Pioneer S'pore artist, 99, captured S'pore from the 1960s to 80s through over 600 ink paintings

The artist lived in a kampong for most of his life, until the 70s.

Mothership | August 09, 2021, 10:22 AM

PERSPECTIVE: Born in September 1921, nearly a century ago, Lim Tze Peng is currently Singapore's oldest living pioneer artist and has been painting since he was the age of 18.

Here, we reproduce an excerpt from the book, Soul of Ink, written by Woon Tai Ho and published by World Scientific, which traces the life and times of Lim and his artwork.

From 1968 to 1983, Lim painted more than 130 paintings of kampong life, drawing on his own experience of living in a kampong for most of his life. After retiring from his job as a school principal in 1981 to become a full-time artist, he painted nearly 500 paintings of Chinatown and the Singapore River. 

In 2003, Lim won the Cultural Medallion award for his art.

You can get a copy of Soul of Ink here.

Retired in 1981 from his job as a principal to paint full-time

In 1981 Lim Tze Peng retired as a school principal, becoming a full-time artist. It coincided with a rapidly changing Singapore, its landscape urbanising, modernising.

In an interview on Tuesday Report, a MediaCorp current affairs programme in Mandarin, the artist looked straight into the camera and said, “I am a patriotic artist. An artist should paint his country, his hometown first. If an artist is cut off from his homeland, he would be like a tree without roots. I want to produce good art about Singapore, art that’s worth preserving.”

And he knew the Singapore he loved was disappearing fast, so he painted day and night, sometimes producing two paintings in a single day.

“Some people told my wife that I was a disgrace, wearing just a singlet to paint,” he looks up at an old painting of the Singapore River in his studio, his mind summoning those old days back to the present. “People saw me having my meal on a stool by the road like a coolie. But I didn’t care, I needed to see and paint what I saw before they disappear.”

Over a few years, close to 500 Chinese ink paintings were completed en plein air, documenting the disappearing sights and sounds of the city’s old quarters, particularly around Chinatown and the Singapore River.

Busy Street. Painting by Lim Tze Peng. Photo courtesy of Woon Tai Ho. Photographer: Terence Tan.

Crowded Bugis Street. Painting by Lim Tze Peng. Photo courtesy of Woon Tai Ho. Photographer: Terence Tan.

Wayang. Painting by Lim Tze Peng. Photo courtesy of Woon Tai Ho. Photographer: Terence Tan.

Salted Fish. Painting by Lim Tze Peng. Photo courtesy of Woon Tai Ho. Photographer: Terence Tan.

Although Lim Tze Peng was not the first to paint local subjects in Chinese ink, the artist departed from convention in some important aspects.

“Lim Tze Peng seldom paints in the traditional compositional formats of handing scrolls or hand-scrolls. Hence his works did not adopt the moving aerial perspective usually associated with conventional Chinese landscape painting,” says Low Sze Wee.

“Rather Lim preferred to work in front of his subject and complete each painting on-site. Also, Lim’s keen interest in documenting the architectural heritage of Singapore meant that he usually adopted a single fixed-point perspective, more commonly found in Western art. Lim eschewed the convention of using primarily texture strokes to represent the subject matter. In traditional Chinese landscape painting, artists usually use a variety of different texture strokes to slowly build up the painting surface, in order to suggest mountains, hills, vegetation, lakes and rivers within the composition. However, since Lim needed to work rapidly to capture the ever-changing street life or rural activity in front of him, he usually used line-work to quickly record down his visual impressions, supplemented by secondary ink or colour washes.”

Embarrassed by the works closest to his heart — the kampong paintings

But there was also a body of work that he hid and was “too embarrassed” to show, works that were closest to his heart, the kampong paintings.

And it took some of his closest friends to unearth them, and put them on show. “He was, in his own words, ‘paiseh’ to show them, he thought they were not good enough,” says Linda Neo. “But to us, these early works showed the best [feature of the artist], the simplicity of his lines.” The idea to show the kampong paintings began one evening, at the opening of an art exhibition.

The Soo Bin Art Gallery was packed to the brim. Chua Soo Bin was a Cultural Medallion winner for photography who had photographed some of the most important painters from China, including the founder of modern Chinese painting, Wu Guanzhong.

Chua is well-known for these portraits, highlights in his impressive career. Chua has been credited with introducing Chinese contemporary art to Singapore, and on this night, he was premiering a 35-year-old Chinese ink artist.

Linda Neo and her husband Albert were invited guests and they decided to bring the recent Cultural Medallion recipient Lim Tze Peng to the opening with them.

It turned out to be a night Linda and Albert would not forget. On Singapore soil stood a foreign art talent that the audience could not get enough of, it seemed.

Collectors milled around the art on the walls, and the small red dots below the ink works indicated enthusiastic brisk sales in excess of S$100,000 a piece. By any standard, only halfway through the evening, the opening night was already a success. Linda and Albert were happy for Chua. He had done it again, successfully introducing Chinese contemporary art to Singapore and Singaporean collectors.

Although he was a Cultural Medallion awardee and was fast approaching 90, Lim Tze Peng’s works did not come within sniffing distance of the prices commanded by the 35-year-old mainland Chinese artist. He walked from painting to painting, clearly admiring the dramatic success of one so young.

Linda noticed how pensive and quiet Lim Tze Peng had become and decided that it was time to leave. Then, without any warning, as they were walking out, he turned to her and asked in Hokkien, “Linda, why don’t you collect my paintings?”

That night gave birth to Friends of Lim Tze Peng, an informal group of collectors and friends who believe in his art and came together because they wished to do something for him.

It was important to include Chua Eng Lee, someone who had earned the trust and confidence of the artist, in the group.

