Decluttering art-i-facts

I’m a sentimental person and a natural hoarder who has kept letters, postcards, dresses from primary school. It’s such a struggle to declutter but wanting to travel more frequently and free of encumbrances, cockroaches and silver fishes (which thankfully, have largely kept away due to my regular sprinkles of cloves and cinnamon sticks), I’ve decided to bite the bullet and pull teeth.

Voila! The first burst of art-i-facts I’ve released are these precious art publications from the 1980s, to the  National Gallery Singapore library collection.  I hope they’ll be of use to curators, art enthusiasts and collectors.  More on the way out as I grit my teeth hard to free myself of all this clutter…..

Tribute to Singapore Arts Personalities

October is Tributes month!

On the evening of the concert of Zubir Said music, 12 Oct 2012, the Esplanade Theatres launched a “Tributes” website and exhibition of arts personalities aged sixty and above or deceased.  I was included among the first 150 personalities to be credited.

 The launch party turned out to be a very warm gathering of old friends who had journeyed together through the ’80s /’90s.  I wondered however, if tribute paid to senior personages like former President Ong Teng Cheong and former Minister for Culture Inche Othman Wok would have been more appropriately accorded by either the arts ministry or the NAC representatives of both were noticeably absent.  Regretably too, the  venue was too small to accommodate younger artists and arts practitioners who were oblivious to the event. Thus, the inheritors of the art scene were not present to show their appreciation to their pioneers.  I suppose their taking their annual grants and arts housing as a given, and their not realizing that in the mid-80s,  there were only about 300 events a year while the number of original Singaporean works could be counted on only one hand,  shows just how far we’ve come. 

Anyway, it was nice to be recognised after so many years.  I’m glad too that many others who lobbied for the arts for longer than I did such as Arun Mahizhnan, Prof Bernard Tan, Robert Yeo, Goh Soo Khim were also given due recognition. Kudos to the Esplanade Theatres for making such a nice gesture!

Tribute to National Anthem Composer Zubir Said on the 25th Anniversary of his Demise

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October 2012 is Tributes month!

Three events were organized by various agencies to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the death of Singapore’s National Anthem composer Zubir Said.  On 1 Oct, Prof Wang GungWu, Chairman, Institute of SE Asian Studies launched Datin Puan Dr Rohana’s book “Zubir Said: The Composer of Majulah Singapura” based on her father’s journals.  Then on 10 Oct, the National Museum staged a festival of Cathay Keris featuring the music of Zubir Said.  These events culminated in a concert on the music of Pak Zubir on 12 Oct 12.

I was really glad at the realisation of these Tribute events for Pak Zubir as I had followed Rohana on her journey in writing the book for over a year now.  We had lost touch since the launch of the book “Zubir Said: His Songs” in 1990 and she had traced me through this blog.  The Esplanade staff who hatched the idea of a concert had also found me through this blog and I had connected him to Rohana with a suggestion that the concert and book launch be timed together for impact.   As it turned out, the National Museum also decided to stage a  festival of Cathay Keris films,  with English translation.  What a thrill to meet veteran singers like Nona Aisiah and Julie Sudiro at the launch of the film festival!

“Zubir Said: The Composer of Majulah Singapura” was launched in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, 21 Oct by the Malaysian Minister for Information, Commumications and Culture Dr Rais Yatim. The event was also graced by former Malaysian Prime Minister Inche Abdullah Badawi and Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia Ong Keng Yong.  Apart from colourful speeches from both Dr Rais and Rohana, dignitaries cut a cake modeled on the book.  It was touching to watch Rohana present copies of her book to her father’s musical counterparts, divas of the Malay music world like Maria Menando and Julie Sudiro especially after we watched them in their heydays on the montage of film clips screened.  Rohana said that the launch of the book in Malaysia represented closure for her and her family.  It was a beautiful event that I felt privileged to witness with friends from the National Museum of Singapore.

Abandoned Paintings

Today’s article on “How the Tan Jiak Kim Fountain came Home”  (Sunday Times, 2 Sep 12) reminds me of a happy incident in the early 1980s when I was in the Ministry of Culture.

