Good Friday at the Portuguese Church

15 04 2017

Good Friday, which for believers marks the day Jesus Christ was crucified, has been commemorated in a very visible way on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Church for more than a century. Conducted  very much in the fashion of the Iberian peninsula, the elaborate procession takes place at the end of the church’s Good Friday service during which the crucifixion is reenacted using a life-sized image of Christ that is lowered and placed on a bier for the procession.

33911687461_c993f65155_z

The church, known also as the Portuguese Church due to its origin in the Portuguese Mission and it having been a parish of the Diocese of Macau until 1981, is the spiritual home of the Portuguese Eurasian community. The community is one of the oldest migrant linked communities in the region. It is on Good Friday, when the religious traditions of the community are most visible, that we are perhaps reminded of this. The procession, the holding of which goes back more than a century, attracts large numbers of worshippers from all across Singapore and at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, saw thousands packed into the church’s compound with many more spilling onto Queen Street.



More on the procession and the Portuguese Church:






Singapore’s oldest Catholic church now looks like its newest

28 11 2016

The beautifully restored Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church and a National Monument, re-opened on 20 November 2016 when it held its first mass in over three years. Sitting on a foundation of nothing more than compacted earth, its structure had been quite badly affected by ground disturbance caused by construction work in, around, and under it, which required it to be closed for repair work could be carried out.

As it turned out, the repair effort was quite timely. Columns supporting the pediment at the cathedral’s Victoria Street end gave way as the building was in the late stages of repair on 3 September 2015. Fortunately, the incident – which also saw the pediment come crashing down – happened at night and no one was hurt. The incident also led to the discovery that the supports, on which the weight of the steeple and bell tower also rests, were inadequate and required strengthening and a decision was taken to replace the original brick columns with stronger but lighter steel columns due to weight (which would increase structural load on the base) and time considerations. Another consequence of the collapse would have was in the discovery of the original time-capsule. This was placed beneath the cornerstone when that was laid on 18 June 1843. It was only found due to the work that was needed on the new structure. The time-capsule contained coins, newspapers and a service booklet from the time and its contents are now on display in the Cathedral Heritage Centre.

The entire project, which also involved restoration of the Cathedral and its rectory, as well as the construction of a new three-storey annex block – where the heritage centre is being housed – came at a cost of S$40 million. One of the key areas of repair required was in the underpinning of the cathedral building due to the lack of a suitable foundation. The intervention also allowed service ducts to be run under the building to carry both electrical cables and ducting for air-conditioning – a much welcome addition. The gallery pipe-organ  – Singapore’s oldest pipe-organ – was also restored. This required it to be shipped to the Philippines, which has a rich organ building. The restored pipe-organ also made its debut during the reopening mass when it so wonderfully accompanied the cathedral choir.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

The Cathedral Choir making its entry before the opening mass on 20 Nov 2016.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

Standing room only. The opening drew a large crowd and pews were already filled as early as an hour and a half before mass.

The sanctuary after the reopening.

The sanctuary after the reopening, with a new altar.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

In 2013 with a large crack clearly visible on the wall behind it.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2016.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

The gallery pipe-organ in 2013.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2016.

View down the nave, 2013.

View down the nave, 2013.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The repaired and restored Victoria Street end and the steeple.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

The view during the restoration, when steel columns were introduced (to be clad with masonry) for reasons of weight and time when the original structure gave way.

With its columns braced in 2010.

With its columns braced in 2010.

A close-up.

A close-up.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

Archbishop William Goh after unveiling a new Pietà before the opening mass.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

The old Pietà, seen in 2013.

Another view of the new Pietà.

Another view of the new Pietà.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The old Pietà and the staircase to the choir gallery in 2013.

The choir organ in 2013, which has been removed.

The choir organ in 2013, which was in the north transept and has since been removed.

Where the choir organ was located.

Where the choir organ was located.

The cathedral in 2016.

The cathedral in 2016.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Cathedral in 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2016.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The Good Shepherd, 2013.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The annex building and the rectory as seen from Queen Street.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

The view of the rectory from Queen Street in 2013.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

Balustrades, an original feature, were restored to the second level of the rectory turret.

The turret before restoration.

The turret before restoration.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The garage, which was also demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The old annex building, which was demolished.

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

The restoration was originally scheduled for two years,

Before the restoration.

Before the restoration.

During the restoration.

During the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.

Exposed brickwork of the columns seen during the restoration.


More views of the beautifully restored cathedral

jeromelim-4123-5

jeromelim-9260-2

jeromelim-9277

jeromelim-9278

jeromelim-9282-3

jeromelim-9290-2

jeromelim-9384-2

jeromelim-9387

jeromelim-9392

jeromelim-9618-2

jeromelim-9621

jeromelim-9627

jeromelim-9632

jeromelim-9635

jeromelim-9652

jeromelim-9653-2

jeromelim-9654





A look into the Portuguese Church’s beautiful Parochial House

31 07 2016

In the shadows of clutter of structures that has descended on Victoria Street post 1970s, it is easy to miss the beautiful 104 year old Parochial House that sits just across the street from Bras Basah Complex. Built with a hint of old Portugal, the building speaks of its links to a old Southeast Asian community that has its origins in the days of the Portuguese conquest of Malacca.

Parochial House, seen through an arch of St. Joseph's Church.

