The book explores key issues and developments in colonial and postcolonial Singapore by examining one particular site in central Singapore: the former Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, established in 1854 and now a food and entertainment complex. The Convent was an early provider of social services and girls’ education—almost a mini-city within walls, including a thriving community of schools, an orphanage, and a women’s refuge.
World War II and the Japanese occupation, followed by the creation of the new Republic of Singapore, presented a new set of challenges, but it was the convent’s size and prime location that made it attractive for urban redevelopment in the 1980s and led to government acquisition, demolition of some buildings, and the remainder put out to private tender. The chapel and the former nuns’ residence are classified as National Monuments but, in line with government policy of adaptive re-use of heritage sites, the complex now contains bars and restaurants, and the deconsecrated chapel is used for wedding receptions and events.
Tracking the physical and usage changes of the site, this book works to make sense of that eventful journey, a paradoxical journey that moves only in time, not in space, and includes abandoned babies, French nuns, Japanese bombings, and twenty-first century dance parties. In a society that has undergone massive change economically and socially, and, above all, transitioned from a small colonial enterprise to a wealthy independent city-state, those physical changes and differing usages of the Convent site over the years track the changes in the nation.
The wider ongoing tensions between heritage conservation and the modern global city are explored by examining what has been chosen for preservation, the quintessentially Singaporean hybridity of the commercial reuse of historic buildings, as well as the nostalgia for what has been lost.