The fight for freedom from where freedom had once been curtailed

20 02 2016

I miss the Bras Basah Road of my schooldays. Wet rice road as “bras (or beras) basah” translates into, and the area around it, had a life about it and a charm that now seems lost.

A Bras Basah still with its many reminders of the past. The Cox Club at Waterloo Street can be seen on the left behind the bus (F W York Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

A Bras Basah still with its many reminders of the past. The Cox Club at Waterloo Street can be seen on the left behind the bus (F W York Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

The row of Indian Rojak stalls at Waterloo Street – a favourite makan destination during my days in school (posted on AsiaOne).

The street, a destination for those in search of sporting goods, books and good affordable food, was also where school was for some. Several of Singapore’s pioneering schools, including our very first, Raffles Institution, have their roots in the area.

Bras Basah Road as seen from the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in 1968. The row of shophouses where bookshops and sporting goods shops were concentrated can be seen just beyond Saint Joseph’s Institution (now the Singapore Art Museum). The Cathay building, ‘Singapore’s first skyscraper’, can be seen at the end of Bras Basah at Dhoby Ghaut (http://www.goingplacessingapore.sg).

The row of book and sporting goods shops opposite the remnants of a 18th century gaol along Bras Basah Road (National Archives photograph).

Without the shops, the makan places and children hurrying to school, an air of emptiness now surrounds the place; an emptiness that also extends to a built environment that now lacks several markers of the area’s eventful past.

The former Raffles Institution as seen from Beach Road, 1975.

The former Raffles Institution as seen from Beach Road – where Raffles City now stands.

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum are ones that were familiar to me from my school days at the end of the 1970s. Then it wasn't just traffic that brought movement at 7.20 in the morning, but the comings and goings of school children, workers and residents of the area.

The emptiness that is today Bras Basah Road.

One missing piece of this past would have taken us back to forgotten days when Singapore served British India as a penal colony. This piece, a cluster of structures belonging to a nineteenth century convict gaol, had long been a prominent feature on the Bras Basah Road until it was demolished in the late 1980s.

A view of Bras Basah Road from Mount Sophia on a 19th century postcard The gaol is seen just beyond the drying laundry at Bras Basah Green - what gave Dhoby Ghaut its name.

A view of Bras Basah Road from Mount Sophia on a 19th century postcard The gaol complex is seen just beyond the drying laundry at Bras Basah Green – what gave Dhoby Ghaut its name.

The cluster stood close to where Bencoolen Street crossed Bras Basah Road, its most noticeable structure being one I initially suspected was the gaol’s gate-house. Built flush with what would have been the outer walls of the gaol, an arched passageway wide enough for a carriage to pass suggested it might have been one.

The inside of the gaol, photographed by G H Lambert, looking towards what appears to be the former apothecary (National Archives photograph).

The cluster was all that remained of a prison complex that old maps show to stretch southwards to the Stamford Canal, originally the Freshwater Rivulet, and eastwards to Victoria Street over the plot on which Raffles Girls School at Queen Street would be built.

The Layout of the Bras Basah Gaol.

The Layout of the Bras Basah Gaol.

The gaol gates - where the southward extension of Waterloo Street was to be constructed..

The gaol gates – where the southward extension of Waterloo Street was to be constructed..

Where the gates would have been across Bras Basah Road.

Where the gates would have been across Bras Basah Road.

The gaol, built by the convicts themselves, was completed in 1860. It last saw use as a prison in 1882, some years after the last of the convicts brought from India had been released in 1873. The convicts were put to work, clearing forests, hunting tigers and building Singapore – many of Singapore’s first paved roads including Bras Basah, structures such as the bund at Collyer Quay, St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the Raffles and Horsburgh lighthouses were built by these convicts. What remained of the gaol was also perhaps a reminder not just of the penal colony but also of the contribution made by the convicts in the building up of early British Singapore.

Pulau Satumu or "One Tree Island", the southernmost island of Singapore, is home to Raffles Lighthouse.

Raffles Lighthouse, among the structures built by convict labour.

A map of the Bras Basah area in the mid 1800s well before the Maghain Aboth was built. Waterloo Street had then been named Church Street.

A map of the Bras Basah area in the mid 1800s showing the location of the gaol.

The gaol proper was laid out across an area that included what became the sports field of the school I attended, Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI) and the now paved over southward extension of Waterloo Street that was known in more recent times for the famous row of Indian Rojak stalls.  The area had apparently already been cleared and was in use as a playing field, referred to as the “Children’s Corner”, in the early twentieth century.

Saint Joseph's Institution on Bras Basah Road in the 1970s

The Saint Joseph’s Institution field in the 1970s.

The “gate-house”, it turns out, had not been the gaol’s gates, but an apothecary – part of the set of buildings laid out along the western boundary to house the gaol’s hospital and lunatic asylum.

The former apothecary used by the CYMA as seen in the 1970s.

The former apothecary used by the CYMA along Bras Basah Road (c. 1970s).