Parochial House, seen through an arch of St. Joseph’s Church, was designed by Donald McLeod Craik.

Parochial House was designed by Donald McLeod Craik (who also designed the beautiful Moorish arched Alkaff’s Arcade in Collyer Quay, Wesley Methodist Church, the Masonic Hall and Jinrikisha Station) in the Portuguese Baroque style, and adorned with Gothic accents. Part of a rebuilding programme that involved its more noticeable neighbour, the current St. Joseph’s Church (also known locally as the Portuguese Church), it was completed together with the church in 1912. It replaced an older parish house that was also the headquarters of the Portuguese Mission. That had been given over to the Canossian Sisters in 1899 to allow the expansion of the convent at Middle Road that became known as St. Anthony’s Convent.

Seen in 2014 before it was refurbished.

Seen in 2014 before it was refurbished.

The Mission, which operated under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau, first came to Singapore in 1825. It served a parish of Portuguese and Portuguese Eurasian Catholics until 1981, after which the Portuguese Church was transferred to the Archdiocese of Singapore. Links were however maintained until 1999 when the last Macau appointed parish priest completed his term.

An old letter box and signboard for the church now displayed in Parochial House.

An old letter box and signboard for the church now displayed in Parochial House.

Along with providing a home to priests appointed to the parish, Parochial House also served as the residence of the Bishop of Macau on his visits to Singapore. A reminder of this is found in the still intact spartanly furnished room used by the Bishops on the second floor, last used in 1999. Also intact is the tiny chapel of the Bishop on the third floor. Based on an article in the 24 July 2016 edition of the Catholic News, it seems that bone fragment relics of the 12 apostles are kept in the chapel.

Windows at the end of the second level hallway, which would have a view down Bain Street across Victoria Street.

Windows at the end of the second level hallway, which would have a view down Bain Street across Victoria Street.

The Bishop of Macau's room.

The Bishop of Macau’s room.

An example of a trunk used by missionaries coming over from Europe.

An example of a trunk used by missionaries coming over from Europe, now placed in the Bishop’s room.

The Bishop's chapel.

The Bishop’s chapel.

The approach to the chapel.

The approach to the chapel.

Up until Parochial House was opened for the series of guided visits that were held on the weekend following the announcement of its conservation on 30 June 2016 (coinciding with the church building’s 104th anniversary), not many would have seen its wonderfully preserved upper floors. Many parishioners would however have seen its ground floor, where communal activities were held and where a canteen operates to serve churchgoers on Sundays since 1960. Some evidence of the type of communal activities are found in the room in which the church’s registers are maintained on the second floor across the hallway from the Bishop’s room. Items from the church’s past are displayed on an old wooden table here include film projectors used for the screening movies for the community.

A movie projector.

A movie projector.

A seal press from the days of the Portuguese Mission.

A seal press from the days of the Portuguese Mission.

JeromeLim-4100

The baptism record of the grandfather of Singapore National Swimmer Joseph Schooling.

The communal space on the ground floor.

The communal space on the ground floor.

JeromeLim-4080

Encaustic floor tiles.

Several interesting features are found through the building. One is the grand staircase that takes one up from the ground floor to the upper levels, which is decorated with a carved wooden balustrade. There are also several instances of interesting tile work such as the encaustic floor tiles with patterns rich in religious symbolism. There also are nine sets of decorative tin glazed blue and white Azulejo wall tiles typical of the Iberian peninsula found both in the buildings interior and exterior. More information on the building’s history and architecture can be found on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Facebook Page.

The carved wooden balustrades of the grand staircase.

The carved wooden balustrades of the grand staircase.

Azulejo tile work depicting St. Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of Portugal.

Azulejo tile work depicting St. Anthony of Padua, a patron saint of Portugal.

The stairway to heaven.

The stairway to heaven.

The other end of the second floor hallway - the part beyond the brown door would once have led to a walkway to the former St. Anthony's Boys' School next door.

The other end of the second floor hallway – the part beyond the brown door would once have led to a walkway to the former St. Anthony’s Boys’ School next door.

The keystone of the house, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

The keystone of the house, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Gothic pinnacles decorated with crockets top the roof structure of the building.

Parochial House in 2010.

Parochial House in 2010.

Following its refurbishment this year.

Following its refurbishment this year.

JeromeLim-0600

The PM seen in the roundel along Victoria Street refers to the Portuguese Mission.

Photographs of the Archbishops of Singapore since the handover as well as the last Bishop of Macau the church was under the jurisdiction of.

Photographs of the Archbishops of Singapore since the handover as well as the last Bishop of Macau the church was under the jurisdiction of.

A balustrade along the third floor hallway.

A balustrade along the third floor hallway.

A view down the second floor hallway.

A view down the second floor hallway.

A side stairway down from the second floor to the exterior.

A side stairway down from the second floor to the exterior.

A view out the window to St. Joseph's Church.

A view out the window to St. Joseph’s Church.

 





Good Friday at a slice of Portugal in Singapore

26 03 2016

The Portuguese Church, as the Church of St. Joseph’s at Victoria Street is referred to, is where the religious traditions of the Portuguese Eurasian community in Singapore are kept alive. It is every year on Good Friday, a day of fasting, reflection and prayer, that we see the most colourful manifestation of these traditions, in an elaborate service which culminates in procession illuminated by the light of candles carried by the sea of worshippers that crowd the church’s compound.

