Undoubtedly, it also provokes a yearning for some form of escape. Better yet an escape that is infused with nostalgia of yesteryear. CHIJMES is one such place. The place has gone through great transformations since it was first erected, not in terms of architectural structure, but its functions. What started off as convent, today houses a large variety of shops selling an array of antiques and handicrafts together with cafes and restaurants that serve tempura to tacos and everything in between.
The tale begins with Father Jean-Marie Beurel, a French Roman Catholic missionary, who purchased the Caldwell House (built 1840-1) and the surrounding land in 1852 from the Raffles Institution to start a convent that would cater to the educational and welfare needs of young girls and orphans in Singapore.
However the ‘project’ officially kicked off only after the arrival of four French nuns, headed by Reverend Mother Mathilde Raclot on 5th February 1954. This was the birth of The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) and in a matter of days opened its gates to pupils. However by the late 1800s the chapel’s structure had deteriorated so severely, that it was eventually considered ‘dangerous’.
A new chapel, one that stands today, was constructed during the period of 1901-04, as a result of fund-raising efforts on the part of the nuns.
This chapel, a template of Gothic architecture, owes its aesthetic values to Father Charles Benedict Nain, who also undertook overall supervision of its construction. Finely detailed plasterwork, wall frescoes and stained glass panels further enunciate its intricate beauty.
The convent was up and running for a total of 131 years before finally being deconsecrated after its last service held on 3rd November 1983. It was relocated to its new premises in Toa Payoh in1985. CHIJMES then went through a five and a half years of restoration and conservation work.
The reconstruction and renovation was very successful and has certainly paid off, and since has been declared a national monument in 1990 and has received the UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Conservation in 2002.
Talk about CHIJMES today and the average local would probably consider it relatively posh. It’s not your everyday hangout, that’s for sure.
Unless you’re an expatriate or tourist, that is. It’s probably one of those places that would be considered a “treat” and be mistaken not; it probably is for anybody who enjoys excellent ambience, service, cuisine and plain ‘ol’ good times.
Despite being in the center of a concrete jungle, the ‘periphery’, once you enter CHIJMES, is lush green with ample trees and grass lawns.
This is not the impression one gets from the streets and the outside though. Regardless of which entrance you choose to enter the premises, you will without a doubt eventually find yourself in the ‘heart’ of the complex, the fountain court, which is situated below the street level. For those who have not been here before, try not to expect an ethereal majesty a la Sentosa’s Magic Fountains, but be rest assured this place has a rustic charm of its own.
Babyback Pork Ribs at Bobby Rubino’s
So what is this fountain court all about? Here is a short introduction to what you can find. Let’s start with the food. Tucked away in one end of the fountain court is Bobby’s, who serve the most delectable in ‘western’ cuisine. If there is one thing that you shouldn’t miss out on here, it would definitely be their signature ribs.
Whether it’s Baby Back Ribs, their Prime Rib Steak or their pizzas topped with minced ribs, it’s sure to set any meat-lover’s heart and stomach on fire. They also house the only smoking bar that is in a restaurant in Singapore. Yes, it’s true they still exist; at least one does for sure.
However if you’re not really the burger-and-fries sort of Joe, then head down nearby to Table 108’s dining area. You have a choice between dining indoors or al fresco.
While on the outside you can get a good ambience of the fountains and the architecture, on the inside the decor is elegant and lush. The kitchen here whips out some great Asian and fusion cuisine that won’t disappoint. Now lets say you have had a tiring day at work and feel like unwinding, then it will come as a delight to know that all places in the fountain court area come with an essential bar.
But if a more private and quiet drinking environment is your thing, then you should probably head towards La Cave. A word of advise and caution though, the entire place turns into a wild gathering on nights that have live football or rugby fixtures.
Since all the joints here have al fresco areas right next to each other in the court itself, regardless of which place you are patronizing, on football and rugby nights you will be part an orgy of cheering and jeering whether or not you like it. This particular element, I must say, adds to the unique experience and magic of the place. CHIJMES isn’t quite the place one thinks of for wild parties and killer beats in Singapore, but smack in the middle of our ‘fountain’ area is Le Baroque. That’s right, a club with the booming bass thumping and the crowd all pumped up until the wee hours of the morning.
So even after a pleasant evening, a fine meal, and a football match with a couple of beers, the experience does not have to stop if you don’t want it to. Over time, CHIJMES has gone through quite a massive transformation. After being strictly inaccessible to the majority of the public for almost one and half centuries, today it has much to offer.
Of course, this article hasn’t given a full overview of CHIJMES, but you get the picture. It is without a doubt that this place can satisfy all visitors’ taste buds, palates and souls with good food, drinks and atmosphere.
What makes it different from other places of leisure in Singapore you might ask? You only need to experience the urban lifestyle in a romantic, escapist place like CHIJMES to know.
In a place where streets and even entire landscapes could change overnight, the chapel and the complex have remained constant and will continue to do so. So if you do decide to go down, or the next time you do so again, try and focus a little more on the details that the place offers. These premises echo in them over a century of history, stories and legacies. So apart from having yourselves a ball of time here, use this space to get in touch with the past. Sadly, this is not exactly a trip back to the kampong world and kampong days, nonetheless, I say it’s still better than nothing.