If not for the fact that the lunatic asylum and the gaol had long moved out, one might have suspected that it might have been one of its inmates who sent part of the former gaol’s perimeter wall tumbling down in October 1978. This bizarre incident involved a Singapore Bus Service bus that had been stolen from the Toa Payoh bus depot by a 15-year old boy. The portion of the wall that it crashed into was one that was shared with the bedroom of a house used by the caretaker of what had then been the Catholic Young Men’s Association (CYMA) and it was fortunate that no one was hurt.

The 1978 incident involving a stolen SBS bus (National Archives photograph).

Besides becoming the home of the CYMA, the hospital section of the former gaol also saw use by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps up to the late 1930s. Part of the grounds also found use after the war as the Cox Club for Indian troops, which was later to house the Malayan Air Training Command (MATC). It was during its time as the MATC HQ that a Spitfire Mk 24 that some in the “pioneer generation” may remember seeing, found its way to the grounds.

A photograph taken in 1970 from the National Museum showing the section of the former gaol's grounds west of Waterloo Street, when it was used by the CYMA. The former apothecary can quite clearly be seen. Scouts can also be seen in the foreground - the troop from Catholic High School had their den on the grounds.

A photograph taken by Randal McDowell in 1970 from the National Museum showing the section of the former gaol’s grounds west of Waterloo Street, when it was used by the CYMA. The former apothecary can quite clearly be seen. Scouts can also be seen in the foreground – the troop from Catholic High School had their den on the grounds.

The former apothecary in the days when the grounds were used by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps.

The former apothecary in the days when the grounds were used by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps.

Interestingly, and ironically perhaps, the same grounds, used in its early days to curtail freedom of people shipped from the British India, was to find use in the fight to free India from British rule. It was there that the Indian National Army’s all women Rani of Jhansi regiment found their first training camp, which opened on 22 October 1943.

Capt. Lakshmi and Subhas Chandra Bose inspecting the members of the INA Rani of Jhansi regiment at the camp in Bras Basah Road. The former apothecary building and the arched verandahs of what became the Soon Choon Leong building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Bencoolen Street can quite clearly be seen.

Capt. Lakshmi and Subhas Chandra Bose inspecting a guard of honour presented by members of the Rani of Jhansi regiment at the camp in Bras Basah Road. The former apothecary building and the arched verandahs of what became the Soon Chong Leong building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Bencoolen Street can quite clearly be seen.

The area of the former Rani of Jhansi camp today.

The area of the former Rani of Jhansi camp today – where the Singapore Management University’s School of Information Systems is located.

The Japanese Imperial Army supported INA found its second wind under the newly appointed Subhas Chandra Bose, seeking recruits among captured troops from the British Indian army units and the civilian population with the aim of freeing India from British rule. The events in Singapore of October 1943 represented a significant milestone for the INA. Not only was the women’s unit training camp established, a Provisional Government of Free India had, only a day before on 21 October 1943, been proclaimed by Subhas Chandra Bose at Cathay building.

Members of the Azad Hind posing for a photograph in Singapore on 21 October 1943.

Members of the Azad Hind posing for a photograph in Singapore on 21 October 1943.

The women’s regiment was formed in July 1943 through the efforts of the very young Captain (Dr.) Lakshmi Swaminathan (later Sahgal), who had come to Singapore only three years before to practice medicine. It drew its members mainly from the working classes in the Indian community of Singapore and Malaya  and counted some 1500 women in its ranks. Capt. Lakshmi besides being the leader of the regiment, was also appointed as the Minister in Charge of Women’s Organisation in the Azad Hind.

The women's regiment drew many recruits from the working class in Singapore and Malaya.

The women’s regiment drew many recruits from the working class in Singapore and Malaya.

An article, apparently written by Dr. Lakshmi, “My days in the Indian National Army”, offers some insights into the regiment and its training, which was to commence on 23 October 1943. In it she reveals:

“Our training lasted three months. It was very rigorous. We all had to wear a khaki uniform of pants and bush shirt, and cut our hair short. I had hair below my knees which my mother had never allowed me to cut. So I was really glad to have it cut and never grew it back since”.

Dr. Lakshmi’s account also tells of the women’s regiment’s participation in guerrilla attacks in Burma, to which the unit had been deployed in 1944 and 1945. The unit disbanded in 1945, at a time when the turning tide of the war in Burma had the Japanese Imperial Army and the INA in retreat.

The area where the apothecary building was.

The area where the apothecary building was.

As controversial as Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA, due to their collaboration with the occupying Japanese army, may be, the memory of the Bose and INA is one that has been kept alive here in Singapore. A marker at the Esplanade stands at the site of a memorial of the INA, now a historical site.

The INA memorial at Esplanade, marked with the words Ittehad, Itmad aur Qurbani, which in Urdu means Unity, Faith and Sacrifice  (National Archives photograph).

While the INA and Bose have not been forgotten, little however is now said of the Rani of Jhansi regiment and of Dr. Lakshmi, who passed away at the age of 97 in India in 2012. Like the gaol, the grounds of which the regiment also had its roots sunk into, the few physical reminders left have now been swept away by faceless buildings the man on the street struggles to find a connection to. That connection, brought about by the everyday things that drew us to the area and the many stories its buildings told of the history not just of one of Singapore’s oldest roads, but also of Singapore itself, is one that now seems to forever be broken.

