University of Tasmania
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From orphanage to entertainment venue : colonial and post-colonial Singapore reflected in the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus

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posted on 2023-05-27, 14:26 authored by Hudd, SF
By tracing the transformation of the site of the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, this thesis connects key issues and developments in the history of colonial and postcolonial Singapore. The convent, established in 1854 in central Singapore, is now the \premier lifestyle destination\" CHIJMES. I show that the Sisters were early providers of social services and girls' education with an orphanage women's refuge and schools for girls. They survived the turbulent years of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore and adapted to the priorities of the new government after independence expanding to become the largest cloistered convent in Southeast Asia. In the 1980s with urban redevelopment a priority for the new nation the government acquired the site demolished some buildings and put the remainder out to private tender. The chapel and the former nuns' residence are now classified as National Monuments. Despite the classification and in line with government policy of adaptive re-use of heritage buildings the CHIJMES complex now contains numerous bars and restaurants and the deconsecrated chapel is used for wedding receptions and other events. Tracking the physical and usage changes of the site this thesis works to make sense of the journey from convent to entertainment venue. In a society that has undergone massive change economically and socially and above all transitioned from colonial enterprise to wealthy independent city-state the physical changes and differing usages of the site over the years echo the changes in the nation. The thesis thus uses the Convent/CHIJMES as a site for reading the changes in colonial and post-colonial Singapore. My time period ‚Äö- 1854 to the present ‚Äö- spans the colonial era including the disruption of the Japanese Occupation during World War Two the immediate post-colonial period of independence and the subsequent massive economic and physical development of Singapore into a world city. In a context of rapid change and globalisation I also examine how the past is remembered in Singapore through the designation of National Monuments and historic sites as well as how the Convent itself is remembered. The scope of the thesis necessitated an interdisciplinary approach drawing on a broad range of scholarship including history social geography religion urban studies heritage conservation and museum studies. In addition I have analysed personal narratives contemporary media reports and the visual record using historical and contemporary photographs. In examining a physical set of buildings I approach the site as a text in which layers of meaning can be read not only about the site itself but about the development of Singapore. The transformation of the site from a wholly European institution into something more quintessentially Singaporean offers an example which troubles some of the dichotomies about colonialism and about missionaries. The focus on French Catholic nuns in a British and therefore Anglican colony adds to the complexity of our understanding of colonialism and I argue that the laissez-faire approach to free trade also extended to a tolerance of religious missions. The nuns' work with orphans women seeking refuge and in the education of girls adds to the richness of our understanding of social issues in colonial Singapore and demonstrates that they were women who actively contributed to the development of education and social welfare services. In this thesis I argue that Singapore was both colonised and decolonised in ways that complicate the wider narrative of empire. I also address the postcolonial impetus for industrialisation and urban redevelopment in the new nation and the initial privileging of development over heritage conservation. An examination of the acquisition of the site and its \"adaptive reuse\" tells us much about the imagining of the new Singapore. The subsequent turn to heritage conservation in the 1980s and 1990s meant that many heritage buildings and sites have been preserved and an examination of these national monuments and historic sites shows that Singapore has incorporated its colonial past into its national narrative in ways that differ from many other ex-colonies. Despite a greater focus on heritage conservation government policies of continued economic development have generated community angst about lost heritage and a nostalgia for the past. In a Singapore that is constantly changing its built environment I argue that the recent changes at CHIJMES demonstrate not only the relentless developmentalism of the modern city-state but also the fracture lines in the national narrative. I use the concept of a building as a palimpsest of meaning to show that past uses of buildings resurface at times and that redevelopment does not always erase emotional attachments to place."


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