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Visual Arts

Chong Fah Cheong

The artist behind some of Singapore's most recognisable public sculptures

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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You can be creative in whatever you happen to be: In your state of life, in whatever you're doing.

Chong Fah Cheong, “Little India spiced up man’s art”, The Straits Times, 15 May 1999. 

Chong Fah Cheong was born in Singapore on 20 January 1946, the 12th of 13 children of a devoutly Catholic, Peranakan doctor and his wife. Chong's interest in art started when he was a young boy and discovered his flair for drawing while in primary school.

He attended St. Joseph's Institution but left in 1960 to join the LaSalle Brothers Novitiate in Penang, Malaysia. There, the 14-year-old received a solid education from the LaSalle Brothers, a teaching order of the Catholic faith. He stayed with the Brothers for seven years, eventually receiving formal training there to become a teacher. He taught in Teluk Anson, Malaysia, for a year before leaving the Brotherhood in 1967 to rejoin secular life.

He then enrolled at the National University of Singapore to study Philosophy and Political Science and, after three years, obtained a bachelor's degree in social sciences in 1971. While at university, he met his wife. A year later, he married and enrolled in UK's Birmingham Polytechnic where he took a one-year diploma course in curriculum studies in art and design.

In 1975, he taught art to 'O' and 'A' level students at St. Patrick's School, which was headed by principal, artist and art advocate Joseph McNally. At that time, several angsana trees within the school's grounds had been felled to make way for an extension of the school building. McNally, himself a sculptor, one day suggested to Chong that he and his students could do some art experiments, perhaps carving with the wood that was lying around. Chong, who already had a fledgling interest in sculpting fostered from his time at the Birmingham Polytechnic, thus began a lifetime of passion for sculpting.

Without any formal art training but with the support and mentorship of McNally, Chong taught himself to sculpt wood and worked at it diligently. In the early years, wood was his main material as it was readily available; he often picked up discarded pieces he found at roadsides. He subsequently became interested in stone, and afterwards in bronze as well.

In 1978, Chong quit full-time teaching to devote himself to making art. Three years later, he gave his first solo exhibition, Woodscape, at the Alpha Gallery. That same year, he won the first prize for sculpture at the Singapore Innovations in Art Exhibition with his work Triad. The next year, he held another solo exhibition, Woodscape II, at the Leon & Joel Galleries and picked up another accolade—a special award for Dragon Waves at the National Day Art Exhibition. In 1984 and 1985, he held two more solo exhibitions at Citibank and Alpha Gallery respectively.

In 1984, he went back to teaching art, this time as a founding lecturer at McNally's newly opened LASALLE College of Art and Design.

In 1987, Chong participated in the National Museum Centenary Art Exhibition. That year, he also received his first public commission for a sculpture to be placed in Somerset MRT station. He decided to work with marble, a material he had never used before. A month's training and work with a chisel in Italy resulted in Temusek, his sculpture of a fantastical lion-dragon hybrid in Italian marble (relocated from Somerset MRT in 2008 to the SMRT Sports and Recreation Club in Bishan). The following year, he created Bull & Bear, a marble sculpture for the Stock Exchange of Singapore.

In July 1989, Chong migrated with his family to Canada where he settled in Merritt, British Columbia. However, he regularly returned to Singapore to visit, work, exhibit and install new commissioned works.

In August 1989, a few weeks after his move to Canada, Chong installed a monolithic sculpture at the Housing Development Board's headquarters in Bukit Merah. Mama's Precious One, carved in Italian marble is of an old lady cradling her thumb-sucking grandchild in her arms, now sits in Toa Payoh Town Centre. This piece is meant to reflect the importance of multi-generational family ties and life in Singapore’s HDB estates.

Many other Singaporean public commissions have since followed. These include 1991's Holy Family, a marble sculpture for the Holy Family Church in Singapore, and two of Singapore's most well-known works of public art – 2000's Another Day, a bronze sculpture depicting two coolies eating, and First Generation, a bronze sculpture nostalgically depicting a group of boys playfully jumping off the bank of the Singapore River near Fullerton Hotel.

