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Visual Arts

Chua Mia Tee

One of Singapore's leading realist painters

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


Time taken : >15mins

At first, money didn’t matter to me. Later, I learnt the value of money. Now, I no longer need money. My pursuit in art is driven by happiness.

The Straits Times, 25 Jun 2012.

Chua Mia Tee is one of Singapore’s leading realist painters well known for his evocative paintings of old vanishing Singaporean streetscapes and scenes reflecting the national and social concerns of the day such as his famous Epic Poem of Malaya (1955) and National Language Class (1959). He is also known for his paintings of historic events and portraits of prominent Singaporeans including the nation’s presidents and a sculpted bust of Zubir Said, composer of Singapore’s national anthem. Chua’s artistic oeuvre is a national treasure, invaluable for its historical significance and vivid documentation of the story of a nation. In 2015, Chua received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Born in Shantou, China, in 1931, Chua Mia Tee moved to Singapore with his family in 1937 to escape the Sino-Japanese war in China. Growing up in Singapore, Chua would often watch his father, a businessman who was a self-taught painter, draw portraits of his grandparents. From here, Chua discovered an interest for art, and began sketching and painting.

He began his primary education at Shuqun School and then Tuan Mong School, where his talents were quickly noticed in his art assignments, which would regularly receive high marks and be put on display. His studies would be temporarily halted by the Japanese Occupation. But even then as he moved with his family to Indonesia to avoid the war, Chua continued to draw with his father buying him Chinese ink and colour pencils to use.

Chua returned to Tuan Mong School in 1947 when World War II ended. After completing his primary education, he started attending Chung Cheng High School. Wanting to pursue his passion for art, Chua put his secondary school studies on hold midway through and enrolled at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts to study art. This decision was encouraged by Chua’s art-loving father who believed that his son’s talent for art was worth cultivating.

At the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Chua studied under pioneering Singapore artists such as Lim Hak Tai and Cheong Soo Pieng, learning how to draw with charcoal and oils. He practised drawing diligently every day, arriving early in the day and often painting late into the night after his classes, stopping only to eat his meals. Chua would also visit the school’s library to read art books and catalogues, discovering the works of Rembrandt, Goya, Repin, Delacroix, Gericaut and Xu Beihong, artists who would come to influence his work.

In 1952, Chua graduated from the academy and remained to become a full-time art teacher, where he would teach for two years before returning to Chung Cheng High School to complete his secondary school education. After which, he returned to the academy as an art teacher again.

Chua left the academy in 1957 to embark on an almost two-decade career in commercial art. He became an illustrator at the Shanghai Book Company and went on to become a designer with Grant Advertising International for a period of time. After, he joined the Times Organisation’s Federal Publication as a book designer and illustrator. Throughout this time, he kept in touch with his love for drawing in his work as a commercial illustrator, and at the same time, he practiced his art on the side. With meticulous observation and great skill, he painted local landscapes and people, scenes of local life, scenes depicting the national and social concerns of the day and significant moments in history.

In 1974, when Chua held his first solo exhibition at the Rising Art Gallery, the relevance and significance of his social realist paintings garnered him much critical acclaim and success. This was to be a defining moment for him and he decided to leave his commercial job and become a full-time artist at the age of 43.

Especially early on in his art practice, Chua felt compelled to document scenes of life, people and places that he noticed were under threat of disappearing as a result of rapid urban redevelopment. He placed artistic and historical value on these art works, frequently painting the Singapore River and Chinatown to preserve the memories of the neighbourhoods in which he grew up.

Chua also recorded in painting significant moments in Singapore history such as the swearing-in ceremony of then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. He painted Singapore scenes that gave a sense of current national and social concerns such as his famous Epic Poem of Malaya in 1955 and National Language Class in 1959, both of which inspiring much critical analysis and even theatre productions.

He would also gain fame as an acclaimed portraitist, painting the portraits of some of Singapore’s most significant figures in history such as the nation’s presidents and ministers, as well as sculpted portrait busts, including that of Zubir Said, the composer of Singapore’s national anthem.