BRITISH REOCCUPATION OF SINGAPORE, 1945

A view down Bras Basah Road following the surrender in 1945, © IWM (IND 4817). The structures of the former goal – used by the Rani of Jhansi regiment as a training camp, can be seen at what would have been the gaol’s northwest corner.





Perspectives of the museum

4 05 2013

As a child, the Museum, as I referred to the National Museum of Singapore, was a dark, somewhat mysterious and not a particularly interesting place to me. My earliest encounters were ones which besides being filled with tales of the supernatural occurrences the museum had a reputation for, I would most remember for the overpowering smell of the museum preservatives which filled some of the galleries, and also for the huge skeleton of a whale suspended from its ceiling.

The museum today attracts a lot more visitors than it did in my younger days.

The museum today attracts a lot more visitors than it did in my younger days.

The encounters I had with the museum during my days attending nearby St. Joseph’s Institution were to be the ones I was to remember most. The time my schoolmates and I had in between technical workshop sessions on Tuesdays and a quick lunch before school, meant there was ample time to wander around. The museum, as was the MPH bookstore at the corner of Stamford Road and Armenian Street, was an obvious destination on days when it was a little too hot to out, because of the cool relief its air-conditioning provided.

The skeleton of a whale which hung inside the museum until 1974 when it was presented to the Muzium Negara in Kuala Lumpur.

The skeleton of a whale which hung inside the museum until 1974 when it was presented to the Muzium Negara in Kuala Lumpur (photograph: National Archives online catalogue http://a2o.nas.sg/picas).

A gallery we would frequent was one where full length portraits hung along its long hallway. Located in the museum’s west wing, it was part of the National Museum’s Art Gallery which had been opened at the end of 1974. The portraits which seemed to glow in their illuminations would at times appear to come alive – which could be a reason why that particular gallery did not receive many visitors. This made it a wonderful place to escape to and to read and find some quiet in, particularly with the generously wide cushioned benches found in the gallery which were especially comfortable.

A couple viewing a photography exhibit at "Being Together: Family & Portraits - Photographing with John Clang".

A couple viewing a photography exhibit at “Being Together: Family & Portraits – Photographing with John Clang”.

Another look at "Being Together: Family & Portraits - Photographing with John Clang".

Another look at “Being Together: Family & Portraits – Photographing with John Clang”.

The museum has undergone tremendous changes over the three and a half decades or so since my youthful encounters, and has certainly become a much more interesting destination. Physically, the museum was to undergo a makeover in the mid 2000s during which time a modern glass and steel extension was added to the existing neo-classical building which has been a landmark in the area. Gazetted as a National Monument in 1992, the original building built to house the Raffles Library and Museum, is one that dates back to 1887.

The National Museum of Singapore.

The original National Museum of Singapore building was gazetted as a National Monument in 1992.

Yet another look at "Being Together: Family & Portraits - Photographing with John Clang".

Yet another look at “Being Together: Family & Portraits – Photographing with John Clang”.

These days, it is not so much for the air-conditioning that I find myself visiting the museum. The museum’s many galleries which have been made a lot more interesting and changing exhibitions provide not just a reason to do that, but also an opportunity to take delight in the wonderful mix of old and new in its architecture. The permanent exhibitions in the Singapore Living Galleries and in the Singapore History Gallery provides a wonderful appreciation of what makes us who we are as Singaporean today and certainly ones which every Singaporean should visit. For me, the museum offers a little more than all this, it does also provide me with many opportunities to capture moments in photographs beyond what the streets outside do offer and what perhaps is another perspective of the building and its exhibits.

A glass ceiling added at the original buiding's rear.

A glass ceiling added at the original buiding’s rear.

Information portal.

Information portal?





A church once occupied by Sin

19 03 2013

I took a walk by what, for a short moment, appeared to be a church in the woods. In an area in which woods in any form would have long abandoned – the corner of Waterloo Street and Middle Road, the building which resembles a small village church has for the better part of a century not actually used as one. Together with an adjacent two storey building, the church is now part of the Sculpture Square complex, a space dedicated to the promotion and development of contemporary 3-dimensional (3D) art.

A church in the woods?

A church in the woods?

My memories of the buildings are ones which date back to my younger days (of which I have actually written about in a previous post). The church building itself was always a curious sight each time I passed through the area, whether on the way home from church in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or from school in the late 1970s, when it had been occupied by Sin. The walls of the building were then coloured not just by the colour of its fading coat of paint, but also by streaks of motor oil and grease, having been used by a motor workshop, the Sin Sin Motor Co. My mother remembers it being used as a motor workshop as far back as her own days in school (she went to St. Anthony’s Convent further down Middle Road in the 1950s). The building next to it, which is built in a similar layout as many in the area which might ones which have been homes of wealthy merchants, had in those days been used as the Tai Loke Hotel (previously Tai Loke Lodging House) – one of several rather seedy looking budget hotels found in the area.