Another Day, which was first exhibited at Expo 2000 in Hanover, remains in the artist's collection but has been loaned to various Singapore public institutions such as the Singapore Art Museum, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, and the National Library Board.

Other commissions include 2004's The Notetaker, a bronze done for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2005's Once Upon a Time, a bronze and marble sculpture for the National Library Board, and 2009's APEC bronze sculpture presented as a gift to participating heads of state attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference that year. A collection of Chong's works reside at the National University of Singapore, including 2005's Reaching Beyond, a bronze and jade sculpture, and 2007's granite and bronze Our Heritage, a wood sculpture, Forest of Talents, and a stainless steel work Confluence.

Even as Chong worked on these public commissions, he continued developing his art, exploring different materials and sculptural techniques and finding inspiration from his new environment. He participated in numerous workshops and sculpture symposiums and created smaller works for solo exhibitions.

In 1992, he gave his first solo exhibition in Singapore after a hiatus of seven years. Held at LASALLE's School of Fine Arts and entitled Sculptures in Wood, Stone & Bronze, it featured bronze figures such as Again Daddy!, Study in Bronze, and Kacang Puteh, a playful take on the itinerant Indian seller of various kinds of nuts and seeds. The bronzes were cast at Gomboc Gallery, Perth, Australia. That show also saw the inclusion of new materials from Canada—hemlock, spruce, fir and cedar.

In the same year, he held a solo exhibition, Openings, at the Strand Gallery in Merritt, British Columbia, Canada. In 1994 and 1996, he returned to Singapore for another two solo exhibitions at The Substation, entitled Dreamcatcher and Recent Works respectively. In 1999, at the Prime Elements show at the Fort Canning Gallery, visitors to the exhibition were treated to 40 sculptures of wood, bronze and stone that told compelling stories, many of them of the sounds and smells of Singapore.

In the 2000s, he explored jade as a sculptural material. That resulted in 2001 in an aptly titled sculpture called An Overture, a 3,700-tonne jade sculpture commissioned by Wing Tai Holdings for the newly restored House of Tan Yeok Nee.

In Canada in 2002, Chong created Romp, a bronze sculpture, for the city of Penticton, British Columbia, Canada during the Okanagan Thompson International Sculpture Symposium. That sculpture shows three children playing on some rocks by the lakeside. 2003's Girl in a Cloud, a marble sculpture, has pride of place in the nearby Okanagan community of West Kelowna.

In 2011, he held another solo exhibition in Singapore, his first in 11 years—Passages at Emily Hill. That year, he also created Chang Kuda commissioned by Singapore's Asia Pacific Breweries in celebration of its 80th anniversary. Featuring six boys playing a game of piggyback, it imparts an infectious sense of joy to the Singapore Botanic Gardens today.

Most recently in 2013, Chong released a book: Fahcheong. The Art Book is a collection of 130 photographs of Chong's artworks, quotes from the artist and an essay by local art historian T. K. Sabapathy. That same year, the NUS Museum in the National University of Singapore, held a landmark exhibition of Chong's most recent sculptures.

Textures, Tones and Timbres featured works of marble, wood and bronze from Ipoh (Malaysia), Semarang (Indonesia) and Ayutthaya (Thailand) respectively and made with the help of local craftsmen. Inspired by his experiences of different cultures and landscapes, these works explored forms, concepts and materials in ways that suggest Chong's nature as a sculptor—as an artist who works introspectively and intuitively on one level, uncovering voluminous forms and inherent qualities that the materials themselves seem to him to suggest, and on another level, connecting his experiences of his different environments .

When asked about his decision to migrate to Canada, the sculptor explained, "That move allowed me to find new directions and perspectives, it was an 'apartness' from which I could look back. Many people who leave their home country always look back very fondly and in most cases, do go back." He added, "Singapore will always be my home, no matter where I reside."

"The process of sculpting", shares Chong, "is really the opportunity to find myself because every piece that I work is an exploration of my own experience and how that experience is realised in the materials that I use and in its final form."

