JB's gifted special artist

Savant autistic artist, Yap HanZhen with some of his sketches
Yap HanZhen, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, started sketching as a hobby in 2009 and with a daily routine in drawing he filled up dozens of sketch books with fascinating images.  

To expand his vocabulary and to communicate with him, his architect parents, Yap Yew Peng and Yvonne, encouraged him to draw objects and pair them with words.  So HanZhen drew everything he saw, from everyday items at home to things he experienced on holiday, often with great detail and accuracy.

HanZhen has an amazing gift in drawing: He may start
to draw an image from the top to bottom but either way,
the drawing will be completed in the right proportions!
When he was just 13, HanZhen, a savant autistic teenager, had his first solo art exhibition at an event hosted by Leisure Farm Corporation and Mulpha International in Sept 2011.  Impressed by the 46 pencil sketches of dogs, cats and butterflies entitled, “Of Obedience, Solitude and Beauty,” visitors bought his drawings and profits were channeled to the Kiwanis Careheart Centre school fund.  I met HanZhen and his family at this event and got to know him better. 

Yvonne said that it was almost by accident that they discovered he could draw while they were teaching him the names of things to increase his vocabulary for speech.  He was encouraged to draw each item and they were pleasantly surprised to see that he could draw all the things at home and accurately labeled his pictures.  Gradually, his vocabulary, speech and reading skills improved but his sketching skills were impressive! 

A minaret of the Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque
in Johor Baru
His parents bought drawing books that HanZhen could carry around and everywhere they went, he would capture a scene to draw from memory.  When they went for holidays, HanZhen would sketch pictures of people, places and things.  The Yaps are familiar with My Johor Stories and my interest in local heritage and I encouraged HanZhen to start sketching images of Johor Baru’s charming old buildings to preserve their architectural beauty for posterity. 

HanZhen is a good-natured teenager who also plays the piano and attends a local mainstream international school where his teachers and school friends also appreciate his art.  He has an amazing gift in drawing where he may start to draw an image from the top to the bottom or from the bottom to the top but either way, his sketches would all be completed in the right proportions!  

Every day after, he usually spends almost 2 hours drawing sketches with 3B pencils and may doodle a quick sketch in just 3 minutes or take a week to create a masterpiece.  His sketches have been sold in his school’s Open Days and the profits donated to the school’s choice of charities.

Facade of the Hindu temple at Jalan
Ungku Puan, Johor Baru
HanZhen is no stranger to drawing for charity because he has been selling his art and donating the proceeds to charities since his first show entitled, “Of Routine, Memory and Details” at the 2011 Kiwanis Charity Dinner.  It was very encouraging for both the artist and the Kiwanis Club because 40 pieces of his favourite sketches were sold in one night and all proceeds were donated to the Kiwanis Careheart Centre in support of autism awareness. 

In December 2011, this prolific young artist embarked on a project to sketch creatures where their natural habitat is being depleted in our mangrove forests.  In February 2012, a series of these sketches featuring the flora and fauna in mangrove forests entitled, “River Biodiversity” was displayed in the Senibong Cove clubhouse to compliment the waterfront residential development’s mangrove regeneration programme.  Thirty of his beautiful sketches were published a book with the same title in late 2012.

HanZhen's detailed rendition of the Johor Ancient
Temple or Guo Miao at Jalan Trus, Johor Baru
I met HanZhen again at his school’s fund-raising fair in April 2012 where 12 of his tiger sketches were sold and the whole collection of t-shirts printed with his favourite sketch of a butterfly, were sold out and all the proceed contributed to the school fund.  In May, he started working on a new series: kettles – old, new, shiny or broken and these were presented in “Kettles Reflections,” a show for the Kiwanis Club of Taman Sentosa charity dinner and auctioned off to raise funds for the Kiwanis Careheart Centre.

When the Yap family visited Xiaozhou Art Village in Guangzhou in 2011, HanZhen was inspired by the artistic community to sketch a series of domestic gateways in ancient and modern China.  A year later, 20 pieces of his fine sketches of centuries-old Xiaozhou gateways were exhibited at a Malaysian Institute of Architects event as a tribute to architectural heritage and autism art, in conjunction with World Architecture Day 2012.  After the 2-day exhibition at the Glulam Gallery, the exhibit was moved to the newly refurbished main lobby of Landmark Towers, Johor Baru. 

HanZhen’s sketch of the historical Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Malacca was one of the winning entries from among a pool of 1000 entries in the Asia Para Art 2013 competition in Japan.  His success earned him a special invitation to Asia Para Art 2013 held in Tokyo in October 2013 and a spot in a travelling exhibition to various airport locations in Japan.

A series of sketches by HanZhen that grace the walls
of the DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru hotel
At age 16, HanZhen has held 21 exhibitions in various locations around JB, Singapore and Tokyo.  Recently his sketch of Meiji Jingu, a shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo, was exhibited at the Japan Tottori ParaArt Exhibition 2014, an international art show held at Tottori Prefecture Art Space Gallery until Sept 21.  

For a glimpse of his unique sketches, visit the DoubleTree by Hilton Johor Baru where he completed an extensive series of 101 sketches commissioned by the Daiman Group for the hotel.  When HanZhen did a commissioned project for the Consul-General of Singapore in JB, his art took a leap from sketching single buildings to meeting the challenge of drawing JB’s panoramic skyline and causeway!

He has started working on an exciting book with sketches of JB’s heritage buildings and a walking trail map of locations that should interest tourists, students and even locals.  Incidentally, HanZhen is being featured in the Jetsetter column of the October issue of travel3sixty, AirAsia’s in-flight magazine.  Blessed with a unique talent, it looks like the sky’s the limit for JB’s gifted special artist.

A version of this article was published in the October 2014 issue of The Iskandarian

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