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, seen from Middle Road in 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

While not much is known about the building which the Tai Loke occupied, there is enough that is known about the church building which was erected from 1870 to 1875, based on information on a National Heritage Board (NHB) plaque at the site as well as on Sculpture Square’s website. It first saw use as the Christian Institute. The Methodists were in 1885, invited to use the building and it became the Middle Road Church (or Malay Church) after a transfer to the Methodists was made in 1892, until the church moved to Kampong Kapor in 1929. Interestingly, the building also housed the Methodist Girls’ School which was started at nearby Short Street for a while until 1900. According to information on Sculpture Square’s website, the building had apparently also seen life as a Chinese restaurant, the “May Blossom Restaurant” during the war.

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s - after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square's website).

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s – after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square’s website).

Following years of neglect, the former church building when it was vacated by the motor workshop possibly at the end of the 1980s, was left in rather a dilapidated condition and it was a local sculptor, Sun Yu Li, who saw its potential for use as an arts venue which was opened as Sculpture Square in 1999.





Whispers of an otherwise silent world

26 03 2012

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.

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum are ones that were familiar to me from my school days at the end of the 1970s. The streets are colourless and silent now, a silence that is broken by the sounds of traffic that pass it by.

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.

A world that has changed.

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.

A world once dominated by the spires and domes, is now one where the spires and domes have become mere reflections of that world in the glass and steel of the new world.

A reflection on a world that I once knew - the SAM reflected on the polished walls of the NTUC INCOME Centre.

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.

The buildings of the former St. Joseph's Institution now houses the Singapore Art Museum.

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.

SJI in the 1970s

St. Joseph's Institution by night in the 1970s.

The garden in front of the school building in the 1980s.

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.

The statue of St. John the Baptist de la Salle above the portico of the former school building (seen here in 1980), served as a landmark for the area.

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.

Assembly at the Courtyard.

The 2103 Hippo Scout Unit had its den at a building that lined one side of the courtyard.

Prize giving during school assembly. The doors led to the school's tuck-shop on the ground level of the building that housed the Brothers' Quarters.

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 chapel in 1977.

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.

Fr Jean Marie Beurel, a French priest whose efforts were instrumental in the setting up of not just SJI, but also the setting up of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and the construction of the Church (now Cathedral) of the Good Shepherd.

A view of CHIJ as it was in its early days. Father Beurel is credited with bringing the Convent in two years after his efforts brought the De La Salle Brothers to our shores.

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).

Temporary shoring of the Cathedral's structure is obvious when seen from Victoria Street.

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.

A large crack is clearly visible on the wall of the Cathedral's Sanctuary.

The Cathedral is attempting to raise much needed money - some S$35 million is needed, to repair and restore the building.

A close-up of an information board providing the progress of the fund raising shows that only about a fifth of the money required had been rasied as of December 2011.

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.

The Cathedral is an oasis of calm in a sea of deafening silence.





A 40 year journey from Essex Road

28 04 2011

I made a journey recently with a group of friends. It could be said that it was a journey that had started some forty years ago, one that had started with the forging of bonds in the classrooms and on the schoolyards at Essex Road in Singapore. Yes, we were schoolmates, seven of us, making a journey in mid-life that was as much motivated by a common passion, as it was by the camaraderie we developed in the course of our Christian Brothers’ education that kept us in touch with each other well into our teenage years.

Flying the flag of our Alma Mater: Seven schoolmates and one we adopted ...

Some of us in Primary 6, St. Michael's School.

The journey we took was one that brought us to the shadow of the roof of the world. An excursion, as one put it, an extension of those we used to look forward to at the end of the year during our primary school days. Having a common interest in photography, we sought to capture, through seven pairs of eyes, how we saw the wonderful world in which we found ourselves immersed in for a few days, coming back not just with a multitude of images, but touched by the beauty and warmth in the simplicity of the people, fond memories of the colourful sights that unfolded before our eyes, and most importantly with the spirit that the ten (some twelve) years in St. Michael’s School (now St. Joseph’s Institution Junior) and St. Joseph’s Institution had imparted on us.

Life on the streets in Kathmandu makes it a wonderful place to see and discover.

Along the three hundred steps to enlightenment: A statue of Buddha on the ascent up the pilgrim path to Swayambunath, a stupa which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

The ancient capital of the Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, seen during the Bisket Jatra festival held during the Nepali New Year in April.

The trip involved not just a visit to Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, but also to some of the areas that surround the city, places that have a magical or mythical charm, as well as one that would, on a clear day, have given us a magnificent view of the roof of the world. Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley, is certainly blessed with some magnificent cultural treasures, a few which have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including two stupa sites, Swayambunath and Boudhanath, and a former capital, Bhaktapur, and it was these that we focused our cameras on. Along the way, we also visited a Roman Catholic church, the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, in Lalitpur on the outskirts of Kathmandu, and along with it the Parish School, the Regina Amoris School, set up and run by the Sisters of Cluny for the children of the needy. All in all, it was a huge and meaningful adventure for us, and one, that I would be touching on in detail in separate posts to come on each part of our visit.

The long, narrow and winding road up to Nagarkot, a hill station near Kathmandu.

Boudhanath, a UNSECO World Heritage Site and the largest stupa in Nepal, is also a centre of Tibetan life.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu, a concentration of monuments which is another UNSECO World Heritage Site.

The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Lalitpur.





