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A Jaunt Down Memory Lane by Oei Shuyi (KC 1991)

Oei Shu-Yi (KC 1991)

A little jaunt down memory lane...

CHIJ Katong Convent in 2016, before undergoing the PRIME project

In November 2014, my secondary school, CHIJ Katong Convent, where I went to school for ten years, will move from their current premises in Marine Terrace to temporary premises while the Marine Terrace building gets renovated, rebuilt, and retrofitted. The school has outgrown the current premises, and there is clearly a growing degree of dilapidation. While the school is at its temporary premises, the Marine Terrace building will be renovated and improved: My understanding is that they will build a new building with a sports hall and special rooms. They will also replace one of the existing school buildings with an enormous, six-story block.

I have such mixed feelings about Katong Convent being enlarged and retrofitted. This isn’t necessarily because I don’t think old things should be renovated and improved. My twinge of sadness is mostly because the process of building and moving into this school building was such a huge part of my childhood. My mother, Mrs. Karen Oei (1948-2013), was the principal of Katong Convent from 1985-1998 and was Vice Principal for two years before that. She oversaw the school’s move from the old and haunted Martia Road premises to the new Marine Terrace premises in 1986. She was only 38 years old when all of this happened. That’s one year older than I am now. I was ten and in Primary 4 the year of the move, so I think I was uniquely situated to experience and remember this transition. (I’m quite curious to know how my little sister, four years younger than I, recalls this time.)

What I remember most strongly is not so much the actual move, which was a small blip in my kid-brain. What I remember is that the entire time I was a primary school student at Katong Convent, I would hear my mom talk about this new Marine Terrace building ad nauseum. Prior to the move, I would hear all about consultations with the architect (Mr. Meng), fussing about details about the building’s design, and fundraising. Oh the fundraising! It feels like my entire childhood was filled with talk about fundraising for this school building. There were all sorts of events, from walkathons to vocabathons to various other ways to pay for our share of the new building’s cost. From a very young age, I understood what it meant to be a “government-aided” school, rather than a government school. This meant you had to pay for some part of things.
And then there was the “foundation stone.” This was a time capsule that we stuck into the ground in 1985, to be dug out 100 years from now in 2085. The capsule contained poems and trinkets and school uniforms and memorabilia. I think (though I’m not sure) that I might even have written a crappy poem that got buried in that pile of stuff for some future Katong Convent student to dig up. I remember mom saying that I would be 108 years old when they dug up the capsule. I think this casually conveyed maternal factoid directly caused the first existential crisis of my childhood. I was Very Stressed about the possibility of not making it to 108 years old to watch this time capsule get dug up. I spent many hours secretly and maybe not-so-secretly neurosing about this. I would sometimes even hang out around the time capsule, tempted to try and dig it out myself, in case I didn’t live long enough to see it unearthed.

Ground breaking Ceremony at Marine Terrace
The Time Capsule

Once the building was up, there were the architectural details to be obsessed about: Should the two big crosses on the lattice of the main building be painted yellow? Or white, or black? I recall they started out yellow and then everyone thought they were ugly, so they got repainted white. I think Mom was always partial to the yellow but got howled down by a chorus of naysayers. (I liked the yellow myself.) There were littler things too, such as: Where should be put the grand piano? (I think eventually they settled on the school foyer.) What about the old school bell? (I don’t remember what happened with that.)

And then once we were actually in the school building, of course we had to have an Official Opening Ceremony. We had to invite very important people, such as the Singapore deputy prime minister Mr. Goh Chok Tong. I think I had to dance in a freakin’ ballet performance and do some other goofy things. We had to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse for it. A huge chunk of my primary school years was chewed up by the trauma of having to be in that Official Opening Ceremony performance. And then, if I remember right, DPM Goh didn’t even stay for the whole thing! Much more importantly, the trauma of having to hear my mother stress and obsess about the opening ceremony for over a year was really quite formative. One of my earliest memories of my mom being really sick from stress while at school was in the midst of preparing for the official opening of the new building. The drama and stress surrounding the opening of the Marine Terrace building made me realize mom was mortal. There’s also the small detail that from the time I was a kid, the idea that one might work from 7 am to 7 or 8 pm every single day never seemed odd. This may or may not have had repercussions on my future life.

Possibly one of my silliest, yet fondest memories of moving into the Marine Terrace school building was the sculpture of the lovers in the sciences lab courtyard. I wasn’t a huge fan of the sculpture itself, which was rather abstract. (It has grown on me in my old age, however.)
However, the poem that they painted on the ground next to the sculpture was something I always subliminally treasured. I still remember the fresh paint smell when they painted it, and the fierce instructions of everybody not to step on the fresh paint. Of course, this made me want to poke at it even more. I had no idea who had written the poem at the time, but upon research, it turns out it was a translation from Latin of Propertius’s: The Elegies (Book III:5: 1-). How do the Elegies of Propertius end up painted on the ground in a Singaporean high school? I have not a clue. I suspect my mother had something to do with it but am not sure.

Anyway, it went something like this:
Pacis Amor deus est, pacem veneramur amantes …
“Love is a god of peace.
We lovers worship peace
The nearest to warfare I accept
is the tussling I do with my girl.
I don’t care much for gold
nor for jeweled Cups
nor for huge acreages of land

I don’t remember the rest. But there was a time when I was a young’un when I had that entire thing memorized. I think it stirred something in my squishy young soul or something. To this day, when I’m walking down the street, I sometimes mumble to myself: “Love is a god for peace. We lovers worship peace.” and it gives me a fuzzy feeling.

CHIJ Katong Convent's Love and Peace Statue

So, why did I write this longwinded trip down memory lane? I guess it’s because that Marine Terrace building means something to me. I’m aware that that sounds a bit silly. It meant something to most of us Katong Convent girls, of course, judging from the number of current Facebook posts about the construction and the move. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I didn’t appreciate how special and pretty the building was until much later in life, and how lucky I was to enjoy that space. But for me, there’s something extra in there. The process of creating, building, paying for, and occupying that building was such an integral part of my growing from being a ten-year-old kid into a young teenager. In particular, that Marine Terrace building was so important to my process of getting to know my mother as a school principal, as a leader and educator, as a stressed-out human being with no life and with all kinds of flaws and warts, as a perfectionist who was often hard on those around her, and as a committed institution builder with an oddly artistic eye for detail. As an educator now myself, I am only just beginning to become aware of how those characteristics play out in the process of school building, and I am so proud of my mom, even though I am aware that she was in no way perfect.

Mom passed in 2013, and soon the school that was so thoroughly a part of her early school leadership career will undergo a transformation of sorts into something bigger and better. I find this a little bittersweet, naturally, but also have a sense of joy in seeing the improvement and transformation. So, for whatever it’s worth, I wanted to share my childhood recollections of the beginning of the Marine Terrace years, lest they disappear when I disappear.