Tracing the Foreign Channel and Influence: Cheong Soo Pieng and Modern Art in Singapore

Anissa InterventionTracing the Foreign Channel and Influence: Cheong Soo Pieng and Modern Art in Singapore
A curatorial intervention by Anissa Rahadiningtyas, Ph.D. student, History of Art

This project showcases a painting titled Malay Fishing Village (1957/8) by Cheong Soo Pieng in the Chinese Painting Gallery at the Johnson Museum, juxtaposing it with paintings of Chinese artists from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onwards. The presence of Malay Fishing Village amongst the selection of Chinese landscape paintings in the Chinese paintings gallery of the Johnson Museum will hopefully show the different trajectory as well as the continuity of the development of modern art in Singapore from the tradition of Chinese landscape painting. This project aims to reestablish the connection of the development modern art in Southeast Asia, tracing its genealogies and influence, not only from the Western modernism, but most importantly from the Chinese ink painting tradition, which disseminated with the wave of migration from Southern China to Southeast Asia.

Cheong Soo Pieng is widely recognized by numerous art practitioners and art historians of Southeast Asia as the driving force behind the development of modern art in Singapore. Art historian T.K. Sabapathy regards his presence to be very significant in the formative period of Singaporean modern art.[1] Another prominent figure, Choy Weng Yang, a former curator at Singapore’s National Museum Art Gallery, describes Cheong Soo Pieng as the dynamic trendsetter with his persistent exploration and innovation in visual language in order to form and express the particularity of Southeast Asia through his paintings.[2] In a book and catalogue on Cheong Soo Pieng’s life and works, Seng Yu Jin claims that Cheong Soo Pieng’s depictions of Singapore and Southeast Asia through his use of both traditional Chinese ink painting and Western oil painting is considered to be a pioneer and never been explored before.[3]

Cheong Soo Pieng is not originally from Singapore or other parts of Southeast Asia. He is part of the continuing Chinese diaspora who has been migrating to Southeast Asia roughly since the second half of the first millennia. Cheong Soo Pieng left China and decided to settle in Singapore in 1946, a year after the destructive Sino-Japanese war ended. He was born in 1917 in Xiamen of Fujian province in China. Xiamen, also known as Amoy, is generally known as the ancestral home of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. The port of Xiamen is one of the most important ports in mainland China which served the thriving seaborne trade and shipment from China to Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. Some of the earlier generations of overseas Chinese which date back at least prior to the tenth century departed from this port to engage in trade with kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Some of the travelers and merchants returned to China, but some of them stayed and established new settlements in various parts of Southeast China. The wave of migration was increased especially after the ban of private trading was imposed by the Ming dynasty in the fourteenth century, causing the private traders to emigrate out of China in order to continue their trade and avoid the severe punishment that was imposed by the government.[4]

Cheong Soo Pieng was raised in a family with an affinity to painting and calligraphy who fully supported his career and education in art. In 1933, Cheong Soo Pieng decided to enroll at the Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts and train under Lim Hak Tai, another important figure in the formative period of the modern art academy in Singapore. The Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts was established in 1923 by Huang Suibi, Yang Gengtang, and Lim Hak Tai, and according to Seng Yu Jin, was a product of the 1919 May Fourth Movement.[5] After he graduated in 1935, Cheong Soo Pieng moved to Shanghai and continued his study at the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts, one of the schools that incorporated Western art training beside the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, which was established by Liu Haisu. However, the advent of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 caused Cheong Soo Pieng’s artistic training to stop abruptly as the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts was destroyed by the Japanese air raids. The situation forced Soo Pieng to return to his hometown and teach at Yi Zhong School from 1939 to 1943.[6]

The constant social and political turbulence that swept across China did not stop even after the surrender of the Japanese in 1945. In addition, prior to the Sino-Japanese War, China was already engulfed in a civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang, which started in 1927 and continued until 1950.[7] This situation was one of the factors that drove Cheong Soo Pieng to emigrate out of mainland China in late 1945 in order to avoid being conscripted in a civil war for either side.[8] Another decisive factor in Soo Pieng’s decision was also the invitation from his former teacher at the Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts, Lim Hak Tai, to teach at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) – a newly established art academy in Singapore, which was founded in 1938. Lim Hak Tai, a native Fujian, was one of the founders of this school who migrated to Singapore early in 1937 at the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War.