One hundred steps to Heaven

1 03 2011

If heaven was to be a place in Singapore, there would probably not be a better candidate for a suitable location than the Mount Sophia that previously existed. These days of course, Mount Sophia is associated more with sought after high-rise residential units in a prime location close to the heart of the city. However, back in the early part of the 20th century, it must certainly have been a truly magical and heavenly place, dominated by the magnificent Eu Villa that commanded a view of much of the surrounding areas of the fast growing city that lay on the areas some 100 feet below, and the many other grand bungalows and mansions, paticularly around Adis and Wilkie Roads. By the time I was going to school in Bras Basah Road and wandering curiously around the area, many of the heavenly places were still around, albeit in dilapidated condition – and mostly I guess crumbling to a point that it would have taken a monumental effort to preserve them. Still one could easily imagine how grand the area, which seemed a world apart from the rough and tumble of the mixed residential and commercial districts that lay below, would have been.

An aerial view of Mount Sophia and the surrounding area in the 1960s. It is easy to see why the well heeled would choose to build their magnificent mansions on the geographical feature which commanded an excellent view of the area around it. The Cathay Building can be seen on the south of Mount Sophia and the castle like Eu Villa to the top and right of it. The Istana and its grounds, which together with Mount Sophia and adjoining Mount Emily were part of Charles Robert Prinsep's huge nutmeg plantation can be seen on the left of the photo (Photo Source: http://www.singas.co.uk).

I was fortunate to be able to have seen all that I guess and place myself in that magical world, then accessible either via Sophia Road or by the so-called one hundred steps up from Handy Road. Given the choice of access options, the adventurous schoolboy that I was would certainly have chosen the latter route – after all, it was a shortcut we occasionally took to get to Plaza Singapura, then not accessible through Handy Road, which would involve climbing into the upper level of the car park at Plaza Singapore right next to western slopes of Mount Sophia, where Yaohan and a popular hangout for teens then, the Yamaha Music School run Do Re Mi cafe, beckoned. These days, much of that magic that I felt back then, is absent, with the manisons, most of which went in the 1980s and 1990s, with Eu Villa itself being demolished in 1981 after being sold by the Eu family for a princely sum of S$ 8.19M in 1973 to a property development company, having given way to a mess of monstrous apartment blocks, and it’s difficult to return to that magical world that I once wandered around.

The fairy-tale like Eu Villa, once the home of Eu Tong Sen. It was built in 1915 at a cost of S$1M on the site of Adis Lodge which Eu had purchase from Nissim Nissim Adis, the owner of the Grand Hotel de L'Europe in 1912.

I had an opportunity to do just that, return to the magical world that is, taking a walk with the National Library Board around the area, and trying to transport not just myself, but also a group of 30 participants to that world that I once knew. It was good to have on board two ladies who attended two of the schools in the area, who were able to share their experiences as well of going to Nan Hwa Girls’ School and Methodist Girls School (MGS). Both described ascending the one hundered steps to get to their schools, describing how it rose precariously up the steep slope from Handy Road with no railings to speak of and the steps being uneven in height – far different from the reconstructed steps in the vicinity of the original we see today. The ex MGS girl described how her schoolmates and her would race down the steps … something I am sure many would have not been able to resist in impetuosity of youth. We also confirmed that there were actually 100 steps – something I never thought of trying to establish in the many occasions on which I ascended the steps.

The one hundred steps offered a short cut for the adventurous to Plaza Singapura (seen here in its very early days - source: http://www.picas.gov.nhb.sg).

The walk started with a short introduction at the library, after which we were transported to the magical hill not by the one hundred steps, but by air-conditioned coach to the top of Mount Emily, I guess in keeping with the new age. What we saw were some remnants of there area that I loved, including the former Mount Emily Girls’ home which for a while was used as the Japanese Consulate prior to the war, becoming a halfway house for underage street prostitutes before becoming the girls’ home in 1969 and later the Wilkie Road Children’s Home in the 1980s. There was also the location of the first public swimming pool in Singapore, built on the site of the waterworks on Mount Emily, a pool that I visited in my younger days, being one of my father’s favourite pools, across from which we could see the hoardings surrounding the former bungalow of the late Major Derrick Coupland who passed away in 1991. Major Coupland was well known as a World War II veteran and the President of the Ex-Services Association heading it for some 20 years prior to his death from bone cancer in June 1991. I understand from a reader that the bungalow has been left empty since and the deterioration from 20 years of abandonment was evident before the hoardings came up some time at the end of last year – I suppose that the building is being prepared for demolition right at this moment.

The hoardings havve come up around the crumbling former residence of Major Derrick Coupland.

From the original coat of arms, used during the years of self-govenrment that can be seen on the structure at the entrance to Mount Emily Park, we made our way down Wilkie Road, past the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh Temple. The current temple with its distinctive white dome, is a later one, built in 1983, next to an old house which as a plaque indicates, was purchased in 1932 (I was told from a Jewish gentleman), and originally housed the temple. Most of the magnificent mansions, including one owned by M J Nassim, that lined Wilkie Road have been replaced by apartment blocks … one that remains is the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home at 81 Wilkie Road which is described in a previous post.

