Schooldays in Bras Basah

5 06 2017

Sent by a fellow old boy, this video is one that brings back the most wonderful of days – my schooldays at St. Joseph’s Institution when that was in Bras Basah Road. Produced for the school’s 15oth  anniversary in 2002, it is filled with familiar scenes from the old school: the assemblies we had in the courtyard facing the Brothers’Quarters, Anderson Bridge connecting the Anderson Building to the main wing, the fountain in the front yard, the old grandfather’s clock that made the trip east with the first brothers, the Hippo Scout den and the Co-op Society room at the far end of the courtyard, a classroom, the school field across the road …

Now repurposed occupied as the Singapore Art Museum, what remains is the main wing, Anderson Building along Waterloo Street, and the block that housed the chapel on the upper floor and the school hall (now the Glass Hall) on the ground floor.

More on my schooldays in Bras Basah Road and other recollections of the area can be found at:

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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).

Sarabat Stalls along Waterloo Street

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’s quarters (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 the apothecary’s quarters – 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’s quarters 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’s quarters 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’s quarters 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’s quarters 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’s quarters 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.





Welcomed winds of change blowing through Queen Street

5 02 2014

The winds of change sweeping through Singapore will soon blow through yet another place that is familiar to me. This time around, it is perhaps a change that perhaps will be welcomed and one that will perhaps see the oldest Catholic church in Singapore, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, restored to its former glory.

The yard behind the rectory - a once familiar world that is now in the midst of change.

The yard behind the rectory – a once familiar world that is now in the midst of change.

The Cathedral and its grounds are now closed and hoarded up.

The Cathedral and its grounds are now closed and hoarded up.

The Cathedral, its structure ravaged by age and nearby construction activity,  has long been in dire need of repair; a large crack in the wall behind the sanctuary, has clearly been in evidence, as have crumbling plaster work and  temporary wooden shoring at columns supporting the Victoria Street end of the building where the steeple and bell-tower is.

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, gazetted as a National Monument in 1973, is Singapore's oldest Catholic church.

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, gazetted as a National Monument in 1973, is Singapore’s oldest Catholic church.

Shoring can be seen supporting the steeple and bell tower.

Shoring can be seen supporting the steeple and bell tower.

With limited public funding available through the Preservation of Sites and Monuments for such repair work, a huge effort was required to raise sufficient funds to start on the much needed repairs, and it wasn’t until November 2013 that work did eventually commence, with the last mass before the Cathedral’s closure for repairs taking place on 27 October 2013.

Another looks at the shoring under the steeple.

Another look at the shoring under the steeple.

Fr. Adrian Anthony, who is in charge of the Restoration Fund, posing with Hospitality Ministers and members of the congregation during one of the last masses held on 27 Oct 2013.

Fr. Adrian Anthony, who is in charge of the Restoration Fund, posing with Hospitality Ministers and members of the congregation during one of the last masses held on 27 Oct 2013.

The repair and restoration efforts will also see a new 3-storey annex block, housing a heritage centre on its thrid floor, being erected, as well as restoration of the Cathedral’s century old Gallery pipe organ, the work for which will be carried out in the Philippines. Besides the structural restoration efforts on the Cathedral building’s supporting structure which will also include work on the gallery floor, the roof and the bell-tower  and on the masonry, work will also be carried out to add air-conditioning to the Cathedral. Works will take place over a two-year period during which will see the Cathedral and its grounds, long an oasis in the midst of the city, closed.

The Gallery Organ.

The Gallery and the Gallery Pipe Organ.

More on the Cathedral and the work expected to be carried out during its closure can be found at the following links:


Artist Impressions of the restored Cathedral and its new annex

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More photographs of the Cathedral and its grounds

The annex building that is being demolished to allow the new three-storey annex to be built.

The annex building that is being demolished to allow the new three-storey annex to be built.

The yard behind the rectory will also be going.

The yard behind the rectory will also be going.

The view of the yard and rectory from Queen Street.

The view of the yard and rectory from Queen Street.

Another view of the yard and the building that will be demolished.

Another view of the yard and the building that will be demolished.

The rectory, behind which a new annex housing a heritage centre will be built.

The rectory, behind which a new annex housing a heritage centre will be built.

