History on Canvas

Chua Mia Tee keeps a vast collection of his own paintings in his Bukit Timah home, which also houses his studio.

Cultural Medallion winner and painter Chua Mia Tee’s depictions of notable moments in Singapore’s history has resulted in better appreciation of local heritage and identity among Singaporeans.

PHOTOS SPH LIBRARY
 

“I have participated in many art exhibitions both at home and around the world, in countries such as Germany, Australia, Indonesia and Thailand. Through such cross-cultural interactions, my art has helped to share a facet of Singaporeʼs culture with the international community and broadened their perception of the country.”


Painter Chua Mia Tee

C

hua Mia Tee’s scholarly appearance and elegant mannerisms belie a fierce passion for art, which shines through when he speaks in a quiet but assertive tone. This passion can also, more obviously, be deduced by the many canvases found scattered in his home studio.

The 2015 Cultural Medallion winner, one of Singapore’s most famous realist artists, is best known for his oil-on-canvas depictions of life in pre- and post-independent Singapore. He did not just paint everyday scenes, but also cleverly wove national and social commentary into the pieces.

His most famous works include National Language Class (1959) and Epic Poem Of Malaya (1955), both of which poignantly convey the nationalist sentiments brimming in pre-independent Singapore. The two paintings, which now hang in the newly opened National Gallery Singapore, have also inspired younger Singaporean artists to create other works, including theatre productions and paintings.

His colourful documentation of significant moments in Singapore’s history has been important in fostering a greater sense of rootedness in local heritage among Singaporeans and encouraging them to take greater ownership of their shared heritage and identity through art. His work, Workers In A Canteen, which depicts workers during lunch at a Jurong shipyard, is a tribute to their contributions to the country’s rapid industrial and economic development. In particular, his paintings of Singaporean scenes and disappearing local trades, such as that of a snake charmer, document important moments in the nation’s changing landscape.

Chua is also a master portrait artist, adept at capturing the essence of every personality he paints. In fact, his portrait of Singapore’s first president, Yusof Ishak, can be found on our dollar notes.

Born in 1931 in Shantou, China, Chua fled to Singapore in 1937 with his family to escape the Sino-Japanese war. Brought up and schooled here, he soon displayed an interest and talent for art, which was further encouraged by his father, himself an artist. He later received a formal arts education at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, from which he graduated in 1952.

His early years were spent first as a teacher, then as a book illustrator and graphic designer. But it was in 1974 that his life took a different turn. After staging his first successful solo exhibition at the Rising Art Gallery, Chua took the plunge to become a full-time artist. Since then, he has not turned back and, even at the age of 84 today, continues to put brush to canvas.


1. Can you tell us a bit more about your artistic journey? In your mind, what were some of the key highlights?

To date, I have painted portraits of all of our former presidents and prime ministers, such as former president SR Nathan and founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, as well as key civil servants such as former chief justices Wee Chong Jin and Chan Sek Keong. I have also painted significant moments in Singapore’s political history, such as the swearing-in of former prime minister (and Emeritus Senior Minister) Goh Chok Tong and scenes from our parliament in session.

I have also documented Singapore’s vanishing urban landscapes, especially Chinatown and the Singapore River. I do not merely paint scenery. Even when I draw a landscape, I depict the way of life. When I paint a Chinatown scene, the people are not symbolised by mere dabs of paint. I depict their way of life, the relationships among them as well as their attire, with an apt depiction of human figures in apt scenes. This is my way of documenting precious moments and personal memories related to Singapore and using art to connect people with memories of key events, personalities and places in Singapore.


2. Artists play important roles in promoting understanding across cultures. Do you agree that artists are also cultural ambassadors?

Yes. I have participated in many art exhibitions both at home and around the world, in countries such as Germany, Australia, Indonesia and Thailand. Through such cross-cultural interactions, my art has helped to share a facet of Singapore’s culture with the international community and broadened their perception of the country.


