Fired from student care centre for painting before class, S’pore teacher, 80, now has own exhibition

Well into his retirement, Johnny Wong is finally fulfilling a lifelong dream.

Andrew Koay | June 21, 11:05 am


Two years ago, Singaporean retired primary school teacher Johnny Wong was fired from a job he had at a student care centre because he was “caught” painting… before class was slated to start.

This weekend, now a ripe young 80, Wong’s work will, for the first time, be featured in his very own art exhibition.

And while the show represents the culmination of a lifelong passion for him, it’s his journey and attitude along the way that makes Wong an artist whose work is worth seeing.

How a seemingly unfair dismissal led to his wife throwing his paintings away

In a recent interview with Mothership, Wong explains that after retiring from mainstream education in 1999 at the age of 60, he occupied himself by tutoring students and painting.

He eventually found himself teaching at a student care centre in Clementi — a job that allowed him the free time to continue making art.

“I worked for six years, and nothing happened until the company changed and there was a new supervisor. The supervisor — I think, [or at least] that is what I feel from [seeing her] body language — was saying ‘how to get rid of this old man’.”

The supervisor found her opportunity when she caught Wong painting in his free time at the centre before classes started.

“She saw some paintings with knives and all, and she took photographs of it,” he recalls, adding that the supervisor noted the painting as being ‘dangerous’. “Certainly, I knew that I was going off already because she has the reason [to ask me to leave].”

Despite apologising to the supervisor, Wong was deemed to be “more interested in painting than looking after the students” and relieved of his duties.

When his wife found out, it’s fair to say that she wasn’t too pleased:

“She was so angry that she took all my paintings — the ones I did at home — and threw them away.”

One of the paintings that Wong’s wife almost threw away. Photo by Andrew Koay

She then sent him to Malacca for a few months, in the hopes that Wong would change his mind about painting.

However, the trip had the opposite effect.

“That was wonderful, the place down there inspired me more to paint [laughs]. I said ‘wow beautiful place’.

There I painted, wow, clear. No hindrance, no hiding and all. No nagging.”

After an unfortunate fall he suffered meant he had to return to Singapore, Wong needed a new place to paint.

He found a makeshift space in the driveway of a friend’s Jalan Kayu house, where he produced all the paintings that are set to be exhibited at his show.

Discovering abstract art from a young boy in Changi

“My idea is I want people to appreciate abstract art,” says Wong, whose passion for the genre has spanned many decades of his life.

He remembers first being introduced to abstract art by a young boy, who Wong happened to be living with.

Back then, Wong — who was in his 40s at the time — was a teacher on Pulau Tekong (before the island was turned into a military camp), and he would stay with some family friends at Changi to facilitate a shortened commute.

“This boy was very interested in art, and we’d sometimes go out sketching. Then one day I looked at his painting, and I looked at the scenery, and I said, ‘eh, why paint like this, its different [from the scenery].’

He said, ‘you want to paint exactly, take a photograph’.”

From then on, Wong was hooked.

Painting with toothbrushes & tissue paper on recycled boards

Nowadays, for inspiration, he turns to Google and YouTube, searching for demonstrations and tutorials on painting techniques.

Not having a computer of his own, Wong makes weekly trips to the library to use their internet terminals.

However, he admits that sometimes he finds such online instructions hard to follow and replicate:

“Some of them, they make certain kind of solutions where you get — they call it cells — where it flows out [and forms patterns of] bubbles. Quite beautiful.

But because I have not enough paint — that one, you need a lot of paint — I said aiyah, I’ll use my own method. I don’t follow them, I just get the idea.”

It’s this theme of “making do” that you’ll find throughout Wong’s artwork — from his use of toothbrushes and tissue paper as painting tools, to the recycled foam boards that he paints on.

“I got it from the mall — Hougang Mall. Whenever I go down there, I ask at the rubbish bin where [the shops] throw [their waste] ‘got any discarded foam boards?’ And they say ‘you can go find!’ So I just take it and bring it all the way to Jalan Kayu and paint.”

Left: the front of “The Sky and the Forest” by Johnny Wong. Right: the back of the painting, which features the advert that the foam board was originally used for. Photos by Andrew Koay

And while foam boards may not make the most ideal of canvases, Wong is philosophical in his justification of their use:

“Actually my artist friend said to me, ‘Mr Wong, you’re wasting your time painting on this! It’s quite flimsy and it warps.’ Quite true!

I said that it doesn’t matter, because as a Buddhist nothing is permanent.”

Gives away his artwork for free

As if to further emphasise the transient nature of his work, Wong has been known to give away his art for free at the Singapore Really Really Free Market.

For him, painting is not done in the pursuit of recognition. Instead, he describes it as a cathartic hobby and passion that has followed him all his life — something he hopes to share with others.

“It’s fair to say that when you are worried or when you are down, when you paint sometimes it expresses out some of your feelings and that will, I think, help you to overcome your feelings. It will calm you down.

And sometimes when you do something that satisfies you, you’ll get not only that satisfaction, you’ll feel happy.”

It was Wong’s passion and attitude towards painting that initially caught the eye of local artist Seelan Palay, who runs local gallery Coda Culture.

Seelan Palay, left, with Wong. Photo by Andrew Koay

Seelan told Mothership that upon hearing about Wong’s story, he immediately knew he wanted to exhibit his work.

“He valued his paintings a lot, spending a lot of time and effort and thought into planning and executing them and despite all the adversity he faces, he still continues.”

It’s a trait that according to Seelan, is hard to come by in Singapore:

“In an art ecosystem or scene where even young artists or fresh graduates feel like giving up, one or two years into practice because of all the difficulties that they face in being an artist in Singapore, Mr Wong really represents the kind of passion for art that is lifelong and something you can hold onto for a long time.

He has always wanted to make art and always wanted to paint. And even though he had to wait till such an age to start, he still went about it.”

It seems that all those years waiting have done no good to calm Wong’s nerves ahead of his first ever art exhibition, though, as shown by his response to a question about how he’s feeling:

“Excited,” he says with a huge youthful grin. “I couldn’t sleep last night!”

Here are the details for Johnny Wong’s Exhibition, if you’d like to go check it out, support his work and/or perhaps even meet him:

Date: June 21 to 25, 2019
Location: Coda Culture gallery, #05-05, Golden Mile Complex

At Wong’s request, all the paintings at the show will be available for “adoption” by “sincere art lovers” for a contribution of S$30 or more. The proceeds will go towards supporting the work at Coda Culture.

More details can be found here.

Top photo by Andrew Koay

About Andrew Koay

Andrew listens to Fall Out Boy's timeless hit song Sugar, We're Goin Down every single day of his life.

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