Ink Painting Societies, Singapore Watercolour Society and the Singapore River

Kwok Kian Chow

This document is part of a joint project of the Singapore Art Museum and the Honours Core Curriculum, National University of Singapore. This image and accompanying text appears here with the kind permission of the Singapore Art Museum.

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A development of Singapore art during the 1960s and 1970s was the establishment of art societies based on specific mediums. During this period, ink painting members of the Singapore Art Society and Society of Chinese Artists felt that there was a need to have specialised groupings for those who shared an interest in ink painting or who had studied under the same teacher. Several organisations were formed as a result. In 1967, the Molan Art Association was founded, with most of the charter members being graduates of NAFA who studied ink painting under See Hiang To. In 1970, the Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy and Painting Society was established and members, recent graduates of the academy, had See Hiang To and Wong Jai Ling as their advisers. The Hwa Hun Art Society began in 1973 with Poh Yeow Beng, Ling Cher Eng, Tan Oe Pang and others who were students of Fan Chang Tien ("Perspective on Ink Painting in Singapore"). Other important names in ink painting in the 1960s were Huang Pao Fang, Wong jai Ling, Chen Chong Swee and Sim Kwang Teck.

While See Hiang To and Fan Chang Tien were the most influential teachers in xieyi painting, Chen Chong Swee was important in imbibing realism into ink work Ink paintings which engaged a variety of representational methods and depicted local subjects instead of traditional themes became known as the ink variant of the Nanyang School. Such a style was also popular with ink painting societies although the predominant idiom remained the xieyi approach.

The introduction of realist techniques into Chinese painting did not come without ideological struggle as seen in the colophon for Washing by the River of 1950, Chen Chong Swee's first attempt in "Nanyang" ink work "In painting scenes of Southeast Asia, I employ mainly techniques of Chinese painting. The use of yinyong (shading) approach for this painting is my first attempt of this kind. This is not to be repeated as it is against my principle" (Cited in Kwok Kian Chow pp. 10). Chen later combined naturalistic descriptive methods and the textural strokes used in traditional landscape painting to produce works such as Village Scene and Pounding Rice . This style was to be taken further by the younger artists of the ink societies such as Tay Karn Hong in his Balinese Village, Goh Chiew Lye in Scene in Bali and Chua Ek Kay in Corner House .

The increasing popularity of watercolour in the 1960s led to the formation of the Singapore Watercolour Society in 1969. Its formation is recorded in Gog Sing Hooi's oft-quoted article on the development of watercolour in Singapore:

After the 1950s, batches of young graduates from the academy of fine arts with lofty ideals made their presence felt in painting circles, Following the nation's independence, the promotion of culture and arts gathered momentum and the painting circles gradually prospered, In the late-1960s, a group of young watercolour enthusiasts often worked together with a view to upgrading their skills in the art by providing an avenue for mutual exchange of ideas,.. they converged one February evening in 1969 to discuss the setting up of a watercolour society... in the residence of Chen Chong Swee. Besides the host, that evening also saw the presence of Gog Sing Tooi, Ho Yee Ping, Leng Joon Wong, Chan Soon Yean, Lee Choon Kee and Chin Chun Wah... (later this group was joined by) Ong Chye Cho, Loy Chye Chuan, Sim Kwang Teck and Khor Ean Ghee (to form the) Singapore Watercolour Society. ["The Growth of the Singapore Watercolour Society"]

The medium has a strong tradition in the history of Singapore art and was prevalent since the 1920s. The best known of the early watercolourists was Yong Mun Sen who lived in Singapore for about two years in the late-191Os. Although he finally settled in Penang, Yong maintained close contact with artists based in Singapore and was one of the proponents of NAFA in the 1930s (Yeo Mang Thong p. 71). Chen Chong Swee, well-known for his ink paintings, also painted in watercolour. However, it is Lim Cheng Hoe who is best associated with the medium.

Samsui Woman Lim has a strong foundation in drawing, paints landscapes and everyday subjects. Samsui Woman is a sensitively-rendered portrait done in 1955. Lim's acute observation is apparent in the care with which each feature of his subject is articulated. His pencil lines are free and expressive. Lim displays remarkable control over the medium, with an impressive repertoire of marks from light and barely visible filaments to heavy and dark strokes.

Picnic on the Beach Fort Canning Gateway In the watercolour works Fort Canning Gateway and Picnic on the Beach one can see Lim's mastery. He captures the main nuances of the scenes with quick brushwork, contrasting the strong sunlight with the coolness and comfort of the shaded areas. The many textures of the foliage and the stone wall, the sea and the rocks are equally vivid.

