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Visual Arts

Lim Hak Tai

Founder of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

I do not think we should indiscriminately discard all that our predecessors left behind. Rather I am all for a flexible way of integrating the essence of art of the masters, Oriental and Western, and taking from the aspects that are most suitable for the Nanyang (South Seas) region.

– Art of the Young Malayans, 1955.

Lim Hak Tai was a Singapore pioneer artist, the initiator of the Nanyang style of art and Founding Principal of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. An artist-educator who was born in Xiamen, China, he came to Singapore in 1936 to set up the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. For 25 years until his death in 1963, he dedicated himself to the school and its students, enduring many trials in the service of arts education. He created paintings that married Western and Chinese approaches with Singapore content and subjects, and encouraged his peers and students—mostly migrants from China—to create their own responses to their new Southeast Asian environment, giving rise to the Nanyang style.

Lim Hak Tai was born in 1893 in Xiamen, Fujian Province, China. He was an art educator who taught at No. 13 High School in Fujian (Siming High School) from 1915 to 1917 and various Jimei schools from 1918 to 1929. He also co-founded and taught at the Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts in 1923 with Chinese artist Huang Suibi and Yang Gengtang.

In 1936 just before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, Lim accepted educator-philanthropist Tan Kah Kee’s invitation to teach art and mathematics at Chinese High School in Singapore. While here, he connected with other Chinese immigrant artists and raised the possibility of establishing an arts school in Singapore. Some were alumni of art institutions in Shanghai and Xiamen and had banded together in 1935 to form Singapore’s first art organisation, the Society of Chinese Artists.

With the encouragement of his contemporaries and the financial support of Tan See Siang—a Jimei School alumni and philanthropist Tan Kah Kee’s son—the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) was established in 1937. There were already a few private art studios and schools that predated NAFA, but NAFA was the first art school with a diploma course in art education and would come to be the only pre-war art school to have survived the Second World War.

With his experience as an arts educator, Lim was appointed as Founding Principal. He created a curriculum similar to that of his Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts, offering courses in Western art, sculpture and applied arts. In 1937, NAFA commenced classes in rented premises at 167 Geylang Road with only 14 students and four teachers. In 1938 NAFA moved to larger premises at 93 Serangoon Road, which had space for a hostel for teachers and female students. In 1940, four students of the academy became NAFA's first batch of graduates. Besides his duties as principal and Dean of studies, Lim also taught art theory, watercolour and oil painting, and even wrote the lyrics to the school’s anthem.

However, due to inadequate financial support and low student numbers, the school soon became financially strapped and struggled to pay its teachers. But the teachers, dedicated in their passion, stayed on at NAFA and supplemented their income by teaching part-time at secondary schools. Already living modestly, Lim taught at Chinese High School for extra income and began to cover NAFA’s expenses out of his own pocket. Shortly after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident on 7 July 1937 in China, Xiamen fell to the Japanese on 13 May 1938, forcing Lim’s family to flee to Singapore. Tragically, his wife passed away while in transit in Hong Kong. A grief-stricken Lim had then resolved to make a success out of his art school.

In 1942, during the Second World War, Singapore fell to the Japanese, and the school had to be closed. Lim stopped working, kept a low profile and joined the local anti-war effort. During the Japanese Occupation, Lim’s eldest son was taken away by the Japanese secret police one night and never returned. The war ran its course and the Japanese army surrendered in 1945, and Lim reopened NAFA the following year in a new location at 49 St. Thomas Walk.

In China, the end of the war saw the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution. From 1946, Singapore received a fresh wave of Chinese migrants arriving on its shores, including several artists who would play significant roles in Singapore’s artistic development. Like Lim, most had been schooled in Western and Chinese art and were established artists. The college saw additions to its teaching staff, including Cheong Soo Pieng who had been Lim’s student at the Xiamen Academy, Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee and Georgette Chen.

In the ’50s, Lim applied to the Ministry of Education for funding but NAFA was not recognised as a college, and received the same amount of funding as that given to primary schools. To make matters worse, the college’s graduation certificates were not recognised in Singapore and Malaysia. These contributed to dwindling student numbers. For many years, Lim and his staff survived on meagre salaries and threadbare facilities. Fortunately, the school’s years of struggle yielded great intangible reward. The shared hardships bred a great loyalty to and enduring affection for the school and its long-suffering principal, who received regular visits from school alumni. Years later, when NAFA's survival was threatened by the recession in 1973, the alumni would come to its aid, keeping the school going. Through the decades, the school’s staff remained staunchly loyal.