A passage that will be transformed.

A passage that will be transformed.

The sheltered walkway between the rectory and the old annex building.

The sheltered walkway between the rectory and the old annex building.

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An oasis that will be lost for two years

7 05 2013

Serving the faithful for more than 165 years, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd on Queen Street, will soon see its gates closed. The last of several surviving structures lining Bras Basah Road from the 1800s that is still used in the role it had been built for, the closure is thankfully not a permanent one. The Cathedral is taking a much needed two-year break so that repairs can be carried out on its long suffering structure.

A reflection of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd which will be closed for two years to allow repair work on its structure to be carried out.

Not a mirage of an oasis but a reflection of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd which is a spiritual oasis for many in the city. The Cathedral will be closed for two years to allow much repair work on its structure to be carried out.

Gates which will soon be closed.

Gates which will soon be closed.

Closing gates at the Queen Street side.

Closing gates at the Queen Street side.

That the building (see a previous post: Whispers of an otherwise silent world), bears the marks of age as well as the scars left by recent construction activity in the area. Large cracks, crumbling plaster work, and shoring at the end facing Victoria Street are all very visible. With the Cathedral requiring a huge effort to raise sufficient funds to cover the repairs, (public funding available for such work is limited – see Whispers of an otherwise silent world), estimated to cost somewhere in the order of S$40 million, repair work could only commence once sufficient funds were available to cover the initial costs.  The amount raised thus far through private donations and fund raising activities is well short of the target and much more is needed to cover the entire cost.

The steeple. Cracks at this end of the building and shoring erected to provide support is very visible.

The steeple. Cracks at this end of the building and shoring erected to provide support is very visible.

Crumbling plaster work can also be seen.

Crumbling plaster work can also be seen.

The Cathedral building, built originally as the Church of the Good Shepherd in the Renaissance style, is probably less interesting as a building than several other Gothic inspired Catholic buildings in the vicinity. The church, which originally stood at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Institution (now Singapore Art Museum), was erected on the present site through the efforts of a tireless French missionary, Fr. Jean Marie Beurel. Fr. Beurel was also responsible for setting up St. Joseph’s Institution and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in the mid 1850s. What is perhaps most interesting about the Cathedral is one of the Cathedral’s two pipe organs, the older Gallery Organ which was installed in 1912. Restored in the early 1980s (completed in 1984), the organ is now the oldest working pipe organ in Singapore. The second organ, the Choir Organ was set up in 1994 by Robert Navaratnam who also lent his hand in the restoration of the Gallery Organ. More on the Cathedral’s architecture and pipe organs can be found on a Wikipedia page on the Cathedral.

A view down the nave. The gallery on the upper level and the Gallery Organ can be seen at the end of the nave.

A view down the nave. The gallery on the upper level and the Gallery Organ can be seen at the end of the nave.

Interestingly, the Cathedral holds the relics of a Saint, that of St. Laurent Imbert. Fr. Imbert was a French missionary who had been martyred in Korea in 1839 and his remains found its way to the Cathedral. The  name of Cathedral (then church) is in fact attributed to the Saint, who is thought to be the first Catholic priest to set foot on our shores, arriving in December 1821 on his way from Penang to China. The dedication of the church to the Good Shepherd is explained in an article in a July 2006 edition of The Catholic News:

The dedication of the church to the Good Shepherd stems from a note written by St. Laurent Imbert to his fellow missionaries, Fathers Jacques Chastan and Pierre Maubant, asking them to surrender to the authorities to save their flocks from extermination during a period of Christian persecution in Korea. He had written, “In desperate circumstances, the Good Shepherd lays down His Life for His Sheep”. They did and the three of them were beheaded on Sep 21, 1839.  

News of this and their martyrdom reached Singapore at a time when Father Beurel and company were considering an appropriate name for the church. Father Rene Nicolas, the current Procurator of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) in Singapore, discovered a little casket with the relics of Father Imbert all but forgotten on the first floor of the sacristy of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd when he was its Vice-Rector.

 A proper memorial with the relics was installed on a wall of the Cathedral in the left transept of the building. It was felt that this was only appropriate as it was through Father Imbert that the first Catholic contact was made in Singapore. While on his way from the Penang College General to his mission in China, he visited Singapore in December 1821 and reported to the Apostolic Vicar of Siam that he had found a dozen Catholics here.