Often recognised as one of the key pioneer artists along with Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Liu Kang and Georgette Chen, Lim stands out as an alumnus of British art education while the other pioneers were deeply rooted in the Chinese migrant aesthetic culture and European training. Lim's eagerness and diligence to advance his art even after his retirement from the Public Utilities Board can be seen in many diary entries. On Christmas day 1966, Lim wrote:

Settle down to a lot of painting, experimenting, not only in watercolours which I must intensify to thoroughly master the medium, but also try out gouache, oils, etc. Study figures from Life, Free World and other magazines and art books from the National Library.... Browse through and study the pile of Studio and Artists magazines and the art books.... Pick out the dross from the chaff and see what new ways I can arrive at in my works after experiments and try-outs. [Cited in T.K. Sabapathy p. 6]

Singapore River Singapore River is a work painted in the late 1960s. Here, Lim uses a wet-on- wet technique to produce a soft and watery feel to the entire picture. The picture plane is neatly divided into two, Wth the river occupying the bottom half of the painting. There is a dark row of boats marking the dividing horizontal, but the symmetry of the painting is relieved by a sampan in the foreground and a glimpse of the river bank at the lower right corner. The buildings in the back are vague washes of warm gray that fade into the distance and the more articulated objects in the foreground push the depth of the painting even further. The painting is mainly covered with light shades of gray and are cleverly punctuated with very dark areas of paint. The neutrality of hue is accented with small patches of colour. Lim has captured a warm and delicately glowing quality of light that is especially appealing in this rather romantic view of the river.

The Singapore River was a favourite subject for the watercolourists. Gog Sing Hooi noted:

Members of the Society are inclined to paint With realism and local flavour. The Singapore River once played an important role during the days of entrepot trade. Not only has it economic value, it is also an excellent subject for the artists' drawing board, The busy tongkang traffic, the old terrace houses lining its shores, combined with the characteristic bridges spanning the river, all culminate in a picturesque Singapore landscape. This scene is also a source of inspiration to many an artist. Alongside the river which bustled with activity, there are shady passageways and a sparkling clean food centre. It is an ideal place for sight-seeing and a place where artists gather, members of the Singapore Watercolour Society are its regular visitors. Come Sundays and members would be seen setting up their easels along its barks, By mid-day, the majority would have shuttled back to the river-side. After lunch, they would produce their newly completed works for their fellow members' appraisal. At this time, a group of young watercolour enthusiasts would turn up and quietly observe these experienced artists at their work and discussion.

Morning in Kathmandu By the 1980s, painting the river had become such a convention for the watercolourists that they took offence at an exhibition entitled Not the Singapore River organised by Arbour Fine Arts, a private gallery which showcased younger artists, The exhibition featured the works of Goh Ee Choo. Oh Chai Hoo, Yeo Sak Goan, Peter Tow and Katherine Ho. "Not another painting of the Singapore River, please; Or Chinatown in watercolour, or shades of old Singapore; You can't tell one artist from the next because they all use the same theme," Lim Jen Howe of Arbour Fine Arts was paraphrased and quoted as saying in The Sundcy Times. (Stella Danker). Watercolourist Ong Kim Seng (Morning in Kathmandu) responded to the exhibition:

It is an effective title, but I am very concerned if it indicates that we are getting tired of our source of nationhood, the Singapore River, and that artists, especially the younger ores, are discouraged or refrain (sic) from painting it.... Many artists, including those who have taught some of the artists who will be on show, have painted the river, depicting it in a style that is distinctly Singaporean.... Riverside houses, the bridges that span the river, and the tongkong, row resettled to brave the wind and wave at Pasir Panjang, form scenes that amount to emblems of our country - they have appeared in our postcards, tourist posters and even our currency notes.... If the clever title is there because the artists need a change in expression, a change in their publicity -- then I ask, why at the expense of the Singapore River? ["Why Not the Singapore River?"]

The Net: Most Definitely the Singapore River Responding to the Singapore River versus Not the Singapore River debate, Teo Eng Seng created The Net: Most Definitely the Singapore River in the same year (1986). The work is an installation comprising a net with "paperdyesculp" sculptural elements. Teo's work is a powerful proclamation that, with deep respect to the social and historical significance of the Singapore River, the responsibility of the artist in portraying and manifesting the spirit and life of the Singapore River must include innovation in the very medium of representation itself.


Gog Sing Hooi. "The Growth of the Singapore Watercolour Society". Singapore Watercolour Society, 1984.

Cited in Kwok Kian Chow. "Chen Chong Swee: His Thoughts" in National Museum. Chen Chong Swee: His Thought, His Art. Singapore: 1993.

Kwok Kian Chow & Chua Ek Kay. "A Perspective on the Development of Ink Painting in Singapore", in National Museum. Journey of Ink, Singapore, 1993.

Ong Kim Seng. "Why Not the Singapore River?". Straits Times, May 30, 1986.

Stella Danker. "Young Artists Given a Chance?". The Straits Times, June 1, 1986.

Cited in T.K. Sabapathy. "Image and Medium: The Painted World of Lim Cheng Hoe", in National Museum. Lim Cheng Hoe Retrospective, 1986.

Yeo Mang Thong. Xinjiapo zhanqian huaren meishushi lunji. Singapore Society of Asian Studies, 1992.

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Last updated: May 2000