The sea of candlelight every Good Friday.

The sea of candlelight every Good Friday at the Portuguese Church.

The procession, would in the past, attract worshippers in their thousands, some of whom would crowd the compound just to see the procession pass. Worshippers would also spill out to Queen Street and in more recent times to the lower floors of the podium at Waterloo Centre. It was at Queen Street where many candle vendors would be seen to do a roaring trade, offering candles of all sizes. I remember seeing some on sale that were of such a length that they needed to be propped up by pieces of wood, which we no longer see these days.

The head of the procession with a bier containing a life-sized representation of the body of Christ makes its way through the grounds of the church.

The head of the procession with a bier containing a life-sized representation of the body of Christ makes its way through the grounds of the church.

Worshippers carrying candles follow the procession.

Worshippers carrying candles follow the procession.

While the candle vendors have been chased off the streets, the procession, even with the smaller crowds we see today, still adds much life and colour to the area. In keeping the traditions of a small and rarely mentioned community in Singapore alive, the procession also reminds us that what colours Singapore is not just the influences of the main ethnic groups but also of the smaller groups that have added to the flavour of Singapore’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

Another view of the procession through the grounds.

Another view of the procession through the grounds.

JeromeLim-3629

A face seen in the clouds as the crowds gathered for the procession.

JeromeLim-3675


More on the procession and the Portuguese Church:

 





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.





Connecting to reconnect with the convent

10 11 2014

Several hundred girls from CHIJ Toa Payoh secondary and primary schools found themselves back in school on Sunday, not in the familiar surroundings of Toa Payoh, but in ones once familiar in Victoria Street. It had been in Victoria Street some 160 years ago, that four nuns of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus’, having arrived following a long and arduous journey from Europe to the Singapore via Penang, began their mission in Caldwell House with just a bed, 2 mats, 2 chairs and 2 stools, establishing the convent in February 1854.

Back to school in once familiar surroundings.

Back to school in once familiar surroundings.

The convent was to grow, establishing within the walls of its expanded premises on Victoria Street,  not just an enlarged physical presence that was to be defined by the wonderful examples of architecture built to the glory of the supreme being, but also as a leading institution that provided both care for many in need as well as one that has and continues to play a significant role in providing education to girls in Singapore.

Late for school - 30 years too late! The schools moved out from the premises of the former convent at the end of 1983 after almost 130 years.

Late for school – 30 years too late! The schools moved out from the premises of the former convent at the end of 1983 after almost 130 years.

While it is sad that the magnificent buildings erected for the nuns to carry out their mission can no longer be used for the purpose – the convent having had to vacate its oasis in the city in 1983 (the schools in the premises moved to Toa Payoh in 1984 and a third school, CHIJ St. Nicholas, to Ang Mo Kio), and even sadder that the complex has been repurposed in a way that trivialises the original intent; it is good to see that there is still a connection that the schools can make with their spiritual home, now called CHIJMES.

Once familiar scenes returned for a day to the corridors of the old convent.

Once familiar scenes (except for the mobile devices) returned for a day to the corridors of the old convent.

The girls, dressed in the familiar blue pinafores, made more than that connection yesterday. Together with their teachers and members of their alumni, a physical connection was also established, with 402 lining up, tallest to the shortest, with hands joined to form what is believed to a world record for the longest human chain (tallest to shortest) – subject to confirmation by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Confirmation  of a Singapore Record.

Confirmation of a Singapore Record.

Primary school participants being arranged in order of height.

Primary school participants being arranged in order of height.

Hand-in-hand for the world record attempt.

Hand-in-hand for the world record attempt.

Part of the schools’ commemoration of their 160th Anniversaries, the apparent success of the effort dubbed IJ Link, was celebrated in song and dance immediately after. Along with the world record attempt, which surpasses the previously held record of 311, a bazaar, brunch at the former chapel and arts performances were also held on the grounds of the former convent.

The celebration after ...

The celebration after …

An assembly held in the field behind the chapel.

An assembly held in the field behind the chapel in the good old days (photograph: National Archives of Singapore).

Happy days were here again!

Happy days were here again!


More photographs:

JeromeLim-9457

JeromeLim-9430

JeromeLim-9396

JeromeLim-9391

JeromeLim-9486

JeromeLim-9460

JeromeLim-9469

JeromeLim-9462





The flicker of tradition

21 04 2014

It is in the flicker of the sea of candlelight that illuminates the compound of the Church of St. Joseph in Victoria Street, that we see a side of Singapore that seems lost to us, one that lies buried behind the narrow definitions that we now use to define the Singapore of today.

Candles lit for the annual Good Friday procession at the Church of St. Joseph.

Candles lit for the annual Good Friday procession at the Church of St. Joseph.

The flicker is of an annual procession, part of the commemoration of Holy Week, that borrows from the Portuguese tradition – the church was established by the Portuguese missionaries and came under the jurisdiction of the Portuguese Diocese of Macau until as recently as 1981. And, it is in its very visible commemoration that we are made aware of one of the many cultural and religious influences that has given Singapore as a whole, a very unique flavour.

Participants in the procession fill the compound of the church in anticipation of the procession.

Participants in the procession gather outside the church in anticipation of the procession.