The group took over a year to raise funds and procure works that would surprise collectors and the public, and underline the status of an artist they believed to be a national treasure.

Together with the artist, the group arranged for 132 works produced between 1968 and 1983 to be shown in an exhibition in December 2010.

Suitably called My Kampong My Home, these early works had never been exhibited before.

They captured not just an early Singapore that had either disappeared or was disappearing, but also revealed the artist’s attachment to his old home in Pasir Ris, the kampong he’d had to leave. These works were precious mementos.

Kelongs of the Past. Painting by Lim Tze Peng. Photo courtesy of Woon Tai Ho. Photographer: Terence Tan.

Nostalgic Kampong. Painting by Lim Tze Peng. Photo courtesy of Woon Tai Ho. Photographer: Terence Tan.

“Mr Lim and his wife told me stories about life in a kampong,” Chua remembers. “Of rearing chickens, ducks and pigs, growing vegetables, of the good life because it was simple, unhurried, and flushed with colours of batik, the texture of attap, and the contours of coconut trees that would make Matisse, Gauguin, or Picasso envious. So naturally we were excited that we were staging this exhibition. It was a time that was important to the artist.”

“The exhibition was strong because the subject matter was one close to the artist’s heart,” says Neo. “That gave us confidence. It also chronicled an important part of Singapore history.

The opening was well attended, graced by the then Minister of Transport, Lui Tuck Yew. The Straits Times put it on the cover of Life!, and ran a full-page article on the show, calling the artist a national treasure, and his art, the art of perseverance.”

Had lived in a kampong until his 70s

Lim Tze Peng lived in a kampong almost all his adult life.

He only moved out of Pasir Ris to Telok Kurau when he was in his 70s. A son of the kampong soil, one might say that he is a kampong artist. In more ways than one, the exhibition was a record of his life, a tribute to a simpler time. It was a life he knew well, down to its very roots.

“If you see the coconut trees in the paintings, you know I paint them from within me. I can see the roots, even though they are beneath the ground. I know how they lean, how they allow the wind through their string-like spiky leaves, and most importantly, tree by tree, like old friends, I know how they would enhance a village scene when I put them inside a painting. Coconut trees take centre-stage or stand in the far distance; my kampong scenes are embellished and elevated by their presence. Today, when I see a coconut tree, I stop. It’s like acknowledging an old friend.”

The exhibition was the single biggest retrospective of Lim Tze Peng’s early works and it tugged at the heartstrings of Singaporeans.

It was nostalgia in ink done in deceptively simple strokes.

And while ink and their smudges dominated, there were also strong hints that the artist loved introducing colours — blue, orange, green, and yellow — mostly in the sarongs of the women, and also boldly and sometimes randomly across the attap huts and the fruits in contrast to the monochromatic banana and coconut trees. Few knew then that these colours would dominate his later works.

The turnout surprised everyone.

Held at the Singapore Management Beginnings University over three weeks, there were close to 200 visitors a day. The weekends were the busiest. “We had many tourists,” says Neo.

“And they commented that this is what they would love to see in Singapore instead of the skyscrapers. Some even suggested putting them on

postcards or bringing the exhibition overseas.”

“I was there every day,” says Chua Eng Lee.

“Some Singaporeans who had come home from abroad took leave to view the exhibition. What cheered us wasn’t just the numbers, but the profile of the visitors. Many do not collect art and would normally not walk into an art exhibition. They came because of the title of the show, they came to see their past. They brought their kids and told them, this was where I came from.”

Morning in Arab Street. Painting by Lim Tze Peng. Photo courtesy of Woon Tai Ho. Photographer: Terence Tan.

But pursuing his art has not come without sacrifice

The year was 2003. Lim Tze Peng was 82. He bought a new suit, a new tie. His wife got a new dress too. They were attending the Cultural Medallion award ceremony at the Istana.

He began by thanking the President and the National Arts Council.

Then the speech got personal, “I had been in education for 32 years,” he said, his voice stable.

“And whatever spare time I had outside of work, I spent on calligraphy and painting. In other words, I wasn’t able to spend time with my family...” It could be his wife looking at him in the audience. It could also be that it was the first time he had openly talked about neglecting his wife and family. A lump came up in his throat; he couldn’t breathe.

The tears came suddenly without warning. His body trembled as his left hand went up to shield and wipe his face. What was happening? He needed to compose himself, get back on script.

Someone put their hand on his right shoulder and patted it lightly to comfort him. The artist’s voice fought through and he continued, “... not able to take good care of my family. Today’s honour, half of it, rightly, should be shared with my wife.”

Source: Photo courtesy of Woon Tai Ho

Today, Madam Soh Siew Lay does not remember that evening, nor very much of anything else.

A visit in the afternoon at three sees Lim Tze Peng sitting on an easy chair in the living room next to her. They have just finished their lunch and are listening to his eldest son Su Kok and daughter Kian Ha as they explain the continuing plot of the Taiwanese soap drama on television.

She seems happy that the family sits around the living room, sits with her. She may not know who they are, but she likes the company of people around her. Lim Tze Peng knows that; he tries to spend as much time as possible with her and encourages everyone else to do the same. While she stares at him oblivious to the past, he will remember the past for her, for the both of them.

“I am the second wife,” she told Corrie Tan of The Straits Times. “The first wife is his art.” Everyone knew that was the truth, wrapped up in her own brand of humour.

They met during the Japanese Occupation when she fled to a house near his village in Pasir Ris. Their marriage, during the Second World War, was an arranged one brokered by her older sister.

Today they have six children, 20 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Through the years, she has been a woman whose mental strength and moral support carried him and his family through difficult times.

Top collage photos courtesy of Woon Tai Ho