Wilkie Road used to be lined with magnificent mansions including one that still stands - the Abdullah Shooker Welfare Home, left by the late Abdullah Shooker, a Baghdadi Jew who died during internment by the Japanese in 1942, to the Jewish community.

Further down Wilkie Road, the participants were introduced to the Sophia Flats, once the home of the illustrious F J Benjamin, across from which we could once get a glimpse of the roofs of the magical Eu Villa over a retaining wall which marked the edge of the table on which the villa and its huge grounds once stood. Sadly the wall has come down, perhaps the last reminder of the villa that was left, along with the table which is being levelled for what is probably a commercial/residential project.

And the wall came tumbling down ... the last reminder of Eu Villa comes down - a retaining wall that marked the edge of the table of land on which the villa once stood (as seen in January 2011).

The last bit of the wall next to Peace Centre on Sophia Road.

At the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads, the excited chatter of a former student of Nan Hwa Girl’s School was heard, as she reminisced about her schooldays. The building which was completed in 1941, before being used by the Japanese during the war and the British forces after before being returned to Nan Hwa in 1947, is now used as a student hostel – and as one participant on the walk pointed out, the flag poles in front of the basketball courts which also served as an assembly area were still very much in evidence. Besides this, we learnt of a popular ice-kacang stall that both the girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised after school which was at the corner opposite Nan Hwa.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' High School at the corner of Adis and Sophia Roads.

A former student at Nan Hwa Girls' School sharing her experiences of going to school outside the former Nan Hwa Girls' School.

The corner of Adis Road and Sophia Road at which the ice kacang stall that both girls of Nan Hwa and MGS patronised, was located.

Before we hit the new one hundred steps, we stopped by the Art Deco styled building which housed San Shan Public School which was built in the 1950s by the Foochow Association, which ran the school up to the 1970s when the running of it was handed to the Ministry of Education. The school after moving from its Mount Sophia premises in the 1980s has stopped functioning. Next was the former Trinity Theological College which was established in 1948. The cluster of buildings that belonged to the college including the church with the distinctive roof shaped to the Chinese character for people, 人 (Ren), were built in the 1960s. The college moved in the 1990s to its current location along Upper Bukit Timah Road – and the roof of the church there is identical to the one on Mount Sophia. Next to the college, the cluster of buildings (now Old School) that house MGS still stands. The former pupil of MGS spoke of how she could see the gardens of Eu Villa from her class window, and how the classes were organised, C being the best class and A for the weakest students, of the three classes that each form had in the 1960s.

A view of the former MGS.

From the hundred steps down, we made our way to the corner of what used to be Dhoby Ghaut and Bras Basah Road, now dominated by another monstrous piece of architecture which did not agree with most of the participants – one remarked that it “stuck out like a sore thumb”. Where that building which is the School of the Arts (SOTA) stand, there was what had been Dhoby Ghaut, gone as a road that carried the name in an area that once was used by the Indian Dhobis to gain access to the fresh water stream that has since become the Stamford Canal. What survives of that Dhoby Ghaut which hold memories of the row of shops which included the Red Sea Aquarium and an A&W outlet that I frequented as a schoolboy and another row of houses up behind on Kirk Terrace which included a Sikh temple, is only the name of the MRT station in the vicinity.

The row of shops at Dhoby Ghaut next to Cathay Building was where the Red Sea Aquarium as well as the A&W was. Today the SOTA building stands on top of the area where Dhoby Ghaut was (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

We then walked up Prinsep Street, named after Charles Robert Prinsep, the owner of the nutmeg plantation which once included Mount Emily, Mount Sophia and Mount Caroline and extended to the Istana grounds (100 acres were purchased in 1867 for the Governor’s House which became the Istana). There were suggestions that the three mounts were named after three daughters of Prinsep, but what is more likely was that when Prinsep purchased the land, Mount Sophia (which appears earlier as Bukit Selegi) would have already been named after the second wife of Raffles, modern Singapore’s founder, Sophia Hull, and if anything, Prinsep named the two adjoining hills after two other daughters, having been part of the former estate of Raffles’ brother-in-law and Singapore’s first Master Attendant, Captain Flint.

Kirk Terrace over Dhoby Ghaut (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was then a leisurely stroll back to the library via Middle Road, where we stopped by the site of the former POSB headquarters facing Prinsep Street and the Registry of Vehicles (ROV) facing Bencoolen Street, where Sunshine Plaza stands, but not before introducing the former Tiger Balm Building, the David Elias Building and the former Middle Road hospital. At Sunshine Plaza, we saw a few signcraft shops – remnants of those that featured in the area when demand for vehicle number plates existed due to the presence of the ROV in the vicinity. Then it was past the former Middle Road Church (now Sculpture Square), used as a motor workshop when I went to school in the area in the 1970s, and the former St. Anthony’s Convent, before hitting the site of the former Queen of the Mooncakes (Empress Hotel) – our destination where the Central Library building now stands.