The procession comes at the end of a Good Friday service during which the Passion of Christ is commemorated through the Stations of the Cross, following which the crucifixion and the lowering of the body of Chirst  is reenacted. During the procession, a bier carrying the life-sized representation of the body of Christ is carried around the church, followed by a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows and the clergy and congregation as well as the many who have gathered holding candles outside the church.

The reenactment of the crucifixion inside the church.

The reenactment of the crucifixion inside the church.

The representation of the body of Christ being lowered.

The representation of the body of Christ being lowered.

The procession attracts many thousands of Catholics each year, and beside the 1500 or so who make their way into the church, and the many more who gather inside the compound, the crowd does also spill over to Queen Street and Waterloo Centre, the second floor of which does provide an excellent vantage point. It was on Queen Street, that we did once see many candle vendors, hawking long candles – some taller than the height of a person which had to be supported by a backbone of wood, adding to the colour of the occasion.

The bier being carried during the procession.

The bier being carried during the procession.

Members of the church dressed as Roman soldiers (Jerusalem was a colony of Rome during the time of Christ).

Members of the church dressed as Roman soldiers (Jerusalem was a colony of Rome during the time of Christ).

The procession, as well as the commemoration of Holy Week in this manner in Singapore, is thought to have had its origins in the early days of the church, which was originally established in the 1850s. It is one of several such similar commemorations that is seen across Asia where the religious influences of the Portuguese remain strong, such as in Macau and close-by in Malacca, which was a former Portuguese colony and where many of the Portuguese Eurasian community found in Singapore have their roots in. The Church of St. Joseph, which at some point was referred to as the Portuguese church,  is perhaps the last bastion for a community that is rich in tradition and one of the many that has made Singapore what it is today.

Altar boys at the head of the procession.

Altar boys at the head of the procession.

Archbishop William Goh.

Archbishop William Goh, followed by members of the clergy.

A member of the church playing Veronica showing the 'Veil of Veronica'.

A member of the church playing Veronica showing the ‘Veil of Veronica’.

Flower girls.

Flower girls.

The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Reflections of the procession in the rain.

Reflections of the procession in the rain.

The crowd seen through a reflection off a traffic mirror.

The crowd seen through a reflection off a traffic mirror.

JeromeLim 277A4774

JeromeLim 277A4735b

JeromeLim 277A4778





Documentation work at Jalan Kubor

31 12 2013

Spotted by a friend at the cemetery at Jalan Kubor on the side of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah – raffia string being strung around grave stones, sparking some concern that the site may be cleared soon. The site, along with the Old Malay Cemetery across the road, is of historical significance with links to the early days of modern Singapore and is slated for future residential development (see a previous post: Grave losses). As I now understand it, the laying of string and tags that is seen, is the beginnings of what is now a important documentation project that being undertaken by Dr Imran Tajudeen, that will map the site as well as involve a study of the inscriptions on the grave stones.

JeromeLim 277A0261

JeromeLim 277A0246

JeromeLim 277A0258

P.S. For further information, kindly refer to a report in the 3 Jan 2014 edition of the Straits Times: NHB project to document Malay cemetery


More on the cemeteries at Jalan Kubor:


 





Grave losses

20 12 2013

Of late, I seem to have taken to wandering around spaces for the dead of late, spaces that my irrational fears would usually keep me well away from. I now find myself drawn to them, seeking out the stories they hold of a past we in Singapore have discarded, in the knowledge that the existence of such spaces in an island nation obsessed with building for a soulless future, can only be temporary.

The old Muslim cemeteries at Jalan Kubor provide a gateway to a discarded past.

A gate at a mausoleum like structure at the Old Malay Cemetery at Jalan Kubor – cemeteries provide gateways to a discarded past.

We in Singapore would be well aware of the brouhaha surrounding the former Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery. While that hasn’t prevented the intended construction of the road through it, which can perhaps be seen as the beginning of its probable end (work to exhume graves affected by the road has just started), it has raised awareness of the historical value of what may possibly be the largest concentration of Chinese graves outside of China. More significantly, found among the estimated 100,000 graves, are several of ethnic Chinese luminaries associated with modern Singapore’s development.

Tree clearing at Jalan Kubor. Several historic grave sites in Singapore are under threat of being cleared.

Tree clearing at Jalan Kubor. Several historic grave sites in Singapore are under threat of being cleared.

Besides Bukit Brown, another concentration of graves under threat that is thought to be of historical value, can be found close to the heart of the city, straddling Jalan Kubor, on the fringe of the historic Kampong Glam district. While much of the Kampong Glam area, once the seat of Sultan Hussein – the British installed Sultan of Johor and Singapore, has been identified as a conservation area, the two cemeteries at Jalan Kubor are located on the wrong side of Victoria Street – which delineates the northern boundary of the conservation area.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

Keeping a watchful eye on history?

Keeping a watchful eye on history?

On the eastern side of Jalan Kubor is the plot of land on which what is referred to as the Old Malay Cemetery lies, along with what has become a very distinctive Masjid Malabar at its southeastern corner. While the recently released URA Draft Master Plan 2013 does identify the mosque as being considered for conservation, the land on which the cemetery rests has for several revisions of the 5 yearly Master Plan including the current draft, along with the second cemetery across Jalan Kubor (which translates from Malay into “Grave Street”) from it, been identified for future residential development (with a plot ratio of 4.9).