A tablet laid to commemorate the consecration of the church as a Cathedral in 1897.

A tablet laid to mark the corner stone with information on the consecration of the church as a Cathedral in 1897.

The Cathedral, due to its central location, does offer many, including myself, a spiritual oasis – its grounds are particularly calm and peaceful and an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, which during the two years will be lost. It has also played host to many groups including migrants communities who as a result of the temporary closure would have to find a new or temporary home. One, the Korean Catholic Community has since found a new home at the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Several others including the resident choir, the Cathedral Choir of the Risen Christ, will be using the premises of the Church of St. Joseph (Portuguese Church) nearby in Victoria Street.

The Cathedral played host to the local community of Korean Catholics who have since found a new home at Nativity Church in Hougang.

The Cathedral played host to the local community of Korean Catholics who have since found a new home at Nativity Church in Hougang.

A statue of the late Pope John Paul II put up in 2006 to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of ties between the Vatican and Singapore and the 20th Anniversary of the Papal visit.

A statue of the late Pope John Paul II put up in 2006 to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of ties between the Vatican and Singapore and the 20th Anniversary of the Papal visit.

The Cathedral has always been a spiritual oasis in the heart of the city.

The Cathedral has always been a spiritual oasis in the heart of the city …

... rain or shine ...

… rain or shine …

The main entrance. Two iron spiral staircases to the gallery and the statues of St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis Xavier welcome the visitor.

The main entrance. Two iron spiral staircases to the gallery and the statues of St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis Xavier welcome the visitor.

The more recently installed Choir Organ in the North Transept and the choir stalls.

The more recently installed Choir Organ in the North Transept and the choir stalls.

A view through a window along the nave.

A view through a window along the nave.

A  Pietà at the entrance.

A Pietà at the entrance.

The statue of St. Joseph seen against the glass of the windows.

The statue of St. Joseph seen against the glass of the windows.

Detail of the glass.

Detail of the glass.

A view towards the Sanctuary - a large crack on the upper part of the wall behind it can clearly be seen.

A view towards the Sanctuary – a large crack on the upper part of the wall behind it can clearly be seen.

More views around the Cathedral:

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Mapping memories of the Bras Basah area

8 06 2012

The streets around the Bras Basah Road area are ones that I am familiar with through my four years of interactions with them as a secondary schoolboy and also from going to church in the area in my early years. A lot has changed since those days – the school I went to and the many others in the area have all moved out along with the many businesses and household that were displaced when the wave of redevelopment swept through the area in the 1980s. Today, the world that I find is one that, without the buzz that all that has been displaced over the three decades since I left school, is silent and without colour.

The streets around the former SJI are ones that although is not devoid of life, now seem silent and without colour.

Silent, colourless and changed as the streets may seem, there is still the many memories of them embedded in the many places around the area – memories that I have attempted to capture through entries in this blog, as well as through photographs as a trigger of memory On a Little Street in Singapore – a little Facebook group that I started with the aim of sharing memories of a Singapore we have all left behind. On a Little Street in Singapore has proven not just to be a place to share memories, but has also turned out to be a repository of the memories of many, separated by circumstances, by time and by unfamiliarity, are connected by their interactions with the same places.

One that has resisted the wave of redevelopment – St. Joseph’s Church in Victoria Street, helps to connect the present with the past.

I have been scratching my head on a way in which the captured can be connected – not just those on this blog, but also those on the Facebook Group – which isn’t as easy to navigate through as I would have liked it to be. It wasn’t until I decided to help a friend on a project to record memories of the Bras Basah precinct that I thought of doing what now seems obvious – place them on a map. With an available online tool such as Google Maps, that not only makes putting placemarks to mark the location of a memory possible, it is also possible to connect the places with captured memories through links to photographs, blog entries and even discussions on the Facebook Group. This I have done for the Bras Basah area – and maybe a little beyond it and with that (the navigable map can be found embedded below), it becomes not just a tool to capture and navigate through the memories of the area, but also to aid in the appreciation of the area’s recent and otherwise forgotten history and to discover little bits of the past that lies beneath the glass and steel edifices that now dominate the area.





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.





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.