Middle Road once featured sign craft shops serving the demand from the nearby ROV, including Rainbow Signs which I well remember from passing many times on the bus home from school (source: http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

It was the end of a rather enjoyable walk for me, and I hope the participants had as good a time as I had. Before what was left of the participants dispersed, there was still time to exchange a story, one about the sighting of an Orang Minyak (translated from Malay as “Oily Man” – one that is said to be cursed to an existence as an dark oil coated being that possesses supernatural powers, but more likely as a participant Jeff pointed out, was a man coated in oil to ensure a smooth getaway), reputed as one that terrorises the fairer sex. I had heard about one which was reportedly known to lurk in the compound of St. Joseph’s Church across Victoria Street, through a reader Greg Lim, who lived in Holloway Lane in the 1950s. My mother who boarded at St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s could not confirm this, but did mentioned that there were rumours of one lurking in the stairwell. Jeff, who himself lived on nearby Cashin Street in the 1950s confirmed that there was indeed sightings reported, and he was in one of the crowds that had gathered to try to catch a glimpse of the Orang Minyak. Another participant, the mother of Ms Thiru (who is with the NLB and organised the walk), also confirmed that she was aware of the story. It was certainly an interesting end to the walk, one that took a little longer than anticipated, but one that was thoroughly enjoyable.

The Empress Hotel at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street which was demolished in 1985.





Now from the outside looking in and from the inside looking out …

6 09 2010

From the world apart at Little India, my ex-schoolmates and me made our way back to Bras Basah Road by MRT for the final part of a walkabout which had started right where we found ourselves back to. Tired from what was a hot afternoon’s stroll, this leg was thankfully (for me at least), more of a winding down session. Emerging from the trains at Bras Basah Station, we found ourselves right below what had been the school field all those years back, on which we would have had a good time at kicking footballs. These days, a glass bottomed pool serves as a skylight of sorts, sits right where the part of the field closest to the school had been on what is now SMU Green.

A skylight where we had once kicked footballs on a grassy field.

Aerial view of the former SJI and the SJI Field (c. late 1960s).

Once on street level we were welcomed by the familiar sight of the building which had been school, Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI) for four wonderful years of our schooling life. With its two curved wings which had always appeared to arms reaching out to protect us as school boys. These days, as the Singapore Art Museum, it still stands as a reminder to the many school boys who it nurtured over the years, and with the statue of Saint John the Baptist de La Salle serving to remind us of what the school had once stood for. There are of course the many jokes about the statue … one has it that La Salle in pointing in the direction of Stamford Road, is reminding the two boys standing beside him that if they are not diligent in their studies, they might end up in the rival school at the foot of Fort Canning Hill (which in our days, had a reputation for having producing boys who had female tendencies).

The former SJI building, which now houses the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), is a landmark along Bras Basah Road as it was back when we were in school.

Bras Basah Road (seen here in the 1950s) has been completely transformed over the last three decades. Three landmarks that are left along the road are the former SJI, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, and the former CHIJ.

The statue of Saint John the Baptist de La Salle.

We took the opportunity to wander into the courtyard where we had once had our assemblies. It had been a lot bigger in our school days, able to take in the 30 or so classes of 45, assembled in rows of two. The courtyard had been for many of us back in school, the focal point of the school, and most would stand around the courtyard during recess or before classes. A popular activity had been feeding the pigeons with kacang putih bought from the tuck shop, an act that the pigeons sometimes repaid by blessing a few unfortunate boys with the digested bits of the feed that were expelled from their perch on the rafters above.

Reflection of a courtyard which had once been where. as school boys, we had assembled.

The passage way that had once been a main thoroughfare to get to the courtyard and tuck shop, running by what was once the staff room.

The kacang putih seller, seen in an old school annual.

There were some familiar sights, the green louvered wooden doors seemed very much like it was back then, which I guess helped in bringing a few memories back to us, transporting us back some 30 years in time. Somehow, we could picture ourselves in the place as it was back then, seeing sights and hearing sounds that we were once familiar with. It is always nice to relive old memories from time to time, and I guess we as students of SJI and one of the few with the privilege to do so at leisure, primarily because of what the buildings that were the school is used as today.

Back to school seeing what was yesterday reflected in what is today.

Another reflection of what once was.

Familiar sights ...

and maybe some less familiar ... but even then, some things never change ... the school building has a reputation for ghostly apparitions ...

An unfamiliar sight in a familiar place.

Leaving the Art Museum, we made our way through the compound of the Cathedral, where mass was going on. We were of course very familiar with the cathedral as boys, having attended mass there many times in the white of our school uniform. It was always on the agenda as well for my family for our church visits for Maundy Thursday. I had in fact visit the cathedral on several occasions as a young boy with my parents for mass as well. Each Sunday morning that we were there, we would encounter this rather impossible person who was the warden in charge of directing cars parking in the compound, which even then always seemed to fill up. The warden, a certain Mr Prince, never failed to find himself as a source of displeasure to church goers in his attempts to convince them to park their cars in the tightest of spots. The Cathedral, a gazetted national monument, is these days sadly in need of repair, having been damaged by much of the construction activity including tunneling work for the Circle Line which runs underneath Bras Basah Road. It is quite sad to see part of the structure needing to be propped by wooden shoring, and hopefully the damage and be completely repaired.

The spire of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd is now dwarfed by the buildings that have come up around it.