DraftMasterPlan Jalan Kubor S

The cemetery, is also the plot identified in early maps of British Singapore, as the “Tomb of Malayan Princes”  – a reference perhaps to the raised burial plot found in the site that is reserved for the family of Sultan Hussein. There are also several graves of significance on the site, about which Dr. Imran Tajudeen, an academic who has devoted much time to the study of the area and the cemeteries, has shed some light on in a talk on 7 July 2013 (which has been posted on YouTube).

The "Tombs of Malayan Princes".

The “Tombs of Malayan Princes”.

Amongst Dr Imran’s findings, are the links the graveyard does have with the early immigrants from the Islamic world around us, including connections with the Bugis and Banjarese traders who were prominent members of the communities that grew around the Sultan’s compound. He also mentioned finding gravestones bearing inscriptions written in the Bugis script, Lontara – a indication perhaps of the use of the Bugis language in the early days of the settlement of Kampong Glam.

Inscriptions on a gravestone.

Inscriptions on a gravestone.

Older wooden grave markers are also found amongst the gravestones.

Older wooden grave markers are also found amongst the gravestones.

Another wooden grave marker.

Another wooden grave marker.

The are several interesting structures, otherwise mysterious, that Dr Imran has also identified during his talk. One, is the house-like structure under a banyan tree just behind Masjid Malabar. That contains the graves of a Bugis merchant, Haji Omar Ali and his wife. The grave of Haji Omar’s son, Haji Ambo Sooloh, is also found there, placed under an awning at the structure’s entrance. 

The back of the structure housing the grave of Bugis merchant Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

The back of the structure housing the grave of Bugis merchant Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

A view of the front of the structure where Haji Omar Ali's son, Haji Ambo Sooloh can be found.

A view of the front of the structure where Haji Omar Ali’s son, Haji Ambo Sooloh can be found.

The mausoleum like structure above the grave of another Bugis merchant.

The walled compound which contains the second cemetery at Jalan Kubor does also have several rather interesting stories. Referred to as the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery, after the Islamic School nestled in its northwest corner, the land on which this (and the Madrasah) sits on a Wakaf that was donated by Syed Sharif Omar bin Ali Aljunied, a prominent Arab pioneer of modern Singapore. Besides being where Syed Omar and many of his descendants were buried (Dr. Imran mentions that the family has since exhumed the graves), the cemetery was also where Ngah Ibrahim of Perak was buried. Implicated in the murder of the first British Resident of Perak, James Birch, in 1875, Ngah Ibrahim died in exile in Singapore. His remains have since been moved back to Perak. 

The presence of the grave sites close to the city does draw the curiosity of visitors to the area.

The presence of the grave sites close to the city does draw the curiosity of visitors to the area.

Structures which once contained the graves of the Aljunieds.

Structures which once contained the graves of the Aljunieds.

The cemetery is also associated with an incident in 1972 during which two gunmen, brothers at the top of Singapore’s most wanted list, took their lives  after being cornered by the police. More on this incident can be found in a previous post: When gunmen roamed the streets of Singapore: a showdown at Jalan Kubor.

A view of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery.

A view of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery, which was the scene of an incident in December 1972.

It probably is only a matter of time before the two sites, and the links to history they do hold, are erased from a Singapore that is reluctant to recognise the significance of its pre-independence past. As mentioned above, the URA Masterplan including a current draft, does point to the land on which the sites are on accommodating future high-rise residential developments. A check on the land ownership status with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) maintained OneMap site, does also show that the land is already in the hands of the State. With the acceleration seen in pace of development that is taking place in and around it area, it is likely that time will soon be called on a world that takes us back two hundred years.

A view down Jalan Kubor - the pace of development in the area is gathering pace.

A view down Jalan Kubor – the pace of development in the area is gathering speed.

Another view towards the structure housing the graves of Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

Another view towards the structure housing the graves of Haji Omar Ali and his wife.


Some spaces for the dead that are under threat:


 

 





Work resumes at St. Joseph’s Church

9 09 2013

Great news delivered over the weekend – the much delayed work on the stained glass restoration at St. Joseph’s Church will be resuming today. The work will restart at the south (or west) transept where the first batch of stained glass windows were taken down in the second half of last year. Work on this batch of windows has in fact been completed and that does mean we shall soon have a first glimpse of some of the beautiful windows restored to its full glory when the windows are finally re-installed.

A look across to the west transept.

A look across to the west transept.

Part of the west transept seen to the right of the sanctuary.

Part of the west transept seen to the right of the sanctuary.

Close up of the window at the end of the west transept.

Close up of the window at the end of the west transept.





Exposing the Convent

6 07 2013

Work has begun on a facelift which will see another significant change occur to a place I will always see as the convent, a lifestyle complex we now know as CHIJMES. The convent was one which dates back to February 1854, when three nuns from the religious order of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus arrived to set it up, with a French Catholic missionary, Fr. Jean Marie Beurel, who is also credited with work to establish St. Joseph’s Institution two years before that, instrumental in bringing them here, having purchased Caldwell House for the purpose. The current work, expected to be completed next year, based on news reports, is aimed at turning it into an upmarket venue and will see part of a wall which has featured through much of the convent’s history, come down to provide an almost full frontal exposure of the former convent – in particularly two of its buildings, the gloriously designed French Gothic style former chapel and Caldwell House, both of which have been gazetted as a National Monument.