One day, I received a “cold” call from a property development company (Kuok Properties, if I recall correctly) alerting me that they were on the brink of demolishing an old house near Hotel Morningside on River Valley Road and that there were paintings left on the wall that the owners had left behind and didn’t seem to want.

Together with Mrs Eng Seok Chee, former Curator (Ethnology), National Museum and conservator Mrs Ng Chong Quek, I zipped down to the house and found on the walls a painting of Tan Jiak Kim (the one of him standing with a fan) and another of a seated bald man whom I understood to be Tan Kim Seng. As the Museum had a tiny acquisition budget, we were glad for the find.  We confirmed our interest in the paintings and they were later conserved and hung in the Museum rotunda for many years until the Museum’s most recent renovation.

When we went public with our find, up popped a sprightly old Mr Low Kway Song who told us that it was his brother, the late Mr Low Kway Soo who painted the two portraits. A joyful old man, Mr Low danced and smiled alot during the tea session we organised at the National Museum Art Gallery meeting room and told us about the Merrilads and other Peranakan minstrels.  

That encounter taught me that there are segments of Singapore art history that we have not made properly documented and celebrated.  There were painters of the British schools before 1935, the  date we habitually cite as the commencement date of our art history, to coincide with the establishment of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

Up until today, Peranakan artists including the Low brothers appear not to have found their rightful place in the history of Singapore art, alongside our Nanyang artists -  Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng, Liu Kang, Georgette Chen and Chen Chong Swee.  Thankfully, the Lows are mentioned in the website of the Peranakan Association.

Demise of a Dragon Kiln

A TNP story on 18 Sep 2010 – “Will these “dragons” keep breathing fire?” – about the fate of the Jalan Bahar and Thow Kwang kilns near NTU brought back memories of the demise of the Sam Mui Kuang Dragon Kiln at Jalan Hwi Yoh in the early 80’s.

The SMK Dragon Kiln was originally a 25-metre long “snake kiln” that was upgraded to a 50-metre long dragon kiln by a Mr Chua in 1935. The Chua family operated the kiln successfully balancing the production of creative wares with functional wares like flower pots in this 50 metre long kiln that was built into the slope and which was fired about three times in two months, each time over a week.

In the early 1980s, the Chua family was asked to vacate the grounds of the kiln as the land was required for flatted factories. Horrified by the idea that such a heritage institution would be eradicated, petitions were sent on the kiln’s behalf by the Ministry of Culture, Southeast Ceramic Society, the Singapore Heritage Society and other independent and heritage art lovers.

As negotiations between the family and the authorities meandered along, the original rationale for demolition i.e. that the land was needed for flatted factories morphed into concerns about: (a) Pollution – The weeklong firings twice every three months polluted the environment and the kiln can stay if anti-pollution devices were installed; (b) Low rentals – The kiln can stay if the family paid higher rentals;

Our tourism authorities tried to salvage the situation by suggesting that the family build a pavilion for tourists but this would have cost the family a tidy sum. It was then suggested to the family that they should merge with a dragon kiln in the West and be part of the “critical mass” of Jurong tourist attractions. This was of course, not acceptable to the family.

When all negotiations failed and the bulldozers razed the site, Singapore lost an indigenous tourism product while our art schools lost a teaching facility where ceramic students could fire their wares in non-commercial kilns.

Moving on since, with fresh energy and a determination to survive, the Chua brothers continue to produce gorgeous creative wares in a shop house in Seletar Hills.

The Jalan Bahar Clay Studio which was built in 1958 and renamed in 2004 has tried to stay active  by offering studios to artists-in-residence.  I found a ghost town on a couple of weekend visits.  Although it’s not clear what has happened since the news broke in Sep 2010 and what the eventual fate  of both kilns will be,  the situation evokes a strong sense of deja vue – the need for land to build more industrial facilities, the concerns with pollution, the petition, the sense of disbelief and helplessness over the situation.

I do hope we do not raze away yet another two indigenous tourism products while we pour in tons of money trying to artificially create new ones or re-create them.  In the mid-90s, the SE Ceramics Society Council on which I volunteered, received a request for advice, from an authority, on how to set up a “dragon kiln”.  I can’t recall how the Council responded but disheartened by the irony of the situation and realising what an impossible task this was,  I crumpled up my copy of the letter and cast it into a bin.