According to Redza Piyadasa, “Lim Hak Tai was the man who gave the Academy (NAFA) its direction. He always suggested to the staff and to the students that the subject matter in their works should reflect the reality of the South Seas. He emphasized that our work should depict the localness of the place we live in.”[9] Lim Hak Tai’s idea set the ground for the development of the Nanyang Style, an emphasis to depict the particularity of Southeast Asia in order to find a regional artistic identity that sets the style apart from the Chinese classical tradition. Having studied under Lim Hak Tai since his first year at the Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts, we could see the influence of Lim Hak Tai’s concept and principle in Cheong Soo Pieng’s artistic practice.

Most of the teachers who were recruited to teach at NAFA had a strong tie to Xiamen or Shanghai; most of them were graduates from either Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts or Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts. A year after Cheong Soo Pieng arrived in Singapore; he was recruited as teacher and was provided with lodgings and a studio at NAFA by Lim Hak Tai. In his first few years in Singapore, aside from teaching, Cheong Soo Pieng continued to produce artworks. Most of his early works were woodcut print and sketch drawings, capturing the new reality of everyday life he encountered in Southeast Asia, such as the hawkers, barbers, fishermen mending their nets; people in their leisure activities: resting, playing music; as well as the architecture of Singapore: the houses, buildings, and many others.

Throughout his career, as noted by Seng Yu Jin and Grace Tng, Cheong Soo Pieng continued to explore his training in both Chinese ink painting as well as Western technique and pictorial tradition.[10] In 1991, T.K. Sabapathy wrote an article on Cheong Soo Pieng in The Strait Times, highlighting Soo Pieng’s works that specifically amalgamated the long tradition of delicacy and craftsmanship of the East, the influence of the West, and most importantly, the locality of Southeast Asia, as seen in the work titled Malay Fishing Village, which is now in the collection of the Herbert Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University (fig. 1). Sabapathy highly praised these works for Soo Pieng’s innovation, which started probably “in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, when easel and scroll pictures were amalgamated to create both daring and remarkable pictorial structures.”[11]

Cheong Soo Pieng, “Malay Fishing Village” (1957/8) 22 1/2 x 43 in. (57.2 x 109.2 cm). Ink and colors on rice paper. Johnson Museum of Art, Accession number: 99.074.002

Figure 1: Cheong Soo Pieng, “Malay Fishing Village” (1957/8)
22 1/2 x 43 in. (57.2 x 109.2 cm). Ink and colors on rice paper. Johnson Museum of Art, Accession number: 99.074.002

It is this arresting visual representation as well as its unusual technique and method that attracted me almost instantly to Malay Fishing Village, painted by Soo Pieng in the late 1950s. The museum puts the dates on this painting in 1957 or 1958. If we compare it to other Soo Pieng’s paintings which employ similar techniques and media as in the painting titled Untitled (Kelong Scene) (1961) (fig. 2), which is more developed and well executed, Malay Fishing Village seems to show Soo Pieng’s early experimentation and incorporation of Southeast Asian particularities into his previous trainings and influences.

Cheong Soo Pieng, “Untitled (Kelong Scene)” (1961) 91,9 x 44,6 cm. Ink and colors on paper. Collection of NHB (Source: Cheong Soo Pieng: Visions of Southeast Asia, plate 242).

Figure 2: Cheong Soo Pieng, Untitled (Kelong Scene) (1961)
91,9 x 44,6 cm. Ink and colors on paper.
Collection of NHB
(Source: Cheong Soo Pieng: Visions of Southeast Asia, plate 242).

