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.

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More winds of change blowing through Queen Street

7 02 2014

Besides the stretch of Queen Street at the Cathedral end, another section of the street in the midst of change is the stretch between Bras Basah and Middle Roads. It is one that although is already much changed from the street that I was familiar with in my younger days, which is littered with reminders of a past when the European missionaries left what did once seem like an indelible mark on it.

A view of part of the area from the (new) National Library - the three blocks of Waterloo Centre can be seen at the top left of the photograph. St. Joseph's Church and the former St. Anthony's Convent can be seen in the foreground.

A view of part of the area from the (new) National Library – the three blocks of Waterloo Centre can be seen at the top left of the photograph. St. Joseph’s Church (the Portuguese Church) and the former St. Anthony’s Convent can be seen in the foreground.

One new addition to the stretch that will definitely leave a mark on the street will be the China Cultural Centre that is fast coming up (which got a mention in a post in March of last year). The centre, built as an effort on China’s part “to help people understand Chinese culture and deepen ties with the host country”, is one that will certainly change the character of an area once flavoured by schools which have since been moved out and two beautiful churches – legacies of the important contributions made by the French and the Portuguese missionaries to modern Singapore.

The China Cultural Centre  is seen rising up just beyond the burnt siena coloured Oxford Hotel.

The China Cultural Centre is seen rising up just beyond the burnt siena coloured Oxford Hotel.

The centre stands on a plot of land that once had been occupied by the Stamford Community Centre, a place that I had been familiar with in my school days in nearby Saint Joseph’s Institution. The centre was where in May 1978, a balloting exercise was held for would be residents of the three residential Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks of flats built over a lower podium block – a public housing complex that has for some 35 years now, dominate this stretch of the street. 

The former Stamford Community Centre. I had climbed over the gate a few times with several of my classmates to play street football on the basketball court.

The former Stamford Community Centre.

The development of Waterloo Centre, which was completed in 1978, could be considered to be a significant one from a public housing perspective. It was one of several mixed commercial and residential built in the city centre at the 1970s and in the early 1980s that were built to accommodate some of the many residents and businesses that were being displaced by what was a huge wave of redevelopment sweeping across urban Singapore. 

The Waterloo Centre Podium with its mix of old and new.

The Waterloo Centre Podium with its mix of old and new.

Taking a walk around Waterloo Centre’s podium these days, one can’t help but feel the sense of time standing very still there; the podium is one that still contains many remnants of its shop lots’ first occupants – the motor spare parts dealers that were moved into it having been displaced from the redevelopment of the Sungei Road and Rochor areas. 

Shops housing motor spare parts dealers.

Shops housing motor spare parts dealers.

Another look at the podium.

Another look at the podium.

Although there now is a mix of newer business with some of the original occupants, Waterloo Centre does seem a lot quieter compared to similar urban podium block complexes such as the nearby Albert Complex with its wet market and popular food centre, and Bras Basah Complex with its mix of bookshops and art supply shops and printing business. And that is perhaps why the complex is being given a makeover into Arts Place – a centre that perhaps fits into the vision set out for the area as a destination for the arts and culture.

Waterloo Centre seems to be in the middle of a transformation into ArtsPlace.

Waterloo Centre seems to be in the middle of a transformation into Arts Place.

SAM @ 8Q - formerly  the Catholic High School - now an extension to the art museum.

SAM @ 8Q – formerly the Catholic High School – now an extension to the art museum.

On part of the plot where Waterloo Centre stands today was where a private school, the Mercantile Institution did once stand. The school, which was started in the late 1920s, was where my father did once enroll in, in the mess that came with the end of war when many publicly run schools were still shut and places were in short supply. It was only to be for a short while though, my father did eventually get a place in Monk’s Hill Boys School. There were a couple of things he did tell me of his experiences in the Mercantile Institution – one was that as the war had disrupted the education of many, there were many older boys who had to enrolled into the entry level classes. Another was that the name of the school was often mispronounced – coming across sounding like “Makan-tahi Institution” – “makan tahi” many in Singapore would know as Malay for (pardon the crudeness) “eat shit”.

Area where Waterloo Centre is today, as seen in 1959 - the Mercantile Institution, a private school established in the 1920s, can be seen on the left right next to Nantina Home (ex Nantina Hotel) (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Area where Waterloo Centre is today, as seen in 1959 – the Mercantile Institution, a private school established in the 1920s, can be seen on the left right next to Nantina Home (ex Toyo Hotel) (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Further along from the Mercantile Institution, there were two other buildings that many familiar with the area would remember. One was the former Nantina Home, which functioned as the Japanese owned Toyo Hotel before the war (it was the second Toyo Hotel – the first was demolished in 1937 to make way for Cathay Building) . As the Nantina Hotel after the war, it was used to accommodate returning European internees who came back via India, before it was handed over to the Department of Social Welfare who turned it into a home for the aged and destitute. That operated until 1959 when the building was taken over by the Trades Union Congress.

The area in 1975 with the former Nantina Home still standing next to Queen Street Post Office (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The area in 1975 with the former Nantina Home still standing next to Queen Street Post Office (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Right next to Nantina Home was another building many might remember – the Queen Street Post Office, housed in a four storey building. The building was demolished after the post office was closed in May 1978. What stands in its place (or at least partly in its place) today is the five storey Bylands Building of 1980s vintage, right next to Middle Road.

Queen Street Post Office which was to close in May 1978 is seen next to the already demolished former Nantina Home (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

Queen Street Post Office which was to close in May 1978 is seen next to the already demolished former Nantina Home (photo source: http://archivesonline.nas.sg/).

The part of Queen Street where the Mercantile Institution, the Nantina Home, and Queen Street Post Office was, is where a spectacle does takes place once a year on Good Friday. That is when part of the street and the compound of Saint Joseph’s Church next to it, becomes a sea of candlelight as part of a procession. That is a time when the rich religious traditions of the Portuguese missionaries, who did leave us one of the most beautiful churches on the island, does manifest itself – a celebration that does serve to remind us of what the area should really be remembered for.