With the benefit of hindsight, can we not let history repeat itself?

Private Auditoriums

A happy highlight of the 2011 arts scene is the recent opening of Joyden (joy-den) Hall in Capitaland’s Iluma shopping centre on Middle Road.

At a private meal held after the opening event, I learnt that Joyden Hall had been developed by the original owners of Iluma, for their daughter, to manage.  To ensure that the new 500- seat adaptable theatre works effectively, Hong Kong theatre doyen Danny Yung was invited to guide the design process for the theatre. The design development process included a two-year research journey that took his protégé venue manager to performing arts conferences around the globe.  Consultations with potential hirers were also held to ensure that nothing was missed.  Upon the sale of Iluma to Capitaland, the family rented the black box back to ensure that it would be managed in accordance with their original intentions.

The story is a happy one for me and arts development.  Few shopping mall owners who are typically be concerned with the bottom line, would spend money on research before embarking on a theatre project.   Net outcome – a brand-new arts facility for the community! 

In  the late 80s when we were very short of performing spaces, one of my aspirations was to offer theatre design specifications to companies building or retrofitting auditoriums.  If well-equipped, these private auditoriums would complement the few government-owned theatres and relieve the growing demand for theatre spaces.  At that point, some corporate auditoriums were already well-used for arts events but being designed primarily for meetings and talks, they were inadequate in terms of sightlines, acoustics, loading docks, staging, light and sound equipment, and dressing rooms.  One of them did not have a link between the left and right of the stage so actors had to exit into the back-lane to re-appear on the other side while in another, the control room had no view of the stage.

I did not manage to accomplish this mission as no-one including our theatre technicians could draw up specifications to a standard that they felt confident to recommend to corporations and architects.  I realized then that we did not have acousticians and theatre designers.  Either because they did not regard theatre planning as an expertise or, to save costs, architects would design the auditoriums themselves.  The only exception of course, was Singapore Conference Hall (SCH) and DBS Auditorium architect Dato Lim Chong Keat who being an accomplished musician himself, fully understood the importance of good acoustics and drew famed American acousticians Berenek, Bolt and Neumann (BBN) into the SCH project.  Hopefully, other corporations embarking on new buildings would give more thought to this.  Dato Lim recently shared the making of the SCH at a Singapore Heritage Society talk.   

Despite all the efforts invested, there is no perfect venue and reactions among arts companies to the user-friendliness of  Joyden Hall are mixed.  Still, it’s a welcome addition to the inventory of art spaces and  we  hope it can maintain the right balance of arts and non-arts content by keeping rental rates affordable for art companies.  

For the audience, the best thing of all is that Joyden Hall has very comfortable seats.  No backache!

St Joseph’s Institution, La Salle brothers & my Family

Since writing the post “New Museums in Old Buildings“ ,  I have made a startling discovery.  My granduncle David Wee Cheng Soon was a major benefactor to the SJI building on Bras Basah Road, with a contribution of a princely sum of $1,500 in 1912!

Wee Cheng Soon name on SJI's Donors' Plaque .

Catholic-Teochew philanthropist David Wee Cheng Soon married my grand-aunt Regina Tan Mui Liam on 30 July 1901 at St Peter and Paul’s Church.  Regina Tan was the elder sister of my mum’s adoptive father, Francis Tan.  My grandfather Francis worked as a foreman in Wee’s construction company and during her childhood, my mum lived with other branches of the Tan family in homes built by the Wee family in Pasir Panjang, Bukit Timah Road and Newton Road.  I was born when we resided at the shop house (now signed “Baker”) at the corner of Newton and Makepeace Roads until I turned four.  Other branches of the Tan family lived within the Makepeace Road enclave that still stands (www.TansofMakepeaceRoad.wordpress.com). 

