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In Memory of Chua Ek Kay - Renowned Ink Artist (1947 - 2008)

By Jason Lim, Senior Oral History Specialist

The passing of renowned ink artist Chua Ek Kay on 8 February 2008 was mourned by the arts community.

Oral History Centre shares the same sentiment as the late Mr Chua had shared with us his experience on tape generously.

Chua was born in Shantou, Guangdong Province, China, in 1947. The eldest of seven children, his family migrated to Singapore in 1953. At Catholic High School, Chua first took up watercolour painting before moving on to do calligraphy. While in school, Chua also played the oboe and flute in the school orchestra and brass band. He later read Fine Arts at the University of Tasmania in 1989 and completed a Masters (Honours) in Visual Arts at the University of Western Sydney in 1995.

In 1975, a relative of Chua's wife recommended him to noted pioneer artist Fan Chang Tien and he started studying xieyi (写意) painting under Fan at the Chao An Lian Yi She (潮安联谊社) at Bukit Pasoh. Chua continued learning xieyi painting until 1985 when he started work and left for Hong Kong. Chua explained the approach towards xieyi painting in his oral history interview:

All the masters or school painters for the period are doing the same thing for the same subject matter by the same kind of technique. All these are considered as the work of literati. When the work of scholarly artist is concerned, subject matter actually is not important. It is not an important issue. What is important is the realization of the kind of belief and philosophy and understanding about life and nature. This is actually the philosophy and approach for those who took up xieyi painting as the measure point of practice." (A003113/CF1-15/CF2)

After he left Hong Kong, Chua found himself a job as a part-time lecturer at the Extramural Studies Department in the National University of Singapore. In 1987 Chua decided to become a full-time artist. His first solo exhibition, 'Chua Ek Kay's Works in Chinese Ink', was organized in the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1988, as Chua recalled:

"在88年的这个展出, 我40幅作品里面其实重点是放在... 虽然是水墨画这一环, 但是作品的选择多是一些属于我本身自己的风格, 跟自己的艺术理想, 个人的艺术理想这方面的道路. 这样的一个选择之下, 变成我早期跟范[昌乾]老师学的这一部分作品, 却没有展现出来. 那么在日后跟着我个人风格的加强和强化, 跟艺术理想的开拓, 这样的一种情况反而使我在展出的场所里面, 传统而且收到范昌乾老师的教导和影响的作品 很少机会能展现出来. 但是这一部作品, 但是这一部作品, 却在我自己本身的收藏之下. 在适合的场合和适当的一个情况之下, 我也会把这部分的作品共处意识."

["In the 1988 exhibition, most of the 40 works displayed were water-colour paintings. Most of them reflect my character, my artistic ideals and the journey I had taken in meeting those ideals." (A003113/CF1-15/CF4)]

Chua captured the essence of local scenes in Singapore through his Singapore Street Scene series from 1988 to 2002. Chua's paintings were inspired by his trips to various places in Singapore. He felt that:

"当我进入了一个这样的... 我的创作对象的环境里面的时候, 我的心开始飞了. 就是... 不管是 Chinatown, 牛车水, 或者是 Jalan Sultan, 或者是 Little India, 或者是小印度, 或者是芽茏这一带的屋子里面... Geylang 的旧 shophouses... 这样的一个环境的时候, 我就融入了我一个创作的空间. 我就开始很敏感地搜索我的创作目标, 而且这种身影是很自然的, 就是我的目光跟我的脚步就随着这个街道上面就开始我的探索. 我没有太长的时间降在中, 因为 我觉得我的取景敏感度的速度是很快, 而且很敏感的."

["Whenever I am near a potential theme [for my next work]... I will be creative. I will examine my potential subject with sensitivity. This comes naturally and I will use my eyes and feet to walk the streets and start examining the area." (A003113/CF1-15/CF5)]

Chua also started on two major series - Archipelago series (2000 - 2008) and Lotus Pond series. One of his major paintings - Song of the Cicada - is now part of the collection of the Singapore Art Museum. By 2005, Chua had 11 solo exhibitions, including one at the University of Western Sydney in 1995 and another at the Shanghai Art Museum in 2005.

In his lifetime, Chua received several awards for his contribution to local art. In 1991, Chua won the Grand Prize in the United Overseas Bank 10th Painting of the Year Competition. He won the Philip Morris ASEAN Arts Award (Juror's Choice) in Singapore in 1998. The biggest recognition for his artwork came in 1999, when he was honoured with the Cultural Medallion Award by the Government of Singapore.

Information extracted from the Oral History Interview of Mr. Chua Ek Kay
Accession No: 003113

"Reflections on the Lotus Pond" by Chua Ek Kay (2002)
Courtesy of the Singapore Art Museum