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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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.





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.





Back to school in many ways …

9 08 2010

It was back to school for some of my old schoolmates and me yesterday. With our old school building as a focal point, we wandered around much of the area we might have in the all whites of our school uniform all those years ago, when the area was so different from what it is today. It was for us a journey not just back in time, but one in which we were able to rediscover and catch up with some of the parts of Singapore around our old school grounds that we might have once been familiar with, but have since forgotten.

The old school building served as our focal point on a walk to rediscover the areas we were once familiar with.

The walk first took us down Waterloo Street, past the mansions and buildings of old, looking grander than they would have when we were in school. Much has changed since then, memories of what had been around flooded back: the hole-in-the-wall “mama” shop around the corner of Bras Basah Road, where boys would have obtained many items including banned cigarettes came to mind; the infamous toilet block across the street of which the then sealed second level we were given to believe was used as a Japanese torture chamber …

A window in the Sculpture Square complex. Wandering around the old church building that was used as a motor workshop when we were in school opened up a window into past and present.

A vice at Sculpture Square ... perhaps a reminder of what it once had been used as ...

Arriving at what is now Sculpture Square, of which the former Middle Road Church building which during our days as schoolboys was used as a motor workshop, we stumbled upon Ngim Kum Thong’s world of Deconstruction, Destruction and Destination, in a rather interesting exhibition of contemporary art. Ngim has apparently worked with the highly regarded educator and sculptor, the late Brother Joseph McNally, founder of the LA SALLE College of the Arts and someone who as schoolboys we were very fond of, having been associated with the La Salle brothers who ran the La Salle Christian Brothers’ Schools of which St. Joseph’s Institution was a part of.  The first impression I had was that the artist’s theme seemed a little strange as most would focus on creation rather than on destruction, but wandering through the exhibits with the artist himself as a guide, one wonders if he is indeed actually making sense of how he sees the world we live in. One particular exhibit caught my attention, the Third Hand that perhaps is the unseen force that controls our lives … we “live” looking in once direction and face “evil” looking from the other … “evil” being “live” spelt backwards. Looking at it, maybe the artist is correct in his observation of things around, the inevitability of deconstruction and destruction in the destination of all that we create, in how evil can be seen to dominate how we live … still, it is all a little too abstract for me …


Deconstruction, destruction and destination ... the inevitability of life?


Evil in the eyes of the artist ...

The potential world of knowledge that is in the internet ... and what it

A third hand in our lives? We "live" and looking back ... "evil"?

Moving further, past Middle Road to the Camera Hospital at Sunshine Plaza which we used to see around Bencoolen Street where we were greeted by the bodies of old cameras that perhaps were reminiscent of those we would have been familiar with as schoolboys, we talked about what had once been there … the old Registry of Vehicles and Post Office Savings Bank headquarters and the host of sign makers we would see across the street. We then moved on to Prinsep Street … down to the newly opened LaSalle College of the Arts on the new aptly named McNally Street, unique in the sense of its clean appearance on the outsides with shape and form expressed within the clean exterior … the college is perhaps what links the past … being boys from a school that is associated with the name and the founder, the present in the sense of our brush with the works of Ngim, a student of Brother McNally, and the future … being the future that the college represents for the arts in Singapore.

LaSalle College of the Arts on McNally Street.

With the intention to make our way to the new Thieves Market near Sungei Road, close to where the original Thieves Market would have been on Sungei Road, we wandered past Albert Mall at the end of Waterloo Street. This section of Waterloo Street, now a pedestrian mall, is perhaps one of the most delightful corners of Singapore that I have stumbled upon. Crawling with devotees to the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and Sri Krishnan Temple, street vendors and many offering services of all kinds fill the streets along with street performers, adding colour and life to the mall … a verve that is missing in much of Singapore these days.

The walk to Thieves Market took us past Albert Mall at the end of Waterloo Street.

Seen on Albert Mall, a British man who plies his trade as a traditional Chinese fortune teller ...

... and is apparently popular with the locals ...

Floral offerings are a colourful sight outside the well attended Sri Krishnan and Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temples on Waterloo Street.

Many services are also offered along the mall.


See along Albert Mall ...

Having made our way pass the mall, we took a route along the old Sungei Road, much less foul smelling than it would have been back in our schooldays towards the mentioned Thieves Market, a flea market which in the days as a schoolboy, had also been referred to by many names such as “Robinson Petang” or literally “Afternoon Robinson” (with reference to the popular Robinson’s Department Store where one could shop for just about anything), popularly amongst us schoolboys as “Sungei Road” and of course “Thieves Market” (with reference to the contraband and stolen goods that were once thought to have been sold there). That was where we could then get just about anything … my mother was fond of visiting to buy large bottles which she could then mosaic and many other used items for arts and craft which she taught in school … later in life, it was where I could get our coveralls for my stints in shipyards required by the course of study that I was doing at the Polytechnic. These days, I am told there are other thieves to be careful of … petty thefts such as pickpocketing is apparently common there. Looking at the range and quality of items on offer there, perhaps it is one place that I would give a miss in future … Next, it was across Jalan Besar … which will be covered in another post to follow …

The joke back in the days when we were schoolboys was that if you ever had a bicycle stolen ... you would be able to find it being sold at Thieves Market ... one wonders if it may still be the case today ...

Laser Discs on sale ... from not too distant a past ... but forgotten all the same.

A deal that would blow you away!








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