Caldwell House and the beautiful former chapel of the convent.

Caldwell House and the beautiful former chapel of the former convent – both buildings have since 1990 been gazetted as National Monuments.

Based on the same news reports, the top part of the wall will be replaced by a grille. While this does permit a fuller exposure of the monument from Victoria Street, it does also mean that what little has been left of the character of the former convent, already significantly altered by the redevelopment on the side along Stamford Road as the SMRT Headquarters, and the digging of a huge hole in the ground behind the chapel to create the sunken courtyard, will soon be lost.

A postcard showing the convent and its walls in the early 1900s.

A postcard showing the convent and its walls in the early 1900s.

While the attempts to restore and conserve many of the buildings of the old convent, once bound by walls along Victoria Street, Bras Basah Road, North Bridge Road and the side of Stamford Canal across from Stamford Road through its redevelopment as CHIJMES in 1996, should be commended, one of the unfortunate outcomes of it is that it does take much of the dignity as well as the soul of the place away – a dignity which will be eroded further with the lowering of its walls. The convent, which was forced out of it premises by land acquisition for urban redevelopment after some 130 years in 1983, had been one established to be of service to those in dire need – providing care and education for the numerous orphans, the unwanted, and the destitute. In its place today is a very different institution – one with which the aim is serve and reap profits for those already well off by the standards of the society.

The former convent seen along Victoria Street and the part of the walls which will come tumbling down.

The former convent seen along Victoria Street and the part of the walls which will come tumbling down.

An artist's impression of how the boundary wall with the wrought iron grille will look like.

An artist’s impression of how the boundary wall with the wrought iron grille will look like.

The alteration to the boundary wall will very much change the way we see CHIJMES. What is a shame is the way conservation in Singapore does seem to focus not on the buildings in their environment, but on the individual buildings as it is the case of CHIJMES. With it this way, there will be little that we will remember, not just of what may the buildings what they were, but what it was that put them there.

A view of the Gate of Hope - and the boundary wall further down which will come tumbling down.

A view of the Gate of Hope – and the boundary wall further down which will come tumbling down.

Unholy spirits being delivered to a former holy place.

Unholy spirits being delivered to a former holy place.

A view of the offending wall through the arches.

A view of the offending wall through the arches of its walkways.

Another view through the archways.

Another view through the archways.

The out-of-character staircase from the sunken courtyard.

The out-of-character staircase from the sunken courtyard.

A view along the walkway leading to the former chapel.

A view along the walkway leading to the former chapel.

A hole where there wasn't - the sunken courtyard over which a glass cover will be put up.

A hole where there wasn’t – the sunken courtyard over which a glass cover will be put up.

The beautiful interior of CHIJMES Hall with its stained glass.

The beautiful interior of CHIJMES Hall with its stained glass.


The upper part of the boundary wall being hacked away as seen on Saturday 6 July 2013.

The upper part of the boundary wall being hacked away as seen on Saturday 6 July 2013.






A one hundred year old beauty

26 06 2012

Of the places that remain of a childhood in a Singapore that I will never be able to see again, there is one which carries not just the memories of yesterday, but also the memory of an emotion that has almost been forgotten. The place, a church – St. Joseph’s Church in Victoria Street, which is housed in a building which on the 30th of June will celebrate its centenary, is one that takes me back to years which hold my earliest memories. It was a place where I had spent many Sunday mornings at mass after which I could look forward to sitting by tables and chairs laid by St. Anthony’s Boys’ School in the church’s compound where I could enjoy a bowl fishball noodles from the enterprising school canteen vendor who opened just to serve churchgoers on Sunday. It was also a place to which my grandmother would take me to every Good Friday, when arriving early to get a seat inside the church for its very popular Good Friday service, I would spend hours seated next to my grandmother as she sat in quiet contemplation.

St. Joseph’s Church, Victoria Street.

The church was known then to me as the ‘Portuguese Church’, a name which pointed to its origins in the Portuguese Mission in Singapore and its administration by Dioceses in the Portuguese colony of Goa and later in the Portuguese colony of Macau. The mission’s presence had dated back to the early 1820s – not long after Raffles founded modern Singapore, and predated the French Mission under which the Catholic churches in Singapore were later to come under. The Portuguese presence was to continue through the church which came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau until 1981 and after through priests appointed to the church until 1999 by the Bishop of Macau. This long association with the Portuguese Mission has not only provided us with the beautiful building that houses the church, but also with a little bit of Portugal that manifests itself in the Iberian flavour of the church’s interior as well as traditions and practices that are unique to St. Joseph’s Church which even to this day is still very much in evidence.

The portico of the church with the marble statues of St. Joseph in the centre, flanked by St. John de Brito and St. John of God.

The rectory of the church seen through one of the arches at the entrance portico of the church.

The current church building was blessed by the Bishop of Macau, Dom João Paulino Azevedo e Castro on the 30th of June 1912. The grand ceremony had commenced at 7 am with a procession during which various points around the exterior of the church were blessed before the congregation was admitted into the new church building’s interior in which as newspaper reports would have it “nearly every available space” was occupied.

