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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