The bustling civics district of Singapore contains a plethora of historical and religious sites that have been converted into museums and galleries for tourism and heritage purposes. The one site that stands out most is the CHIJMES (pronounced as “chimes”) said to be Singapore’s version of London’s Covent Gardens.
Designed by George Coleman, CHIJMES (Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Middle Education School) is a huge complex of buildings of great architectural diversity, ranging from Anglo French Gothic to Neoclassical. All over the complex are intricately designed metal staircases, handmade stained glass windows and tall grand spires.
Although CHIJMES has features of such grandeur, its beginnings were more humble than what its exterior would suggest.
CHIJMES started out as a convent school set up in 1854 by French nuns of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus, a religious institute of Religious Sisters founded by the French Minim friar, Father Nicholas Barré. At the request of Father Beurel the priest of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, the institute sent a group of nuns to set up a school for girls in Penang and Singapore. The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus had a mission to help the disadvantaged in this South East Asian island. It served as a school, pioneering education for girls in a time when many locals were poor and education for girls was not considered important. It also served as an orphanage as many poor families could not afford to keep all their children.
One of the most famed features of the former convent is the modest Gate of Hope. While the small grey door may seem less grand than expected, it was a symbol of hope for many of the babies who were left there. Due to poverty, many families left usually female babies there for the nuns of the convent to care for. Female babies born in the Year of the Tiger were also often abandoned there as well by Chinese families who believed that female Tiger babies brought bad luck. These orphans were given a free education and home within the walls of this convent.
Another famed feature would be the first building of the complex, Caldwell House which originally served as the residence of a Senior Magistrate’s Clerk before being bought by the sisters to serve as their headquarters. The other buildings were added around it in later years to become what was colloquially known as the Town Convent. However part of the original nuns’ quarters was demolished to make way for SMRT(Singapore Mass Rapid Transit) offices.
Even though the nuns eventually moved out of the school in 1984, they did not stop helping the disadvantaged and educating the girls of Singapore. Before their final year in the Town Convent, the nuns had set up various convents for primary and secondary education all over Singapore, each bearing the name of the Holy Infant Jesus, from CHIJ St Nicholas to CHIJ Kellock in the years before.
Today it serves as a high end retail complex of shops, bars and restaurants and hence revamped as CHIJMES, a play on words using the original name of the convent CHIJ. Its beautiful Gothic chapel is often used as an entertainment venue for parties and weddings. CHIJMES won a Merit Award in the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2002.
While 160-year-old CHIJMES has not been a place of learning and sanctuary in years, this place still holds great value in the hearts of many convent girls and is an integral part of Singapore’s history.