When I came across a post in Yesterday.sg inviting bloggers to write about their visits to any of the heritage museums, I thought it would be an opportunity to share my experience about SAM (Singapore Art Museum). Not just another historical building that was turned into a heritage museum. Rather, it would be my experience during the ‘70s where I studied there. A building once known as SJI (St Joseph’s Institution) founded in 1852 by the De La Salle Brothers…now known as SAM.
^ Map location: Formerly SJI, now SAM.
Like many other students from the primary level belonging to the CBS (Christian Brothers Schools), namely St Michael’s School (now known as SJI Junior), St Gabriel’s Primary School, St Stephen’s School, St Anthony’s Boys School, De La Salle Primary School, we took the feeder route to one of the CBS schools for our secondary education after passing our PSLE. SJI was my choice.
The first thing that a student had to brace himself was the incessant noise from the traffic during lessons. SJI was bordered by busy Bras Basah Road, Waterloo Street and Queen Street shown in the map location above. It was a challenge to both teachers and Josephians to rise above the roar of engines and honks from impatient motorists especially during peak hours, to steer our concentration during lessons.
For the upper secondary level (Sec 3 & 4), lessons were conducted in the mornings while the lower secondary (Sec 1 & 2) had theirs in the afternoon. There were two courtyards in the school premises. The main courtyard, on the side of Queen Street, was where the morning and noon assembly took place. Singing the National Anthem, school song, recitation of the pledge, saying a prayer led by the Principal (the late Brother Joseph Kiely who was the principal then who was later succeeded by Brother Kevin Bryne) or Vice-Principle would complete the assembly process before we make our way to our respective classrooms to begin lessons for the day.
Speaking about the courtyards in SJI, it was “the happening” place where activities of all sorts took place. The courtyard, flanked by the school tuckshop as well as a row of rooms belonging to the uniformed groups and societies, was a place where Josephians congregate. A place to chat away the time before assembly, played badminton, sepak-takraw, an area where uniform groups such as the NCC, NPCC, Military Band, St John’s practiced their foot-drills for national drill competitions. It was also a place where school athletes carry out their circuit training where various parts of the courtyard were marked for different sets of exercises – push-ups, sit-ups, stretches, star-jumps etc. One notable feature was the frequent scattering of kachang (peanuts) onto the courtyard bought from the Indian kachang seller at the tuckshop, to feed the endless brood of pigeons that took to our hospitality. On a less memorable note, the courtyard was also a place were corporal punishment (public caning) was meted out to ill-discipline students who had repeatedly flouted the school rules despite numerous warnings.
^ The main courtyard showing the rostrum. The closed-doors on the right of the photo was the tuckshop area. Above the tuckshop were the Brothers Quarters. The rooms at the far end belongs to the uniformed-groups and societies.
School days at SJI was not just all work and no play. In fact, Josephians had to walk across Bras Basah Road for our PE lessons given that the school field was located opposite the school. Sports Day, inter-class soccer tournaments, and even friendly soccer matches with a good hint of rivalry from participating schools such as RI and ACS were held there too. An unforgettable event held at the school field was the celebration of SJI’s 125th Anniversary (Founder’s Day) in 1977. Various uniformed-groups comprising of the NCC, NPCC, Scouts and Military Band formed the parade and march-past. It was followed by the Speech & Prize-Giving Ceremony.
When there is a time to study, there is also a time for prayer. A chapel was located on the second floor in SJI that offered a peaceful sanctuary to Josephians who need a quiet time for prayer shown in the photo below. Much said about prayer, there were Josephians who responded to God’s call and became ordained priests and religious serving as shepherds to the flock.
The school hall was another central feature in SJI. When it rained, the school hall became an alternative area to conduct the school assembly. On Saturdays, the school hall would be turned into an arena. An arena where judo mats would be laid out. Josephians from the Judo Club would practice their judo moves to much shouting and yelling. On a gentler note, the school hall also serves as place where drama and performances from the LDDS (Literary Drama & Debating Society) were held.
An unmistakable icon of SAM is a bronze statue situated at the foyer and the dome where the school bell is located shown in the photo below. The statue was sculpted to represent the school’s founder, St John The Baptist De La Salle. The expression portrayed of St John The Baptist shown by his hands, was one of guidance and encouragement to the two children…Go forth into the world and make the best out of your life. As for the dome where the school bell is located, much has been rumoured that it was haunted, presumably to deter unauthorised access into that area.
“Teacher..teacher!!…urgent. Need to go toilet!!”. There was but only one toilet facility in SJI shared by Josephians with the exception of the staff toilet. One will not forget the aroma of ammonia as it permeates the classrooms situated next to it, namely classrooms from the Anderson wing. While doing our “business” in any one of the cubicles, one can admire the artistic graffiti on the walls and inner surface of the cubicle door presumably drawn by would-be Rembrandts. It does help to ease the pungent smell of your “business” from your mind.
After school hours, home may not be the next destination. For some, the former YMCA basketball court and sarabat stalls at Waterloo Street beckons. With the basketball-posts acting as goal-posts at the opposite ends of the court, a plastic ball and some friends was all it takes to have an exciting match that will result in sweat-drenched school uniforms after a few minutes of play under the searing sun. Then, it will be off to any one of the sarabat stalls to have our stomachs filled with an array of food: mee siam, mee goreng , mutarbak, roti john, prata, char kway teow…and to top it off with a cool glass of icy bandung (rose syrup drink with a splash of evaporated milk) or bird-nest drink.
Need to shop for sports shoes, bags, rackets, jerseys, sports accessories, THE place, besides Queensway Shopping Centre, was actually a stretch of shops along Bras Basah Road spanning from Rendevous Hotel (still existing today) to the junction at Waterloo Street. There was even a barber-shop known as “Lark Barber” where Josephians in the NCC and NPCC drill competition squads would go to have their 4 by 2 haircuts in preparation for the competition.
While tired and thirsty visitors may drop in at Olio Dome located at the Queen Street wing of SJI to have a cuppa, many may not know that the rooms actually were the rooms that once was…
Being a Catholic school, holy days of obligations in the Catholic Church calendar require Catholic students to attend Mass. Generally, there is no excuse for not doing so given the close proximity of two churches which is less than a minute walk away. Church of Sts Peter and Paul which is just behind SJI and The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd situated diagonally across the school. Both Churches were gazetted as National Monuments by the Preservation of Monuments Board.
When I had the occasional opportunity to pass by SAM, or take a stroll within her premises, the fond memories of school days at SJI comes to mind. For visitors to SAM, it would probably be an old building preserved for its history that has been transformed to showcase the arts.
This winning entry in the Heritage Starbloggers contest is dedicated to all fellow Josephians, teachers, non-teaching staff, and missionaries, past, present and future, who walked through the portals of St Joseph’s Institution.