Over the next few decades, using predominantly oils on canvas and sometimes using other mediums such as acrylic, mixed media, watercolour, bronze and reliefs, and inspired by travels to Hong Kong, Indonesia, Spain and Italy, he forged a body of work comprising paintings, drawings and portraits distinguished by their masterful artistry and national and social relevance. He exhibited his works at home and abroad in places such as Belgium, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Thailand in both solo and group exhibitions.

In Oct 2015, Chua received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Chua continues to paint. His portrait of Singapore’s first president Yusof Ishak, drawn in 1998, can be found on Singapore’s currency notes.

Timeline

25 Nov 1931

Born in Shantou, Guandong Province, China.

1937

Moved to Singapore with family.

1938 to 1942

Attended Shuren School, then Tuan Mong School.

1942 to 1945

Moved to Indonesia with family during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore.

1945

Returned to Singapore.

1945 to 1946

Attended Tuan Mong School.

1947 to 1950

Attended Chung Cheng High School.

1950 to 1952

Attended Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

1952 to 1954

Teacher, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

1954 to 1956

Attended Chung Cheng High School. Completed secondary school education.

1956 to 1957

Teacher, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

1957 to 1960

Illustrator, Shanghai Book Company.

1960

Created a portrait bust of the Zubir Said.

1960 to 1965

Designer, Grant Advertising International.

1965 to 1972

Designer and illustrator, Time’s Organisation’s Federal Publication.

1974

Solo exhibition at Rising Art Gallery, Singapore.

Becomes full-time artist.

1979

Commissioned to make 36 sketches of ministers and members of parliament during parliamentary meetings.

1980

Joint exhibition with wife Lee Boo Ngan, Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Singapore.

1982

Solo exhibition, British Council, Singapore.

1984

National Day painting on the theme “25 Years of Nation Building, 1959-1984” featured on front page of The Straits Times.

1985

Solo exhibition, Long Pine Gallery, Ming Court Hotel, Singapore.

1986

Created relief mural Towards High Technology, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Singapore.

1986 to 2005

Portrait painter of winners of the annual Businessman of the Year Award, Singapore.

1987

Instructor, 5th ASEAN Youth Workshop masterclasses.

1988

Solo exhibition The Art of Chua Mia Tee, Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore.

Participated in 50th Painting Exhibition of R. Basoeki Abdullah R.A.N., Jakarta, Indonesia.

1989

Participated in 1st Bru-Sin Art Exhibition, Brunei.

1990

Joint exhibition with wife Lee Boon Ngan, Hilton International, Singapore

Designed Singapore's new $50 currency note to commemorate Singapore’s 25th anniversary.

Designed Singapore's $2 currency note.

Painted portrait of Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin.

1991

Painted Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, which was a May Day gift from the National Trades Union Congress.

1992

Solo exhibition Chua Mia Tee – The Best of Four Decades, Empress Place, Singapore.

Painted The Opening of the 8th Parliament for the Parliament of Singapore.

1993

Painted portrait of Chief Justice Yong Pung How.

1994

Painted portrait of Singapore President Ong Teng Cheong for his conferral of The Distinguished Comrade of Labour Award by the National Trades Union Congress, Singapore.

1996 to 1997

Painted a series of paintings of Singapore's five presidents with their ten important ministers for the Istana, Singapore.

1997

Designed the One Million Dollars Commemorative Note, a souvenir note to mark the handover of Hong Kong by UK to China.

1998

Painted portrait of first Singapore President Yusof Ishak for new series of President Portrait currency notes.

1999

Painted portraits of the Singapore presidents Yusof Bin Ishak and Benjamin Sheares for the newly built Parliament House, Singapore.

2000

Painted The Opening of the 9th Parliament for the Parliament of Singapore.

2004

Painted portrait of Singapore President S. R. Nathan for his 80th birthday.

16 Oct 2015

Received the Cultural Medallion for his 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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