Thus, from Chong's figurative public sculptures, which speak of the everyday lives of people in Singapore’s earlier years which are held dear in Singaporeans' shared memories, to his abstract works which demonstrate the artist's belief in the inherent qualities of his natural materials, there can be found a consistent expression of his emotional connections with the various places he has lived and worked in. They also speak of an exploration of personal cultural identity.

Chong divides his time between his Emily Hill studio in Singapore and his home in Canada, a log house he designed and helped build in the 1990s.

Timeline

20 Jan 1946

Born in Singapore.

1953 to 1960

Attended St. Joseph's Institution.

1960 to 1967

Joined La Salle Brothers Novitiate in Penang, Malaysia.

1967 to 1968

Taught in Teluk Anson, Malaysia.

1968 to 1971

Studied at the University of Singapore.

1971

Graduated from University of Singapore with Bachelor of Social Sciences degree.

1972 to 1973

Attended City of Birmingham Polytechnic, United Kingdom, and finished with a Diploma in Curriculum Studies in Art and Design.

1974 to 1975

Taught at St Patrick's School.

1976 to 1978

Taught at Catholic Junior College.

1978

Became a professional artist.

1981

First prize for sculpture for Triad, Singapore Innovations in Art Exhibition.

Gave his first solo exhibition Woodscape, Alpha Gallery, Singapore.

1982

Special award for Dragon Waves, National Day Art Exhibition.

Solo exhibition Woodscape II, Leon & Joel Galleries, Singapore.

1984 to 1987

Lecturer, LASALLE College of Art and Design.

1984

Solo exhibition, Citibank, Singapore.

1985

Solo exhibition, Alpha Gallery, Singapore.

1987

Participated in the National Museum Centenary Art Exhibition.

Temusek, marble sculpture, Somerset MRT Station, Singapore.

1988

Merit Award for Third Auntie's Birthday, IBM Art Exhibition.

Bull & Bear, marble sculpture, Stock Exchange of Singapore.

Ora et Labora, bronze plaque, St. Joseph's Institution, Singapore.

1989

Moved to British Columbia, Canada.

Mama's Precious One, marble sculpture, Housing and Development Board, Singapore.

1990

Merit Award for Ayob's Table, IBM Art Award Exhibition.

1991

Visiting lecturer, Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, Merritt, British Columbia, Canada.

Holy Family, marble sculpture, Holy Family Church, Singapore.

1992

Solo exhibition, LASALLE, Singapore.

Solo exhibition Openings, Strand Gallery, Merritt, British Columbia, Canada.

1994

Solo exhibition Dreamcatcher, The Substation, Singapore.

1996

Solo exhibition Recent Works, The Substation, Singapore.

1999

Solo exhibition Prime Elements, Fort Canning Gallery, Singapore.

2000

First Generation, bronze sculpture, Singapore River bank, Singapore.

2001

An Overture, jade sculpture, House of Tan Yeok Nee, Singapore.

2002

Romp, bronze sculpture, City of Penticton, British Columbia, Canada.

2003

Girl in a Cloud, marble sculpture, West Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.

2004

The Notetaker, bronze sculpture, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore.

2005

Reaching Out, bronze and jade sculpture, National University of Singapore.

Once Upon a Time, bronze and marble sculpture, National Library Board, Singapore.

2007 to 2008

Our Heritage, granite and bronze sculpture; Confluence, stainless steel sculpture; Forest of Talents, wood; all at Shaw Foundation Alumni House, National University of Singapore.

2009

Created APEC gift for visiting heads of state, bronze sculpture, Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, Singapore.

2011

Chang Kuda, bronze sculpture, Singapore Botanic Gardens, Singapore.

Solo exhibition Passages, Emily Hill, Singapore.

2013

Good Fun!, bronze sculpture, Interlace at Alexandra, Capitaland, Singapore.

Solo exhibition Textures, Tones and Timbres, NUS Museum, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Publication of Fahcheong. The Art Book.

16 Oct 2014

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts in Singapore.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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