Research undertaken by Marc Rerceretnam, great-grandson of Wee revealed that “he was born in Singapore and lived in Armenian St (near MPH Building) prior to 1904.  A self-made man, Wee’s first big break came when he won a contract to tow training targets out at sea, while the British cannons shot at it from land,  around 1905.  He then started his own construction company “Wee Cheng Soon Construction Ltd”,  located at Stamford Rd.  The company helped build most of the colonial British army camps,  SGH hospital wings, Kallang Airport runway,  Sembawang Naval Base and KL’s Majestic Hotel which was converted to an air museum in the 1990s.  He also owned a granite quarry on Pulau Ubin from where he quarried granite for his construction projects and,  a gold mine in Malaysia.  A newspaper article in the mid to late 1930s revealed that his company owned and operated the best road building equipment in Malaya at the time.  Held in high regard by the Catholic Church hierarchy, he also donated large amounts to the construction of St Teresa’s Church on Kampong Bahru (where his ashes are now interred),  constructed the Sacred Heart Church on Tank Road with funds from the Low Khiok Chiang family  which was linked by marriage; and  funded a wing of St Joseph’s Institution on Bras Basah Road.   Wee himself was once a student of SJI as was his son Philip Wee (in 1917) and Marc himself (1976)”.

Bro. Columban (James Lim) with parents & siblings

An even closer connection between SJI and my family is that my late father, James Lim Teck Liang was a La Salle Brother (Columban) who resided and taught at SJI and St Patrick’s School on East Coast Road.   The story goes that he and other local brothers quit en bloc as they were dissatisfied with the way they were treated by the foreign missionaries.  It seems that the foreign brothers “enjoyed their wines and cheeses but denied local brothers basic needs like new cassocks” (uniform worn by brothers).  

Post-brotherhood years, my father married and had five children.  He continued his life of service to the Catholic Church by founding and conducting choirs at St Peter & Paul’s Church (twice – 1950-1954; 1970-1974), St Michael’s Church (1959 -1964), Holy Spirit Church (1964-1970). These are approximate dates coinciding with our moves from Makepeace Road to May Road (1954) and Thomson Gardens (1964) where he lived till he died in 1975.  He remained an educationist all his life teaching mainly language and literature at Monk’s Hill School (Windstedt Road),  Boon Lay Primary School,  Whitley Primary School (1955 to 1965) (Onraet Road) where he was headmaster and finally, the Catholic High School and the Adult Education Board in Fort Canning Road and Kim Keat School during his post-retirement years.  At home, he emphasized the importance of education to all his children.

The connection between SJI and my generation is that both my brothers were educated at St Michael’s School and SJI.   As a CHIJ Victoria Street Pre-University student in the late 1960s,  I attended literature and history classes at SJI as the two schools shared classes taught by the CHIJ teachers.  My son also attended secondary school at St Patrick’s School at East Coast Road in the 90′s.

With Bro. Joe McNally, Alan Rubinstein and Sue Walker, Director of Victorian Tapestry Workshop after opening "Woven Tapestry" exhibition.

I think my feelings of “at-homeness” with SJI and the La Salle Brothers pre-disposed me to support Brother Joseph McNally when upon his retirement, he sought the Ministry of Culture’s assistance to set up St Patrick’s Arts Centre and later La Salle School of the Arts.   The Ministry extended a grant of $30,000 in 1981 towards the construction of the outdoor shed facing Marine Parade Road which housed a significant sculpture workshop.   That’s when I met notables like Ng Eng Teng, Han Sai Por, Tan Teng Kee, Michael Ong and the Trimurti artists – Chandrasekeran, Goh Ee Choo and Saleh Japar.   Later, when Brother started the Arts Housing Scheme,  we gave La Salle School of Arts the Teluk Kurau East School (now called Teluk Kurau Artist Studios) before its move to  its Goodman Road Campus.   Regretably,  we could not fulfill  Brother’s wish to house La Salle in SJI Bras Basah as it had already been promised to the National Museum for an arts gallery (the Singapore Art Museum).    

I mention elsewhere that a past life as a struggling artist seems to have  propelled me into my current life of service to the arts.   I now feel it is karmic that my generation has a role in preserving SJI which our fathers built and treasured.   Interestingly, photos shared by cousins in UK reveal that many of the buildings onWaterloo Street (now a key arts precinct) were also built / owned / lived in by members of the Wee Family;  as are the buildings on Armenian Street although I have yet to ascertain which ones.