Chung Cheng High's pillars of learning

The historic entrance arch of the school, which was gazetted as a national monument in 2014 together with the school's administrative building. The posts, which have ornamented stone pedestals at their bases, are believed to resemble calligraphy brus
The historic entrance arch of the school, which was gazetted as a national monument in 2014 together with the school’s administrative building. The posts, which have ornamented stone pedestals at their bases, are believed to resemble calligraphy brushes. Traditional Chinese entrance arches were widespread after the Han Dynasty.ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN
The historic entrance arch of the school, which was gazetted as a national monument in 2014 together with the school's administrative building. The posts, which have ornamented stone pedestals at their bases, are believed to resemble calligraphy brus
Alumni members (from left) Mr Yee Kok Kheong, Mr Teo Lian Kiat, Ms Han Huayi, Ms Tay Huimin, Mr Chiam Tun Ngiap and Mr Koh Khay Huat in front of the Chung Cheng High administrative building on Dec 29 last year. Mr Chiam, 68, was there in 1968, when the building was officially opened by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO
The historic entrance arch of the school, which was gazetted as a national monument in 2014 together with the school's administrative building. The posts, which have ornamented stone pedestals at their bases, are believed to resemble calligraphy brus
The administrative building, which officially opened in 1968 after years of fund raising, has a double-tiered Chinese roof with green-glazed tiles. The ridges of the roof feature green abstract divine creatures called “xian ren zou shou”, thought to ward off evil.ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

From places of worship and educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings have been gazetted as national monuments. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history. This is the 25th in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems.

It is a sunny December morning when I meet former Chinese teacher Kee Chwee Hoon inside Chung Cheng High School (Main) in Goodman Road, a stone's throw from the school's iconic entrance arch.

Madam Kee, 60, who spent her entire teaching career at the school, and now helps it with heritage work, recalls how it felt passing through the arch on her first day.

"My first impression was, 'What a magnificent school'. You could tell straight away it was a Chinese school, steeped in tradition," says Madam Kee, who retired in 2012 before returning as a flexi-adjunct teacher about a year later.

As our chat ends, she takes me up to the roof of the Zhulin Building, where I get to see "the bats".

The school's administrative block, gazetted as a national monument in 2014 along with the school's entrance arch, is perhaps too well-maintained to be home to the winged creatures - though its heritage gallery did suffer a termite infestation several years ago.

The bats in question are abstract bat-like motifs on the building's facade - as noted on the National Heritage Board (NHB) Roots website.

STRONG SENSE OF TRADITION

There's still a very strong sense of Chinese tradition which takes me back to yesteryear.

MR CHIAM TUN NGIAP, who studied at Chung Cheng in the 1960s, on the school's character, despite the new developments.

CLASS ACT

My first impression was, 'What a magnificent school'. You could tell straight away it was a Chinese school, steeped in tradition.

MADAM KEE CHWEE HOON, a flexi-adjunct teacher, on entering the gates of Chung Cheng High School (Main) for the first time .

Bats are regarded as auspicious in Chinese culture: The second half of the Chinese word for bat (bian fu) sounds like the word for good fortune (fu). Madam Kee says: "In traditional Chinese buildings, bats on the roof represent fortune descending from the heavens."

Zhulin Building, like the former Nanyang University library and administration building, was designed in the Chinese national style by Chung Cheng alumnus and architect Ho Beng Heng.

It has a double-tiered Chinese roof with green-glazed tiles, and a facade decked with ornamental Chinese features. The ridges of the roof feature divine creatures called xian ren zou shou, said to ward off evil.

Octagonal windows on the ground floor display a stylised symbol of the Chinese word for prosperity, lu. Madam Kee adds with a laugh: "I once had a Secondary 1 student wanting directions (to Zhulin Building) who said, 'I'm looking for the temple'."

Chung Cheng High School, originally in Kim Yam Road off River Valley Road, near the Singapore River, was founded by Chinese philanthropists on Jan 24, 1939 as an all-boys school. The school's name comes from the Chinese Nationalist government leader Chiang Kai-shek, also known as Chiang Chung-Cheng.

After closing during the Japanese Occupation, it reopened in 1945, with a sharp increase in student enrolment. It began admitting girls, making it the first Chinese co-educational school in Singapore.

In 1947, to accommodate larger student numbers - which would later swell to 5,566 in the 1950s - the school acquired a 5.26ha area with nine large bungalows in Goodman Road, off Tanjong Katong Road.

This became the site for a new campus, known as Chung Cheng High School (Main). The campus in Kim Yam Road was later known as Chung Cheng High School (Branch), and has moved to Yishun.

As early as 1947, the management committee of Chung Cheng High School (Main) decided to construct a new administrative block for the Goodman Road campus.

While the management committee started a fund-raising drive in 1962, three years before construction began, events such as school bazaars and concerts were held to raise funds decades before that.

Old boy Chiam Tun Ngiap, 68, a flexi-adjunct Chinese teacher who studied at Chung Cheng in the 1960s, recalls that school bazaars run by students were often held beside the school's distinctive lake.

"They were pretty large events, sometimes lasting two to three days. There was such warmth and enthusiasm whenever we prepared for the fair," he says.

"We sometimes stayed in school overnight to decorate our stalls. Once, a gust of strong wind overturned our stalls and we tried to salvage them... To this day, I remember the zest and energy we had."

Mr Chiam was there in 1968 when the building was officially opened by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on July 21.

"We were so happy to see so many years of hard work finally come to fruition," he says.

Zhulin Building initially housed a library, laboratories and an auditorium - Singapore's largest at the time, capable of seating more than 2,000.

It was named in honour of the school's founding principal Chuang Chook Ling. On its facade is a calligraphic inscription of its name, the work of artist Lim Tze Peng.

Today, it is an administrative block. It also contains the school's heritage gallery and the auditorium, which has since been refurbished. Its old basement remains.

Alumnus and mathematics teacher Yee Kok Kheong, 38, says: "We played table tennis in the 'dungeon'. It was like a secret training base. (There were) about 10 to 12 table tennis tables. It had a musty smell, human traffic wasn't so high, and there were more mosquitoes."

There once existed a "convenient way" of accessing the basement.

Mr Yee adds: "There was an orchestra pit in front of the (auditorium) stage, it's now sealed up. In the pit, there were two more doors which led to the basement."

And as with many schools with a bit of history, there were rumours that certain areas were haunted.

Mr Yee says: "In the past, the heritage gallery upstairs was closed for access. Some of my friends would say there were 'palm prints' all over the walls. (And) they would try to prise open the doors."

The school's entrance arch - a 6m-wide arch flanked by two 4.3m-wide ones - is as old as Zhulin Building, and also features bat-like motifs. The posts, which have stone pedestals at their bases that are ornamented, are believed to resemble calligraphy brushes.

Traditional Chinese entrance arches, widespread after the Han Dynasty, were often adorned with engravings and inscriptions and stood at important entrances.

While Chung Cheng has seen many new developments over the decades, its entrance arch and the exterior of Zhulin Building are comforting reminders that some things have not changed.

Mr Chiam says: "There's still a very strong sense of Chinese tradition which takes me back to yesteryear."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2017, with the headline 'Chung Cheng High's pillars of learning'. Print Edition | Subscribe