The interior of St. Joseph’s Church dressed up in red for Easter this year. Newspaper reports mention that ‘nearly every available space’ in the church was occupied for its opening solemnities.

Darkness and light – the beautiful illuminated interior of the church.

The congregation that morning would have been the first to marvel at the splendour that was the new church building’s interior, one that even with the worn appearance that it now wears, is still very much a sight to behold. It is this interior, and its 14th Century style Gothic design that for me makes the church the most beautiful in Singapore. The interior is one that at time of the day is illuminated by a soft and beautiful pale green light that streams through the generous panels of stained glass it is provided with that casts both light and shadow on the many niches that line the walls of the church. The niches are ones which contain statues of Saints – statues which in the Catholic tradition are not as is popularly believed, idols, but reminders of ordinary people who have achieved the pinnacle of holiness. It is a statue of one of the Saints high up on the south wall in the middle of the church’s nave that in my childhood I had a fascination with – that of St. Sebastian depicted as he popularly is, bloodied and tied to a tree.

The church is naturally illuminated by the soft green light that streams through the generously provided stained glass windows.

Windows on the south wall of the nave. The upper windows catch the light beautifully. The upper walls of the nave are lined with niches in which the statues of Saints are placed.

The statue of St. Sebastian on the south wall of the nave.

The church is laid out as was the tradition on a plan in the shape of a cross – a Latin cross in this instance. The nave which ends with the apse in the shape of five sides of an incomplete hexagon in the west which houses the Chancel and the main entrance to the east, is crossed by a transept. The high ceiling allows the provision of the many stained glass windows along the upper levels of the nave and the transept and those that attended the blessing ceremony would have seen this but not the stained glass that has to be seen as the church’s crowning glory – the beautiful panels in the Chancel which although now in a state of disrepair, can still be appreciated as one of the more elaborate works of such kind found in Singapore. The panels were the work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges. The church’s stained glass which are now in an obvious state of disrepair will be part of a restoration effort that will commence soon after the church celebrates the building’s 100th Anniversary. The work which will take two years of painstaking effort to complete will be carried out by a Singaporean stained glass artist, Bee Liang, who has extensive experience in the work from her stints in Canada and training in Germany.

The exterior of the south transept – even the exterior of the building catches the light beautifully at certain times of the day.

Closer inspection of a stained soft green glass window on the south transept, illuminated partially by another window across on the rear wall of the transept.

Stained glass panels in the Chancel – work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges.

Looking towards the east end of the nave – the gallery can be seen on the upper level.

Another view of the east end of the nave.

The central panels depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus flanked by Our Lady and St. Joseph.

A stained glass panel depicting St. John Berchmans.

A panel depicting St. Francis Xavier.

A panel depicting St. Agnes.

Five panel stained glass window at the end of the south transept.

Morning light streaming into the north transept.

Besides the beautiful stained glass – the very elaborate high altar of white and coloured marble dedicated to St. Joseph is another that is worth taking a notice of. The church also features some excellent carved teak wood pieces – one which runs along the transept is a 40 metre long altar rail along which the faithful would once have knelt to receive Holy Communion. The carved piece that will certainly be noticed is the ornamented teak pulpit with its canopy, one that I never failed to notice every time I visited the church.

The stained glass of the Chancel and the high altar dedicated to St. Joseph.

The ornamented craved teak pulpit and canopy.

The church which once shared its compound with two schools – St. Anthony’s Boys’ School and St. Anthony’s Convent, is the last of the three to remain and having been gazetted as a National Monument in 2005, will be one that will certainly be there for a much more than the 100 years it has stood, for which a mass will be held at 10.30 am on 30th June 2012. Besides the work on the stained glass, there is much more repair work that needs to be done – the ravages not just of time, but also of nearby construction activity are clearly evident which will require funds to be raised. It will not just be the magnificent building and all that it holds that will with its restoration and conservation be retained, but also of a tradition that its has been proud to maintain that dates back to the early days of Singapore.

More views around the church in the morning light

Seeing the light.

Darkness and light.

Statue of St. Anthony of Padua.

The nave windows of the church.

Floor tiles in the church.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.





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.





Smokey’s and a Red House: Memories of Victoria Street from Bras Basah to Middle Road

28 02 2010

For the SJI schoolboy in the late 1970s, Victoria Street offered an appealing escape from the boredom of the classroom. It was not just for the two convent schools that stradled the ends of the stretch of Victoria Street in question (from Bras Basah Road to Middle Road), but also for the other distractions to the classroom that was on offer. The area around the corner of Bras Basah Road was perhaps where we were most familiar with. As we made our way from school or from the bus stop in front of the City Music outlet on Bras Basah Road roughly where the NTUC Income Centre is today, we would come to this corner where the window display of test tubes, beakers and laboratory supplies of the Central Medical Hall which occupied the corner unit of Victoria Building never failed to catch my eye.

A building belonging to the Singapore Management University stands in place of the two storey Victoria Building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Victoria Street. The Central Medical Hall occupied the corner unit of the Victoria Building.

Around the medical hall, was the row of shops that included a coffee shop that we dubbed as “Smokey’s”, where many of us grabbed a cup of tea in the morning, motivated by the steady stream of convent school girls that dropped in on their way to school. I never found out why we called it Smokey’s and I understand that there were sumptuous beef brisket noodles on offer there, not that I noticed it then. Perhaps we did not have the time to dwell on all that, with the distractions offered by the comings and goings that we observed over the steaming hot cups of tea.