Lim’s artistic vision in the early years of NAFA birthed a new approach to art. A sensitive observer of his new home environment, Lim created many paintings that married Western and Chinese approaches with Singapore content and subjects. Many of his works would come to be irreparably damaged by water years later. But those that survived reveal an artist who sought to portray compelling images of the changing times in Singapore with feeling and purpose.

As an educator, he urged his peers and students—mostly migrants from China—to embark on artistic explorations of Singapore and the region. He encouraged them to create their own responses to their Southeast Asian environment and develop their local cultural sensibilities as Chinese migrants, giving rise to the Nanyang school of painting. Most famously in 1953, he persuaded artist-teachers Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee and Liu Kang to seek inspiration from an excursion to Bali, resulting in works lauded today for their rich expressions of the Nanyang experience.

In 1962, Lim received the Sijil Kemuliaan (Certificate of Honours) from the Singapore government in recognition of his contributions to art in Singapore. He headed a still-struggling Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts until 1963 when he passed away. He was succeeded by his son, Lim Yew Kuan.

Since then, the school has become a recognised educational institution and has grown to become one of the region’s top art institutions. In 2009, as part of NAFA's 70th anniversary celebration and in honour of Founding Principal, Lim Hak Tai, the Academy unveiled a portrait sculpture by his son, Lim Yew Kuan, in conjunction with an exhibition and naming of a gallery—the Lim Hak Tai Gallery.


28 May 1893

Born in Xiamen, China.


Graduated from the Provincial Art Teachers’ Training College, Fuzhou, China.

1915 to 1917

Teacher, No 13 High School (Siming High School), Fujian, China.

1918 to 1929

Art teacher at various Jimei schools in China.


Member, Committee of Art and Cultural Performance Instructors for Jimei schools’ student cultural activities.

1923 to 1936

Co-founder and art teacher, Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts, China. The Academy closed in 1938.


Submitted a proposal to Singapore philanthropist Tan Kah Kee to establish an art academy at Jimei. This led to a plan to establish an art academy in Singapore.


Moved to Singapore.

1936 to 1937

Teacher, The Chinese High School.

1937 to 1963

Founder and principal, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. The Academy opened at 167 Geylang Road.


Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts relocated to 93 Serangoon Road.

1942 to 1945

Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts closed during the Japanese Occupation in the Second World War.


Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts reopened at new location at 49 st Thomas Walk after the end of the Second World War.


Talk Art and Life broadcast over Radio Malaya in Singapore.


Exhibited at the 11th Society of Chinese Artists annual show.


Exhibited at Nanyang Academy of Fine Art's 16th Anniversary.


Participated in group exhibition by Singapore Art Society at the Imperial Institute of London, UK.


Honorary advisor, Equator Art Society, founded by his son Lim Yew Kuan.


Received Sijil Kemuliaan (Certificate of Honour) at Singapore’s first National Day honours ceremony.

14 Feb 1963

Passed away at age 69 in Singapore.


Triple Tribute Memorial, exhibition of paintings by Lim Hak Tai, Tchang Ju Chi and Yong Mun Sen at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Singapore Art Society.


Paintings featured in Pameran Retrospektif Pelukis-pelukis Nanyang (Restrospective of Nanyang Artists), National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


Lim Hak Tai – Father of Nanyang Art exhibition, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


Paintings featured in A Century of Art in Singapore, National Heritage Board, Singapore Art Museum.


Paintings featured in The Birth of Modern Art in South East Asia, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan.


Paintings featured in Nanyang 1950–1965, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan.


Paintings featured in A Heroic Decade: Singapore Art 1955–1965, Singapore Art Museum.


Lim Hak Tai Gallery opened at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Opening exhibition Lim Hak Tai: Quintessential Nanyang, Lim Hak Tai Gallery, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. To commemorate the event, his son Lim Yew Kuan created a life-sized sculpture of Lim that is now displayed permanently at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.


Crossing Visions – Singapore and Xiamen, a Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan exhibition, Xiamen Art Museum, China.


Paintings featured in The Birth and Development of Singapore Art, an exhibition celebrating the partnership between Fukuoka Asian Art Museum and National Art Gallery, Singapore.


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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