Malay Fishing Village was painted with ink and colors on a 57.2 x 109.2 cm rice paper with horizontal format. It is surrounded by a light-colored wooden frame. Overall, the composition of this painting emphasizes its horizontality with a long thin brush line signifying a river in the foreground of the painting, rows of stilted houses in the middle ground, and a horizon in the background. Cheong Soo Pieng utilized the structure of the houses, the electric tower, the lamp post, the trees, and the cloth hanger to balance his composition. He drew his figures in a simplistic outline with no discernible face. Although his depiction of the clothes, the songkok or the hat that the men use, and the shape of the women’s hair that resembles a bun as well as their sarong, seem like a simplification or generalization of the realities of Malay people, all of these inform the viewer of the supposed identity of his subject matter.

His brushstrokes are almost sketch-like and rough. It has an unfinished and raw quality, especially from the dry brush technique and ink washes inside his thick and thin outlines. Interestingly in several spots, we can see the colored squares in red, blue, and grey juxtaposed strategically within the painting, providing an interesting contrast and cubistic nuances to the typical monochromatic Chinese ink landscapes. Besides those few colored squares; most of the squares were black and white, some of them were just outlines. His visual strategy made the transition from the Chinese landscape painting into cubist painting seems to flow naturally. As a result, the cubistic elements in this painting look both prominent yet subtle at the same time.

By juxtaposing this painting in the Chinese Paintings Gallery at the Herbert Johnson Museum with the collection of Chinese landscape paintings displayed, I intend to compare these paintings and unpack the differences and similarities based on the visual representation and trace the visual traditions and influences that shape their practice. I am also interested in looking at the movement of ideas as well as tradition from one place to another. As mentioned earlier, this painting reveals several historicities: traces of Chinese landscape and ink painting tradition; the encounter and absorption of Western technique and colors in mainland China, especially in Shanghai in the mid-twentieth century; and the movement and migration of the artist from mainland China to Southeast Asia and his fascination towards the South Seas.

Furthermore, I intend to look and explore several issues on the development of modern art in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore, and its particular close connection with the development of modern art in mainland China, especially southern Chinese cities such as Xiamen and Shanghai where most of the Chinese population in Southeast Asia comes from. However, I would like to emphasize that the Chinese connection and influence did not occur at the same degree in any other Southeast Asian nations, especially if we compare it to modern art in Indonesia, Thailand and Philippine. In the case of Indonesia, although Chinese artistic influence and practices were evident, they were mostly confined within the Chinese diasporic group. The divisive policy enforced by the Dutch to separate the Chinese as ‘Foreign Orientals’ above the native in the racial hierarchy resulted in a lasting perception of the Chinese as ‘Other’[12] and their exclusion from Indonesian modern history. Furthermore, the artistic practices and influence in Indonesia, as well as in Philippine and Thailand, were shaped mainly by Western modernism brought by their colonizers (except for Thailand since it was never subjected to foreign powers). Modern art in Singapore represents a particular historical process different than the other Southeast Asian nations and, therefore, it is crucial to see the determinant forces behind it.

Cheong Soo Pieng: Between Chinese Landscape Paintings, Cubism, and the Nanyang Style
The presence of Cheong Soo Pieng’s painting, “Malay Fishing Village,” amongst the selection of Chinese landscape paintings in the Chinese paintings gallery of the Johnson Museum will hopefully show a different trajectory as well as continuity of the development of modern art in Singapore from the tradition of Chinese landscape painting. Landscape painting is one of the most important themes in Chinese painting tradition. Many literati painters – painters who devoted their life in the search of true knowledge through aesthetic creation and contemplation – chose landscape painting to represent an ideal way of life of a scholar, to escape hardship and turbulent times, to convey politically subversive messages in a subtle way, and to symbolically represent the internal struggles of the mind and the soul.

Figure 3: Cheng Shisui, “River Crossing in Winter” (17th century) 81 3/4 x 37 5/8 in. (207.6 x 95.5 cm). Hanging scroll: Ink and white pigment on silk. Herbert F. Johnson Museum Collection Accession number: 2002.173.001

Figure 3: Cheng Shisui, “River Crossing in Winter” (17th century)
81 3/4 x 37 5/8 in. (207.6 x 95.5 cm). Hanging scroll: Ink/white pigment on silk.
Herbert F. Johnson Museum Collection
Accession number: 2002.173.001

