Connecting with Singaporean artists

It all started when I met with artist, Alvin Tan, at Art52Gallery at the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk back in 2014.

Chng Seok Tin
Tan, a San Francisco-based Malaysian artist was then in Johor Baru and had the opportunity to create his site-specific art installation entitled, Connect Disconnect, on Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk.  This installation was made up of 120 pieces of 7-foot long buntings suspended along a 15-meter length of the road.

My story on Tan and his art installation in JB’s heritage quarter caught the interest of Singaporean artists who read it in My Johor Stories.  Then I received an email from founder of iArtsg, Kim Ong, who introduced me to visually-impaired artist, Chng Seok Tin, saying that they will be visiting JB and asked if I would be able to meet them. 

iArtsg is an enterprise with a social cause to promote artists with disabilities and supports artists who believe in this cause.  Ong told me Chng and Tan are good friends from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and that she and some artists from Singapore would be in JB to meet a former classmate and visit Art52Gallery, a gallery run by Tan’s brother, Eric.
Eric Tan [Right] with the visitors from Singapore
at Art52Gallery, Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
With a tagline that reads, “Invest in Inclusive Art,” iArtsg curates the work of celebrated Singaporean artists who are disadvantaged because of their abilities.  These artists, who have won awards and accolades, need help to sell their work so that they can continue to create art.  Through iArtsg, the work of artists with disabilities is reaching a wider audience where art-lovers are invited to invest in their works of art.

In her email, Ong said that Chng’s philosophy follows that of a Taiwanese scholar who said you should live to read 10,000 books, travel 10,000 miles and meet 10,000 friends; and that she would be happy to meet me!

That day where I had arranged to meet with Ong and Chng at midday, the scorching sun and sweltering heat did not stop me from finding my way to Art52Gallery.  Ong and her group were already in the gallery upstairs when I arrived and she came down the stairs when she heard Eric speaking to me.  We had never met but when Ong saw me, she recognised me from my avatar (which she said was very well done!) designed in the masthead of My Johor Stories!

Coffee served at the Drums Cafe
We went upstairs and I was introduced to Chng and a group of ladies who are also artists, calligraphists and writers.  Chng, a printmaker, sculptor and multi-media artist, was born sighted and had her work shown internationally in over 26 solo shows and 100 group shows.  In addition to art, she is also a lyricist and a prolific writer who published 11 collections, mostly in Chinese.

Chng “looked” at me from where she was seated, all of us trying to cool down from the warm weather, and asked questions to understand who I am.  As she spoke in Mandarin and English, she pulled out a pen from her shoulder bag, flipped a page on her ring-bound exercise book and asked the person next to her if that page was blank.  And she started to jot down brief notes.  I then understood that Chng was once sighted but she lost her sight after an accident.

Chng attended the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts where she received a diploma in Western Painting.  In 1983, Chng earned her Masters in Arts from New Mexico University and then a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa in 1985.  In 1986, she headed the printmaking department at LaSalle-SIA College of the Arts and was also an art editor for the Joint Publishing Company in Hong Kong.

Tan Chai Puan writing some notes in Chng Seok Tin's
ring-bound exercise book
In June 1988, Chng led a group of her students from LaSalle on a tour of art museums in Europe.  While trying to board a bus with the students in London, Chng fell and hit her head on the pavement.  Back in Singapore, a month and a half after this incident, Chng experienced bouts of dizziness.  These giddy spells was caused by a brain abscess and surgery was recommended.  This surgery resulted in the loss of 90% of her vision.

After becoming almost blind, Chng felt tormented for about a year but reached a turning point when she met other visually-impaired people.  Another turning point was when LaSalle president emeritus, Brother Joseph McNally, invited her to return to the printmaking department at LaSalle.  He believed that even though Chng was sightless, she still had good printmaking techniques and that she could still “see” the colours of the prints through her mind’s eyes.  Chng was very encouraged when she returned to LaSalle where she taught until 1997.

I soon discovered that Chng was named Woman of the Year by Singapore’s Her World magazine in 2001 for her courage and contribution to art.  In 2005, she was the first person from Singapore to have a solo exhibition at the United Nations Headquarters, New York.  That same year, she received the Singapore Cultural Medallion award.  Then in 2007, Chng was the proud recipient of the Singapore Chinese Literary Award from the Singapore Literature Society.

Chng Seok Tin with Tan Chai Puan at the Drums Cafe
Chng is a strong inspiration because she did not let her physical disability stop her from pursuing her art.  In 2014, she was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame and in 2015, Chng was recognized by the Singapore Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, as “a pioneer of the modern printmaking practice in Singapore.”  I understand that Chng was going to be a facilitator at the Dialogue in the Dark workshop in Langkawi later this year.

As I got to know Chng and her cultural exchange projects, my foremost thoughts were who I should connect her with in JB.  Then I thought it was worth a try to reach cultural activist, Tan Chai Puan, who was actively promoting Johor’s culture and heritage through cultural exchanges.

I suggested to Eric that we should have lunch with the visitors – while I tried to track down C P Tan – and proposed the Drums Café, located just opposite his gallery, to which he agreed. 

Tan Chai Puan [2nd from Right] with the visitors
at Drum Cafe
It was also an opportunity to introduce the visitors to the Drums Café, a café designed in the theme of the 24 Festive Drums’ art of drumming.  This art form was co-founded by C P Tan with Tan Hooi Song in 1988, where C P, a former businessman, writer, poet and cartoonist, wrote the poetry, while Hooi Song, a renowned musician, composed the music.

While we were at the café, a local visually-impaired artist, Choo Kok Choon, 35, and his father, came to meet the Singapore artists.  Choo, who teaches a class at an art school here, has an estimated 30 to 40% vision. 

I was glad to receive a message from C P Tan, who said he was with the deputy mayor of Teochew City on a cultural exchange visit to JB, but would come to meet the Singaporean artists at the Drums Café soon.  We enjoyed our light lunch of Yong Tau Foo and while having coffee, C P Tan arrived. 

It was my pleasure to introduce him to the visitors and they made an instant connection with him as they conversed comfortably in Mandarin.  He was certainly in a better position to share with them about the origins of the 24 Festive Drums and the inspiration for the Drums Café.  

Tan Chai Puan [2nd fron Right] with the visitors at the JB Chinese Heritage Museum
They were getting along famously and when there was an opportunity, I asked Ong and she told me that he offered to take them on a tour of the nearby JB Chinese Heritage Museum.  I was so glad that their visit to JB was beneficial on so many levels and I had the privilege to meet with Chng and her artist friends.

The next day, I received a message of appreciation from Ong who said:  Thank you for spending time with us.  You were delightful company as you regaled us with rare gems of tales.  And wonderfully helpful in connecting Johorean and Singaporean artists.

It was my pleasure to meet with Chng and her fellow artists on their visit to JB and I look forward to seeing her work exhibited here for art-lovers to enjoy and appreciate.  I’m sure Chng would be an inspiration for many as her extensive work spans various media including canvas, textile, ceramic, sculpture, installation and printmaking.  And her art works are collected by banks, museums, educational institutions and private collectors, both local and abroad.

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