3. What are some specific examples that you can share?

Painting scenes of Chinatown and the Singapore River are particularly memorable for me. In the early 1980s, the Singapore Government announced that they were removing the trading boats from the river. So between 1981 and 1983, I painted many landscapes of the area to preserve their memory. I also drew a lot of Chinatown’s streetscapes, hawker stalls and street life, before the Government mandated the cleaning up of the area. In 1976, Mr Lee paid his first visit to China. Ahead of that, the Singapore Government had to prepare a state gift to present to its chairman Mao Zedong. I was selected from among the many local artists, for which I felt very honoured. They later picked one of the pieces I painted of the Singapore River. My paintings are real and truthful, so there is social value and significance to it. There is also historical value, which will stay on forever.


4. What are your views on the power of art in bringing people together and promoting greater awareness and understanding among communities around the world?

I believe that art is a starting point for countries to understand each other. This is especially so with realist art, because it depicts what the artist is seeing at that point in time and the audience cannot be mistaken in interpreting what they are looking at. There is a clarity that other types of art cannot offer.

Art is also an important part of a country’s culture. It gives a country soul and depth. If a country is culturally barren, others will look down on it. It will appear to be backward and lacking in development. This is why I have always thought that artists provide an important contribution to their country.


5. What inspired you to chronicle significant moments in Singapore’s history in your artwork?

When I paint, it is always of a topic that catches my interest at that point. I am usually inspired by my immediate surroundings and take into account the context of the era I am living in. For example, the painting National Language Class was created after I started taking Malay language classes.

Back in the 1950s, Malay was designated the national language. I was also living in Geylang (an area of Singapore that had a concentration of Malay and Chinese villages until the 1960s) and had many Malay neighbours. (Being Chinese,) I decided to go for lessons to learn the language so I could communicate with them. When I was in the class, I felt greatly inspired by it and decided to capture a scene of this on canvas.


6. In previous interviews, you said that you had an urgency to document scenes of Singapore before they vanished from its cityscape. Why is this important to you?

I want to preserve the landscapes for future generations. Singapore develops very quickly and, in doing so, we might erase some of our heritage. Some day, when the young look back at my work, they will probably not recognise Singapore in the 20th century. This motivation complements my realist style of painting, where I transfer what I see around me onto the canvas.


7. As a portraitist, what is the most important attribute needed to capture the essence of the personality you are painting?

It is very challenging to do portraits; not everyone can do it. The most important part is to ensure that the piece physically resembles the personality.

After that, you layer on their character, expression, way of thinking and temperament. You have to depict all these things, which is achieved through understanding who you are painting. I could do the portraits of the politicians as I had gotten to know them through reading about them in the newspapers.


8. You are a firm believer that art must reflect real life and be firmly grounded in reality. Why is this the case?

I do not need my audience to guess, nor do I need to explain what I am painting. This gives it historical value because it is a snapshot of reality and society during that era. Singapore has developed rapidly, and this is a good way to capture and preserve our heritage and culture as it evolves. It acts as a bridge for people to develop a greater emotional connection to the country. Also, it ensures that my art will be remembered forever. Look at the great museums in Europe that are filled with realist paintings. People come from all over the world and queue for hours to see them.


9. How do you feel about having your paintings on display at the National Gallery?

It is an honour to have my work displayed there as well as in various government offices and public buildings, such as the Istana. My paintings have helped to document many unique Singapore stories and memories, preserving a rich collection of history to be enjoyed by audiences around the world and by our future generations.


10. What do you hope visitors take away from your paintings in the National Gallery? What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

Realist art is easy to understand. It doesn’t require me to be present for visitors to understand what I am trying to depict. The take-home message is not different from what is already on the canvas. I want them to understand what Singapore was like in the past but, at the same time, to contrast it with the present and where they are living now. I want to show progression but, at the same time, that we once lived in simpler and humbler times.

 


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