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Foo Chee San

A second-generation Nanyang style artist and art educator.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Art cannot be forced. It must emerge from passion.

The Straits Times, 21 July 1989

Foo Chee San is an important second-generation Nanyang style artist and art educator. Trained in art and art education at Singapore's Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Teachers' Training College as well as Japan's Industrial Art Institute and University of Tsukuba, he has nurtured generations of art teachers since the 1950s. Although he has made many works in oil, woodblock print and lacquer art over the decades, it is in his bounty of Chinese ink paintings that one can perceive his commitment to his art and the simple life.

Foo Chee San was born in Hainan province in China in 1928. When he was eight years old, his parents, hoping that he, their eldest son, would have a better life in the "Southern Seas" (Malaya), put him on a boat and sent him to live with his uncle who had a young family and a modest coffeeshop in Malaya. There, Foo settled in quickly.

A budding young artist, his imagination was fired by the comics sold at a provision shop next to his uncle's home, and he drew constantly in pencil, the only medium at hand. Although his uncle and aunt did not approve of his hobby, his talent was noticed and encouraged by teachers at the primary school he attended. He chose art as a subject in secondary school. Taught by a Shanghai-trained art teacher, he became good enough to be selected regularly to represent his school in art competitions.

After Foo completed secondary school, his uncle and aunt could not afford to send him for further studies in art. However, he persuaded them to let him come to Singapore to enrol in Malaya's only art academy back then, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). Once here, he sought out a compatriot from his old hometown, the owner of a coffeeshop in Killiney Road, and asked for help. He was offered daily food and board as well as $30 a month in exchange for a few hours of work at the coffeeshop every day after school.

Thus, Foo came to Singapore in 1953 to study at NAFA under Singapore's pioneer artists. Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and See Hiang To taught him Chinese ink painting while Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen taught him Western oil and watercolour painting. During his time at NAFA, he was most influenced by Chen Chong Swee and Cheong Soo Pieng who, as artists, found inspiration in everyday life in Southeast Asia. He also greatly admired Chen Wen Hsi’s techniques and brushstrokes and, heartened by the latter's encouragement of his students, would later on seek to emulate Chen when he became a teacher himself.

In 1956, Foo graduated from NAFA with the skills of a promising young artist. However, he had to make a living. Thanks to his NAFA principal Lim Hak Tai's recommendation, he found work as an art teacher at Ai Tong Primary School and quit his job at the coffeeshop. He taught in the morning and attended the Teachers Training College in the late afternoon.

After three years, he attained his teaching certificate in 1959, and, for fun, started taking Japanese lessons after work. His Japanese language skills came in handy two years later when he won a Colombo Plan scholarship in 1961 to study art and craft at the Industrial Art Institute in Tokyo, Japan. There, he honed his artistic skills and also learnt new ones such as working with lacquer ware. When he graduated in 1963, he returned to Singapore to rejoin the Teacher's Training College, this time as an Assistant Lecturer in Art (1964–1967).

In the years that followed, Foo built a career as an educator. He served in various institutions including the Ministry of Education as Assistant Specialist Inspector of School (Arts and Crafts) (1968–1970), the Institute of Education’s Art Department as lecturer (1971–1988) and the National University of Singapore’s Extramural Studies Department as part-time lecturer in Chinese painting (1982).

Concurrently, he was also Advisor to Art in Singapore Publications and Singapore Arts and Crafts Teachers’ Association (1976–1988), the Honorary Secretary of The Society of Chinese Artists (1978–1988), and Vice-President of the Singapore Art Society (1982–1984). During this time, for the Institute of Education, he also wrote (in Chinese) and published two books on topics close to his heart—1975’s Basic Design and Practice, and 1981’s Children’s Natural Talent for Art.

Then, at the age of 56, Foo returned to Japan to further his studies in art education. After two years of study, much of which was devoted to his thesis "A Comparison between Chinese and Japanese painting", he attained his Diploma in Art Education in 1984 from the University of Tsukuba. For his work in art education, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal by the Singapore Art Society in 1985 and the National Day Award (Long Service) by the Singapore government in 1988.

After retiring from full-time teaching at the Institute of Education in 1988, Foo took up another job, this time returning to his alma mater NAFA as Art Coordinator in 1989. At the same time, he also served as President of The Society of Chinese Artists (1994–1997) and Board member of the Singapore Art Museum, and worked as a part-time lecturer at the Division of Art, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. In 2007, he began lecturing part-time at NAFA, retiring only in 2011 at the age of 84.

Through it all, Foo practised his art diligently. In the early years, he made many oil paintings, woodblock prints and works in lacquer, but it was Chinese ink painting that he devoted most of his time and energy to, particularly in the later decades. One reason for this preference was that, like many of his NAFA contemporaries, Foo often painted landscapes outdoors and, unlike oil painting, Chinese painting required only rice paper, a brush and ink, materials that were easy to transport and set up. In addition, Chinese ink painting gave him a sense of freedom and lightness which he particularly enjoyed.