Shoring now supports part of the cathedral's structure which has suffered damage from all the construction activity that has gone on around the national monument.

Across Victoria Street from the Cathedral, what was the walled compound that used to house the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) stands. Back when we were school boys, much of what went on behind the walls was a big mystery to us. Looking at CHIJ then from the streets around it, one would have been confronted by what appeared to be a rather thick wall, almost as if it was some kind of fortification, parts of which were topped off by broken pieces of glass cemented in with sharp edges facing up. Along two sides of it, running along Bras Basah and North Bridge Roads, were rooms ventilated by small openings in the walls that I understand, had housed rooms which were used by the nuns who ran the convent. Along the Stamford Canal, another wall concealed much revealing only the secondary school building. The only glimpse we could get of what it was like beyond the walls was along Victoria Street, through the tall iron main gate, and perhaps by peeking through the small opening in the so called “Gate of Hope” close to the junction with Bras Basah Road.

From the outside looking in ... what was behind the walls were a mystery to many of us schoolboys.

The Gothic styled chapel dominated the compound.

A view of CHIJ as it was in its early days.

The view port on the Gate of Hope, where abandoned babies where left. The nuns ran an orphanage which took these unwanted babies in.

The wall of the former CHIJ along Bras Basah Road.

As boys we were always curious to know what was beyond the walls that swallowed up many of the pretty faces we had encountered each morning going to school, not being able to see beyond the magnificent structure of the Gothic styled chapel that proudly stood just behind the tall iron gate. I did have some first hand accounts from my sister who spent the first two years of her school life there before deciding that leaving for school at 5.30 each morning was something she could do without, but being at that age, she didn’t really have too much to share about the school. I did have an opportunity to see what did go on behind the walls, having been chosen to attend a girl guides campfire as a scout. I guess what the flickering glow of the campfire didn’t reveal much of the convent’s secrets as I do not not much of an impression of what was within the premises besides the field where the sunken courtyard we see today is, and the buildings that surrounded the field making it seem almost like a cloister of sorts.

The Gothic styled former chapel as seen on our recent walk.

The field that was behind the chapel ... now the sunken courtyard of CHIJMES.

Times have changed I guess, and the usage of the buildings of the former convent has as well. The convent moved to its present premises in Toa Payoh in 1982 before the complex of buildings were restored and transformed into what we see today … a dining, entertainment and shopping venue that in keeping with its past (only in name) has been named CHIJMES (pronounced “chimes”). So, now the once unadulterated grounds have been overrun by establishments that maybe serve some of what the nuns may have frowned upon. The complex is dominated by the sunken courtyard behind the former chapel that was once the school field, perhaps telling of how low the use of the premises has sunk to (from a spiritual viewpoint). That knowledge did not stop us from enjoying a couple of beers in the now unholy cloister.  What is nice about the place is that the sunken courtyard that provides a very Mediterranean feel about it.

The former cloister now houses food and entertainment outlets.

Mass being celebrated in the chapel.

The building that housed St. Nicholas Girls' School from 1949 to 1983.


The building today.

Although CHIJMES is today used in a manner that is perhaps not what the buildings were originally intended for, what is nice about it is that we are now able to see and appreciate efforts placed in giving us the magnificent examples of art and architecture erected to the “greater glory of God”. There is certainly an opportunity to savour what has to be some of the best examples of European style religious architecture in the this part of the world, works that were once only seen by those who lived and went to school within the closed compound. What must certainly stand out in this respect is the former chapel, built in the gothic style complete with flying buttresses that support the spire, which was completed in 1904. The chapel’s splendid architecture is complemented by what has to be some of the best examples of the medieval art of stained glass making in this region, made by a master craftsman, a certain Jules Dobbelaere, schooled in the Bruges tradition. Burges is a city which has received a lot of attention for some of the best preserved medieval edifices, in particular the many churches and the works of stained glass that seek to leave those fortunate enough to bathe in the glow in total awe. More information on the stained glass windows in the former chapel can be found on the CHIJMES website. On thing that would really be nice if the interior of the former chapel, now a private function hall, can be made accessible to allow the general public with an opportunity to have a close up view of the magnificence of the stained glass windows.

The stained glass windows above the altar area.

Stained glass in one of the side chapels.

Close up of the Nativity scene over the former altar area.

Stained glass above the entrance.

Another pane inside the chapel.

A pane at the entrance area ...

The chapel and the Neo-Gothic gallery flanking the chapel.

The grounds are full of delights waiting to be found … that in the brick and mortar of the buildings, in the glass work as previously described, and also in some wonderful pieces of ironwork that can be found in the gates and spiral staircases that lead up to what were the primary school classrooms above the Neo-Gothic galleries that flank the chapel. It’s certainly nice to have the opportunity to be able to discover all these and to savour the treat to the eyes that, for so long, the nuns at CHIJ had kept as a secret to the world outside.

Besides the wonderful chapel ... there's a lot more delightful work to be discovered ...

particularly in the Neo-Gothic galleries flanking the former chapel ...

including some delightful ironwork ...

on the spiral staircases ...

and floor tiles ... we had similar tiles when we were in SJI.








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