beautiful Gothic styled former chapel of CHIJ – now the CHIJMES complex. It is however the other two whose whispers I hear, having interacted with them both as a child and during my days in school when we attended many school Masses in both churches. The earliest of the buildings to be gazetted as a National Monument, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd (gazetted in 1973) is one that is perhaps one that is most in need of attention. The structure of the building has suffered not just from its age (it was opened on 6 June 1847), but also from more recent construction activity in the area – ironically ones that were to have a minimal impact on the character of the area, the tunnelling work for the MRT as well as the construction of the Singapore Management University campus which was to blend in with the surroundings (some think it otherwise).
Stepping into the Cathedral, one can’t help but notice the large crack at the wall at the far end to the right above the Sanctuary, and behind that – very obvious temporary shoring can be seen supporting the building’s structure on the outside. Being a National Monument that is run by a religious or non-profit organisation, the Cathedral is only able to draw on the limited public funds available to such monuments badly in need of repair. Based on information on the Preservation of Monuments Board’s (PMB) website, the funds available for the 29 monuments run by a religious or non-profit organisations for such urgent repair work is limited to a total of $5 million that is to be distributed to qualifying monuments over a five-year period (i.e. $1 million per year) from 2009. A pre-requisite for monuments to qualify for the funding is that the organisations involved must first have the means to fund the required work. The amount does seem rather misery considering the amounts being spent on some of the other National Monuments. The repair has been estimated to cost up to some $35 million. As of now only a fifth of the amount needed has been raised. The Cathedral is attempting to raise the remainder of the much-needed funds privately with fund raising activities organised at the Cathedral.
As I leave behind the whispers of familiar voices, the contrast that the silent new world is becomes apparent. In the coldness and greyness and in the hush of that new world, I can sometimes hear the silent screams of the faces of the old. The screams are ones that fade with the passage of time. The whispers are ones that in the decrescendo of voices that I hope I would still be able to listen to, in a world where the only other sounds are the sounds of traffic that passes it by, much as the new world that has now passed it by.