Two rows of steel pillars now lines the row where Smokey's and the Shanghai Bookstore was.

Tea was always served piping hot there, in the thick walled kopi-tiam (coffee shop) cups and saucers of old, complete with green motifs and hairline cracks in the baked porcelain that appeared through the glazing. This offered us the opportunity to observe world within the confines of the white tiled walls of the coffee shop, across the marble table tops and wooden chairs typical of the coffee shops of old.

Further down the row, perhaps at the end of Victoria Building, was the Shanghai bookstore, with its two storeys of Chinese books, smelling as a bookstore of those days did – a smell that I can still recall to this day. The second floor of the shop had a stationery section where many of the white uniformed boys of SJI could be seen, cooling off in the coolest part of the air-conditioned bookshop.

The Shanghai Bookstore was a popular hangout.

A few doors away from the bookstore, the Victoria Hotel stood. Next to the lobby on the ground floor of the hotel, there was another place that offered respite from the heat – one of the few air-conditioned chicken rice restaurants in those days, the Victoria Restaurant, which was quite popular with Singaporeans, seeking an cooler dining alternative from the more popular Swee Kee Restaurant on nearby Middle Road.

The Victoria Restaurant on the ground floor of the Victoria Hotel was popular for its Chicken Rice and Air-conditioned premises.

The Victoria Restaurant was located on the ground floor of the Victoria Hotel.

The stretch where the Shanghai Book Store and the Victoria Restaurant was.

Further along, there was the Hotel New Hong Kong, which became the Hotel Tai-Pan when I went to school. This is where the Allson Hotel now stands. Next door to this is the rectory building of St. Joseph’s Church and the entrance to the compound which holds the Church, St. Anthony’s Boys School and St. Anthony’s Convent, before the junction with Middle Road.

The rectory of St. Joseph's Church along Victoria Street.

St. Joseph's Church as seen from Victoria Street.

St. Anthony's Convent (see here from Middle Road with the National Library in the background) used to look across Victoria Street to the Empress Hotel.

The view of St. Anthony's Convent in the 1950s from a similar vantage point.

My own memories of the area on the other side of the road, where the brand new National Library building now stands, are rather vague and on this I have been helped out by a reader Greg Lim, who lived in the area in the 1950s, as well as by my mother who was a boarder at St. Anthony’s Convent in the late 1940s and the 1950s. There was the Empress Hotel which stood at the corner, which was apparently known for its mooncakes. My mother describes a sign that she remembered, standing out of the hotel building, proclaiming that the “Queen of Mooncakes” was sold there. My mother describes the hotel as being a rather seedy place, to which the nuns at the convent forbade the boarders and orphans whose windows in the boarding house across the street from the hotel faced, to look at. Greg also mentions that the six storey Empress Hotel was also notorious for being a location that was popular with people attempting to commit suicide.

The National Library Building now dominates the area bounded by Middle Road, Victoria Street, North Bridge Road and Bain Street and stands where the Empress Hotel, Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane once stood.

Holloway Lane in 1958 (Source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

Moving on this side of the street back towards Bras Basah Road, there were two streets there which have since disappeared, Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane, still within the parcel of land on which the National Library is built on. Both were lined with rows of shophouses. The area is described by Greg as being referred to as the Hylam streets, a reference to the Hainanese families and businesses that dominated the area. The area also featured many furniture shops, and my mother says that an uncle of mine had bought his first set of furniture from the area.

Bain Street today - devoid of the vibrancy that the area was once know for.

Bain Street on which Greg lived, which is still there, running along Bras Basah Complex, as Greg describes was dominated by a four storey building named Victoria Court, at the junction with Victoria Street. On the ground floor, there was a furniture shop called Comfort Furniture and on the opposite corner, there was a shop that made mattresses. Bras Basah complex, which was built in 1980, was built in the area between the once vibrant Bain, Cashin, Carver and Miller Streets that were known for bookshops and hawker food. The complex itself housed many of the bookshops and watch dealers that were moved out of Bras Basah Road and North Bridge Road areas. Greg mentions that most shops along Victoria Street were furniture shops. Bain St as Greg notes was famous for Hainanese coconut pastry and beef noodles in black sauce. Miller Street is dominated by the Siakson building and with Carver Street, served as the main access for many of us heading to Odeon Cinema which was along North Bridge Road – that was where I watched Star Wars in 1977.

Bras Basah complex, which was built in 1980, was built in the area between the once vibrant Bain, Cashin, Carver and Miller Streets that were known for bookshops and hawker food.

The Siakson Building dominates Miller Street.

The spiral staircase of the Siakson Building.

Past Miller Street, right at the end of this stretch of Victoria Street at the junction with Bras Basah Road, where the Carlton Hotel now stands, was the well known red painted shophouse that housed the popular Red House Bakery and Cafe which was popular which many students for the reasonably priced set meals on offer.

The corner where the Red House was.


Added on 14 April 2010:

Victoria Street c.1981. The four storey building would be Victoria Court which was at the corner of Victoria and Bain Streets. The HDB block of flats in the background is Bras Basah complex (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).