Chinese Artists in Singapore Before 1945: The influence of the May Fourth Movement

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.

Scholars Programme

While commissioning and traditionalism formed a parameter for art activities in the early part of the twentieth century in Singapore, visiting artists and art educationists from China. England and Europe gave another dimension to the art circle, contributing very significantly to the subsequent development of art in Singapore.

The Chinese art world in the 1920s was characterised by the introduction of Western artistic idioms and concepts arising from the 1919 May Fourth Movement - an intellectual and political movement in China aimed at modernising and strengthening China via cultural reform.

By 1924, there were sufficient Chinese art students in Europe (France, Germany, Belgium, England and Italy) for the formation of two Chinese art student associations on the continent and the organization of a student art exhibition in Strasbourg (Kao Mayching pp. 105-6).

In 1927, the work of twenty Chinese art students studying in France was presented at the Nanyang Hotel in Singapore. The exhibition was initiated by Yang Zhiai, a pioneering figure in Singapore art. Yang unfortunately passed away in 1929 and a posthumous exhibition of his works was mounted in June that year at Tao Nan School (Yeo Mang Thong p. 8).

Another significant event in the history of Singapore art held in 1927 was the Singapore Art Exhibition organised by the Youth Encouragement Association (Qingnian lizhi she). The Youth Encouragement Association was established in 1920 with a member-ship of mainly alumni of Tuan Mong School. The group aimed to advance the use of Mandarin -- an early version of the Speak Mandarin Campaign -- to unite the dialectspeaking groups and to promote the articulation of Chinese culture in tune with the spirit of the May Fourth Movement. While the Youth Encouragement Association was involved mainly in the theatrical arts, the group also organised volleyball toumaments, children and baby shows, a St, John Ambulance Corps and art exhibitions (Lai Kai Joo pp. 3-4).

In 1929, the Singapore Art Exhibition featured together with some ten other artists, Tchang Ju Chi, the first Singapore artist to have swelled art in Paris (Chi Ching-I p. 15). and Xu Beihong who would in the 1950s lead a whole generation of Chinese artists in the path of Social Realism.

Two years later, the YWCA organised an exhibition by women artists, probably the first all-women art and craft exhibition in Singapore (Yeo Mang Thong, pp. 29-32).

Until further research reveals other important art exhibitions during the first three decades of the century, the 1929 exhibition appears to be the most significant art exhibition after the Amateur Drawing Association exhibition of 1913 and the exhibition on the work of Chinese art students from France of 1927.


Chi Ching-I. "Nanyang Artists in Paris" in Singapore Art Museum. Pont des Arts: Nanyang Artists in Paris, 1994.

Kao Mayching. China's Response to the West in Art: 1898-1937. Stanford University 1972.

Lai Kai Joo. Glimpses of the Past: Memoirs of a Singaporean. Singapore: Chung Hwa Book Company, 1979.

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

Main Web Page Singapore Visual Arts Contents Next

Last updated: May 2000