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Visual Arts

Tan Kian Por

Tan's distinctive paintings in Chinese brush and ink are known for their crucial and additional interacting elements of calligraphy and Chinese seal-carving.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

A person’s character is very important. You cannot separate your character from your artistry. In the world of the arts, our brains never stop thinking. A person in the office can stop thinking about work once he leaves his office. But as artists, even though we look as if we have a very free lifestyle, we are constantly thinking about our work, about what to do next.

Tan Kian Por was born in 1949 in Chaozhou, China, and moved to Singapore in 1962. His distinctive paintings in Chinese brush and ink are known for their crucial and additional interacting elements of calligraphy and Chinese seal-carving. Tan received the Cultural Medallion for visual arts in 2001, and is represented in the important art collections and galleries across Hong Kong, China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

Growing up in Chaozhou, China, Tan Kian Por was very interested in fine arts. His earliest exposure to visual art came in the form of lianhuantu (连环图) that he encountered growing up in China. These were Chinese cartoon picture books depicting historical and fantastical stories, steeped in Chinese legends, vigilante ethics and chivalry. He would read these picture books regularly, cultivating his love for drawings.

When he moved to Singapore, Tan faced challenges learning a new language—English—as he moved from school to school. But in secondary school, under the guidance of his Chinese-language teacher who was also a calligrapher, Tan rediscovered his love of calligraphy and Chinese painting. His teacher introduced Tan to another teacher of Chinese art from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, an institution that would come to be well-known for grooming a number of artists who created a style of traditional Chinese painting that was distinctively Singaporean. This would prompt Tan to enrol in the academy, nurturing and deepening his involvement with Chinese art.

During his time at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Tan studied and practised Western art, but he soon set any Western art inclinations he had aside to focus on Chinese arts, which he regarded himself to be closer to. To cultivate a deeper understanding of Chinese arts, he, together with fellow students, started a Chinese art appreciation society and served as its chairman. These three years at the academy would be deeply influential on his art, as he immersed himself in the teachings of his mentors.

When he graduated from the academy in 1970, he gathered fellow Chinese art and calligraphy enthusiasts to form the Siaw Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy & Painting Society in 1971. Tan became its president, and would go on serve in this role for the next 30-odd years. For the next few years, he would make his living by spray-painting carpets and moulding fibreglass basins in factories in Jurong. But as his artistic career took off in the later half of the 1970s, he built up a solid reputation in Chinese ink and brush work, largely through his innovative use of both hyper-realist as well as abstract expressionist features.

The themes Tan worked on range from traditional flora and fauna to contemporary life among different ethnic communities in Singapore. Some of Tan’s best-known paintings are of worshippers in colourful saris and robed holy men reclining in Sikh temples. He has held solo exhibitions in Australia and Singapore, and also exhibited in Hong Kong and China. In 2001, Tan received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts.

Tan most recently served as an advisor to the Siaw Tao Seal-Carving, Calligraphy and Painting Society. He also lectured at his alma mater, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

On 16 Aug 2019, Tan passed away in Singapore at the age of 70.


26 Nov 1949

Born in Chaozhou, China.


Moved to Singapore. Studied in Guang Yang Primary School and Dunman High School.

1968 to 1970

Enrolled in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.


Founder and President of Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy & Painting Society.


First solo art exhibition in Singapore.

Published Tan Kian Por.


Second solo exhibition Modern Chinese Calligraphy in Melbourne, Australia.


Committee member of Singapore Eastern Painting Selection Committee.


Received National Day Special Art Award, Singapore.

Third solo Exhibition Chinese Brush Painting in Melbourne, Australia.


Fourth and fifth solo art exhibition held in Singapore.


Lecturer of Chinese Brush Painting in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

Participated in the 1st International Seal-Carving Engraving Art exhibition in Hong Kong.

Participated in the 5th Festival of Asian Arts in Singapore.


Sixth solo exhibition in Melbourne, Australia.


Permanent committee member of Korea Chinese Seal-Carving Society.


Received National Day Special Art Award, Singapore.


Seventh solo art exhibition at National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore

Published The Arts of Tan Kian Por.


Permanent committee member of the Xiling Art Society (China).


Received Calligraphy Award by Tan Keng Cheow.

Ninth solo Art Exhibition in Singapore.

Published Tan Kian Por: Chinese Brush Paintings Calligraphy and Seal Carving Exhibition.


Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts.


Published The Art of Tan Kian Por.

Art Advisor of the Canadian Art Council, USA.


Received Contribution Award by the Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy and Painting Society.


Published The Journey of the Heart by Tan Kian Por.


Published Chinese Seal Carving by Tan Kian Por.

16 Aug 2019

Passed away at age 70 in 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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