Recurring Sikh character in Yip Yew Chong's art based on real man who watched him paint for 2 weeks

Back in 2015, the man would stop on his bicycle twice a day every day to observe Yip paint.

Mothership | November 15, 2023, 09:58 AM

The larger than life murals by artist Yip Yew Chong, showcasing scenes from Singapore's past, have captivated the young and old alike.

With the ease and accuracy with which he is able to manifest nostalgia onto wall or canvas, it might be hard to imagine Yip was a strait-laced accountant for decades till 2015.

But how did Yip make this successful mid-career transition in a society where pursuing the arts is known as the road less travelled? What did his family, particularly his wife, think of this switch? And more importantly, where, or who, does he draw his inspiration from?

Art of Joy by former media practitioner and writer Woon Tai Ho delves deep into Yip's story and journey.

Speaking to Mothership, Yip shared about his surprise when Woon first approached him a year back about the book.

"I was like alamak, who am I", he said, citing famous artists Woon had previously interviewed and written books about, such as Tan Swie Hian and Lim Tze Peng.

"[The two of them] are veteran artists. I'm not at that standard. I was abit paiseh."

Yip shared that he and his wife were initially hesitant about this project, as any information they revealed would be out there for the world to consume, and it will be indelible.

However, Woon assured him that they need only share what they were comfortable with, and Yip believes the book displays a "softer side, more human side" to him and his art.

"After reading the book, next time you look at my artwork, you understand better my thoughts, the difficulty of getting [completing] my works."

When asked what he would like readers to take away from the publication, he said:

"[After reading], you will understand my relationship with my grandmother... and also why I paint so many cats. The takeaway is understand how [my art] is related to my life."

One of the chapters in Art of Joy elaborates on just this — the characters that appear in Yip's art, which he calls his "support cast".

Of this extensive cast, those who scrutinise his works might notice some recurring figures, such as a Sikh man on a bicycle.

This character is based on a real life person, Mr Singh. 

Yip shared that he wanted to invite Singh to the exhibition for his 60m painting, which will be held in end-November, but was informed that the man had passed on.

The book launch of Art of Joy will be happening from 2pm-6.15pm on Nov. 18, at Tiong Bahru C.C. An excerpt from Chapter 6 of Art of Joy about Yip's "support cast" and Singh is reproduced below.

By Woon Tai Ho

Despite the audience he gets when he paints his murals, the reality is, painting is a lonely job.

But the jovial fifty-something has a few tricks up his sleeves. Although every new mural is a fresh wall, Yip Yew Chong always brings along his ‘friends’, or what he likes to call, his ‘support cast’.

“When I introduce an unusual and interesting character and find that this character works, I will use the character again,” his eyes scan across the cast of characters of a mural on his phone.

“And there are so many instances when I can use these characters. In fact, it is not because I want to use them, but because they are required. They contribute to the scene and are essential.”

His support cast does not need to be human beings or even an animal; he considers the calendar for instance as a recurring cast member.

“The calendar hanging on the wall, it is in every household, a common thing to have. In coffeeshops, they don’t just have one calendar, there are many. Same with my old family home, so many calendars in the house. Same with clocks. Calendars and clocks are required because they help to depict the period, the era, which is the 1970s and 1980s. They contribute to the ambience. Imagine a wall of the 1970s without a calendar? It would look weird without it. By the 1990s, these calendars were out of fashion.

For my first mural, the barber scene, I was scratching my head, what to put on the wall? When I decided on the calendar, I had to next decide the date. I thought my birthdate, 12, with a double digit, looks more balanced from an aesthetic point of view. A single digit looks scanty and stark. So, that date becomes the date on every calendar. There is no astrology in coming up with that date.

For a long time, no one knew the date was my birthday. It was only after last year’s show which was launched on my birthday that it became widely known. I did it for fun, not because birthdays are important.

You know I don’t celebrate birthdays. Yes, my art is about special days, the new year, mid-autumn, but in real life, these occasions are not important to me.”

And then, there is the cat; it makes an appearance in most of his murals and paintings.

“Like the calendar, they add, and are like a time stamp to the murals. But unlike the calendar, the cat makes the mural lively, I always paint it in motion, moving, expressive.

Of course, the fun part is to see observers hunt all over the mural for the cat. And once they find the cat, they actually stroke and pat the cat in relief.

Photo by Ashley Tan

I want to say there is no hidden message. Some people think I am a cat lover and are surprised when I tell them I am not. I paint tabby cats because my family used to have one to catch rats in the old house. Mary was her name. The breed is one of the most common; they are everywhere on the streets.”

The second floor of the shophouse is modelled after Yip's home in Chinatown. Yip himself is one of the children on the right. Photo by Ashley Tan

Real characters

Of the human support cast, the most significant is Mr Singh with a green turban on a bicycle.

“There is a back story to him. In 2015, when I was painting the provision shop mural in Everton Road, a Sikh man came by and watched me paint, every single day. Throughout the two weeks, he watched and I painted. We didn’t talk. I was very focused on the mural and he just stood on the opposite side of the road, watching.

Every day, he would watch me paint for a few minutes before he cycled off. He watched me paint twice a day, before going to work and when he came back from work.

Photo courtesy of Yip Yew Chong

When I had completed the mural and was taking photographs, I saw him again. So, this time I invited him to take photographs with the mural and with me. I told him I would print out the photographs and bring it to him. He gave me his address and I went over when the photographs were ready.

This little encounter created an impression. So, whenever appropriate, I would paint him riding on his bicycle in my paintings.”

Spot Mr Singh. Photo by Ashley Tan

Unlike Mr Singh, there is one support cast with a sad story; she represents the unfortunate people of Singapore society; poor, destitute, and hungry.

“I insert a poor old lady, begging, picking up crumbs on tables. Although my artworks depict positive and happy energy, I also want to be realistic, that amongst us there are always those less fortunate that we need to be mindful of.

If the observer looks hard enough, he will see this figure, not prominent, but she is there in my paintings. It reminds me to count my blessings. Society is diverse. I don’t try to hide this old lady, but I know most viewers don’t see her because they are taken up by the main activities of the artwork.

Most of the time, this lady is small, hunched, picking food from tables. I did however, paint her once begging in a hawker centre fairly prominently.”

Can you spot the old lady begging? Photo by Ashley Tan

Does he have a reference in real life?

“I created her because I want to remember Dai Soh, the tenant from [my] old house,” he says calmly. “I still remember one occasion vividly. She was sitting at the back of the house, staring at me when I was eating ice cream. Her eyes seemed to long for them so I shared the ice cream with her. Somehow, those eyes and how she sat make me want to remember the less fortunate among us.”

More articles on Yip

Top photo courtesy of Yip Yew Chong and from Ashley Tan