Inspired by his NAFA teachers, after he had mastered his traditional Chinese ink painting techniques, he began to paint, in an impressionist style, scenes of rural Southeast Asia. In the early days, he often sought out kampungs and travelled to Malacca and fishing villages in other parts of Malaysia to capture the simple, everyday lives of the working class folk there.

In an interview with the National Archives of Singapore's Oral History Centre in 1997, he explained, "As artists living in the Nanyang (Southeast Asia), these were the subjects of our landscape paintings; these were the things most appropriate for us to render as artists." Later on as widespread urban redevelopment eradicated kampungs from Singapore's landscape and diminished its heritage sites, Foo sought out the few heritage areas left including Kay Siang Road and the older parts of Chinatown, as well as the beaches of Pasir Panjang where a few fishing folk still operated their bumboats. He started to venture abroad more often in search of inspiration for his art, visiting art exhibitions in Asia and Europe and painting the natural landscapes of places as far-flung as Taiwan and Nepal.

Over the decades, Foo took part in many group exhibitions in Singapore as well as in Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Russia and Italy. However, he held only four solo exhibitions—three in the 1980s in Singapore (National Museum Art Gallery, 1982), Malaysia (1982) and Japan (1983), and the last one, almost 30 years later, in 2012. The fourth was organised by NAFA in his honour—A Tribute to Foo Chee San: Milestones and Moments, held from 28 November to 16 December at the Lim Hak Tai Gallery at NAFA Campus 1.

At the exhibition, more than 40 Chinese ink paintings, oil paintings and woodblock prints from the 1960s to the early 2000s depicted both monochromatic and coloured landscapes, mostly rural, from the three places closest to his heart—Japan, China and his adopted homeland, Nanyang (Southeast Asia).

Early woodblock prints of Japanese shrines and mini cityscapes, quiet paintings of autumnal leaves, studies of fruits and plants in pencil, evocative depictions of mountains in China, and tranquil paintings of villages in old Singapore, Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia revealed an artist singularly focused on the achievement of harmony and tranquillity in both his art and life.

Foo continued to teach students and to paint well into his 80s. Currently, he is retired and lives in Hainan, China, where he is being cared for by relatives.

Timeline

1928

Born in Hainan, China.

1936

Relocated to Malaya with family.

1953

Arrived in Singapore and enrolled in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).

1956

Graduated from NAFA.

1956 to 1961

Worked as an art teacher at Ai Tong Primary School.

1956 to 1959

Attended Teachers' Training College, Singapore.

1961

Applied for and won a Colombo Plan Scholarship for further studies in art. Enrolled in the Industrial Art Institute in Tokyo, Japan.

Resigned from Ai Tong.

1963

Attained a Certificate in Art and Craft from the Industrial Art Institute.

1964 to 1967

Assistant Lecturer in Art, Teacher's Training College, Singapore.

1966

Honorary Secretary, Singapore Art Society.

1968 to 1970

Assistant Specialist Inspector of School (Arts and Crafts), Ministry of Education, Singapore.

1970 to 1981

Honorary Secretary, Singapore Art Society.

1971 to 1988

Lecturer, Art Department, Institute of Education, Singapore.

1975

Published Basic Design and Practice, by Institute of Education, Singapore.

1976 to 1988

Advisor, Art in Singapore Publications.

Advisor, Singapore Arts and Crafts Teachers' Association.

1978 to 1988

Honorary Secretary, The Society of Chinese Artists.

1981

Published Children's Natural Talent for Art, by Institute of Education, Singapore.

1982

Part-Time Lecturer in Chinese Painting, Extramural Studies Department, National University of Singapore.

Held Art Exhibition by FOO CHEE SAN, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

Held second Solo Exhibition, Kuala Lumpur Museum, Malaysia.

1982 to 1984

Vice President, Singapore Art Society

1983

Held 3rd Solo Exhibition, University of Tsukuba Art Gallery, Japan.

1984

Attained Diploma in Art Education, University of Tsukuba, Japan.

1985

Awarded a Distinguished Service Medal, Singapore Art Society.

1988

Received the National Day Award (Long Service), Singapore. Retired from full-time work.

1989 to 2006

Art Coordinator, NAFA.

1994 to 1997

President, The Society of Chinese Artists.

2002

Editor of and featured in Six Artists, by Six Artists.

2004

Board member of the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore.

Part-time lecturer at the Division of Art, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

2007 to 2011

Part-time lecturer, Arts & Management Education Department, NAFA.

2012

A Tribute to Foo Chee San: Moments and Milestones staged at Nanyang Academy of Fine Art Galleries 1 & 2, Singapore.

Present

Retired in Hainan, China.


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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