S'porean gang leader-turned-artist holds pottery exhibition until Feb. 11 at Gillman Barracks

His latest exhibition is inspired by his travels as a "nomad" over the past year.

Emily Williams | February 07, 2024, 05:39 PM



For some, "home" means safe, cosy, or family. But throughout Kim Whye Kee’s life, home has looked a little different.

The former gang leader served 10 years in jail for a series of crimes including drug abuse and extortion before turning his life around to become an artist.

After being a self-described "nomad" for the last 12 months, the 44-year-old has returned to Singapore with his latest solo exhibition, aptly titled "Homecoming: The Vagrant’s Return is Never Too Late".

It will feature more than 200 handmade pieces exploring concepts of home, longing, and transformation; something Kim knows all too well.

Matcha cooking bowl from Homecoming. Photo from Qi Pottery's Facebook page.

A broken home

Much like the clay with which he works, Kim and his idea of home have been shaped and moulded over time.

Initially, home was broken and, at times, scary. Kim’s parents divorced after his father developed a gambling addiction, sponsored by loansharks.

Failure to repay the hefty loans on time meant that threats on the family’s doorstep — including fire, splashes of red paint, and even a pig’s head — were “very common”.

So, Kim found home elsewhere.

In 1996, Kim was recruited by the notorious 2-4 gang. He was in Secondary 3 at the time, a victim of bullying, and angry at his parents — a perfect storm.

 "I'm quite good in fights because I was very, very, very angry. I don't understand why I cannot go to school and study like normal people. I don't understand why there is Normal (Tech), no future. I don't understand why my parents divorce. Then all this hate made me very fierce," he told Mothership in a 2018 interview.

Soon enough, Kim was leader of 2-4, overseeing more than 100 members. He was only 17.

Despite the camaraderie, his time with the gang saw violence, riots, and drugs — all of which eventually caught up with him.

Kim’s next home was Changi Prison, which he was sentenced to three times in the course of his early life.

The first stint, four years; the second, 27 months; and the third, five years with nine lashings of the cane.

But it was here, within the confines of the justice system, that Kim found the throwing wheel.

During his time inside, he took his first pottery class, and his childhood dream of being an artist was quickly revived.

For Kim, pottery was therapeutic, and helped him in the wake of his father’s death.

“I took pottery during the last three months of my imprisonment right after my father passed away. I didn’t want to think about it (his father's death) — I just shut off,” he told Mothership in 2019.

One of his vases, with a Chinese junk on top, was purchased by Singaporean painter Henri Chen KeZhan from an exhibition of prisoners’ works in 2007. It marked the beginning of his next chapter.

Kim with President Tharman. Photo from Qi Pottery's Facebook page

But it wasn’t just Chen who saw Kim’s “potential”, so, too, did President Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

In 2008, after his release, President Tharman’s wife Jane Ittogi approached Kim at an art exhibition at the Botanic Gardens, inviting him to participate in her husband’s Meet-The-People Session the following week. Soon after, the couple introduced him to Chen.

After seeing him at work, Chen funded Kim’s first year at LASALLE College of the Arts, from which he graduated in 2013 with second-upper class honours in its bachelor degree of Fine Arts programme.

The receipt from Chen's payment of Kim's first semester of tuition fees. Photo by Andrew Koay

In 2016, Kim founded Qi Pottery, specialising in tea wares. It has been his home ever since.

Back home

Nearly 30 years after joining 2-4, he returned to Taman Jurong, “the place he has always regarded as home”, to live with his sister.

Building on his travels over the past year, Kim created a new suite of ceramics tea ware and accessories using the elusive Singapore Clay.

"Homecoming: The Vagrant’s Return is Never Too Late", curated by John Z. W. Tung, will include the tea wares he is known for, as well as showcase developments in his practice.

Housed at Art Outreach Singapore, the exhibition will also revisit Kim’s "Universe in a Teacup" experience from The Substation’s Re-connect/Centre/Converge in 2022: a tea ceremony where practicing mindfulness is encouraged as an “alternative remedy to the urban fatigue”.

Post-brew, participants are invited to share a word on calligraphy paper. Slowly, the space is decorated by these words, each hung on a clothesline, to “encapsulat(e) the values that are held dear and precious”.

They say home is where the heart is, but for Kim, it’s behind the thrower’s wheel.

Event details

Address: Art Outreach Singapore, 5 Lock Rd, #01-06, Singapore 108933

Dates: Feb. 8 to Feb. 11

Time: 11am to 8pm

Top photos from Qi Pottery/Facebook