United Artists Malaysia

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.

A contrasting aesthetic orientation in the early-twentieth century may be discussed via the United Artists Malaysia (Nanyang shuhua she), a Kuala Lumpur based art society, which would have held the prevailing aesthetic value of the migrant Chinese lntelligentsia in Singapore. The primary objective of the society, established in 1929, was to promote Chinese culture and the arts in general. Its constitution stated that its members practised mainly kai - regular script - and their painting was "unrestricted to styles; landscape, figure, flowers, birds, bronzes, tiles, insects, fishes, animals, monochromatic or coloured were all acceptable, and Western painting and oil painting were all (treated) equal." All members had to sit for a monthly test and a final examination at the end of each year. (Shuhua fouyin). Despite its inclusion of "Western art", United Artists appeared to be primarily an ink painting and calligraphy society since all the works reproduced in the society's inaugural catalogue, Shuhuo fouyin (1929), are ink paintings and calligraphy. Y. S. Cheng wrote in the publication:

The beginning of Chinese civilisatlon dates back from immemorial when Europe was still in its barbarous state... but since we had to enter into relationship with foreign powers we immediately realised our intrinsic weakness... unquestionably the influx of modem idea has wrought wonders in modifying the immemorial customs and traditions of perhaps the most conservative people on) earth. But the danger mark lies here. During the transitional period when China was rapidly reforming herself along modern lines, there had been a fear that much of our old civilisation which are essentially good may gradually become disparaged... Wise men of the older times with the interest of their country at heart cannot help lamentably deploring such state of affairs and fervently hope to devise and to encourage their fellow country men in preserving such arts of the old which is dangerously becoming extinct. [p. 5]

The United Artists Malaysia promoted ink painting and calligraphy as an embodiment of Chinese culture to a migrant society that was thought to be lacking in cultural enrichment. In the social-cultural fabric of the Southeast Asian Chinese immigrant society, there was the conspicuous absence of the gentry class -- the bearer of traditional aesthetic value and the class from which artists would come. This social circumstance brought about a weak presence of traditional Chinese high culture. In another essay in the inaugural catalogue, He Baoluan wrote:

In the past during the early years of Nanyang, this was a land of deep forests. Hence persons in the motherland became terrified upon hearing the term "Nanyang." As recent as thirty years ago there were still no schools (and the region was) culturally backward. Fellow Chinese still regard the people of Nanyang as half-civilised and fail to note Nanyang's geographical significance . . . In the recent years, many learned and talented persons have made their way here including my friend Au Yeong Su Fung... who has gathered several tens of like-minded persons to form the United Artists Malaysia. [p. 13]

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He Baoluan. "Xi Nanyang Shuhua she chengli" in Nanyang Shuhua she Ibid.

Nanyang Shuhua She. Shuhua Fouyin. Kuala Lumpur, 1929.

Y.S.Cheng. "Introduction" in Nanyang Shuhua she, Ibid.

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Last updated: May 2000