Most of the paintings on display in this gallery are landscape painting, from a hanging scroll painting by Yang Xun who died in the sixteenth century, a hand scroll painting by Xiao Yincong who lived at the turn of the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, Chang Shisui’s hanging scroll which is dated from the seventeenth century, to hanging scrolls and paintings produced in the twentieth century by Liu Haisu, Zhang Daqian, and Xubing. Earlier paintings by Yang Xun titled “Woodcutter in Winter Mountains”, Xiao Yincong’s “Rivers and Mountains”, and Chang Shisui’s “River Crossing in Winter” (Fig. 3), show the early predilection of landscape painting. All of the paintings are painted from a bird eye point of view in order to capture even the farthest details on the horizon. As we can see from the hanging scroll paintings, the painters use a river or a pathway as a passage for the viewer to engage into the painters’ journey and longing for an ideal landscape from the bottom of the painting. The visual elements of the paintings invite our gaze and imagination to walk through the woods, passing the sequence of trees and secluded dwellings, up to the mountain before vanishing into a horizon in the upper part of the painting. Handscroll painting also employ similar visual strategies with slightly different method. Instead from the bottom to the upper part of the painting, we are directed to peruse the paintings from the left to the right. As we open the scroll slowly and move our eyes from left to right, we will engage with the painting as if we were flowing with the river passing the houses with a family inside that we encounter along the way, as well as the deep forest, the bridges, the big trees, the mountains, and the waterfalls.

If we move to the paintings produced in the twentieth century, such as Liu Haisu’s Landscape (Fig. 4) painted in 1927, Zhang Daqian’s Landscape with Rocks and Willows (Fig. 5) which was painted ca. 1950, and Xubing’s A Great River woodblock print produced in 1986, we can see a difference in how the painters depicted and approached the landscape. Zhang Daqian’s hanging scroll painting still bears a similitude to the older paintings. But note that the distance is getting closer and the complexity of the details of the landscape (the dwellings and the trees) are more simplified except for the awkward protruding rock that dominates the central area of the composition. It suggests that the landscape is not based on a real landscape but perhaps from an imagined landscape, which functions a symbolic way to express his anxiety of having to leave China after the victory of the Communist Party in 1950.

Figure 4: Liu Haisu, “Landscape” (1927) 37 1/4 x 17 1/2 in. (94.6 x 44.5 cm). Hanging scroll: Ink on paper. Herbert F. Johnson Museum Collection Accession number: 2000.136.003

Figure 4: Liu Haisu, “Landscape” (1927)
37 1/4 x 17 1/2 in. (94.6 x 44.5 cm). Hanging scroll: Ink on paper.
Herbert F. Johnson Museum Collection
Accession number: 2000.136.003


Figure 5: Zhang Daqian, “Landscape with rocks and willows” (ca. 1950) 40 x 15 5/8 in. (101.6 x 39.7 cm). Hanging scroll: Ink and colors on paper. Herbert F. Johnson Museum Collection Accession number: 81.112.00

Liu Haisu painted his Landscape during one of his sojourns in Japan. After China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894, many Chinese intellectuals began to look toward Japan as a better role model of a modern art instead of the West although Japan also derived its development from Western modern art influence.[13] However, there were also wave of students who decided to study overseas in Europe and the U.S during this period. Consequently, the stream of young artists returning back to China from Japan or the West brought fundamental effect upon cities, school and institutions because they “constituted a crucial force for historic innovation.”[14] This effect can be seen in the invention of the term ‘fine arts’ or ‘meishu’ in China which was borrowed from the Japanese term, ‘bijutsu.’[15] In addition, these new stream of artists also changed the way people in China looked at Western art and painting as starting from the early twentieth century, “people saw pictures painted by Chinese artists, using Western expressive language, that were more directly relevant and accessible to their understanding.”[16] Xubing represents the most recent generation of Chinese artists who still keep his connection to the tradition of landscape painting. His woodcut print is a further abstraction of the traditional elements in Chinese landscape painting; a river, trees and hills. The artwork is focused in capturing the essence of a great river by dividing his composition only into the flowing river and the landmass in the upper and lower part of the river. Liu Haisu also painted his landscape in a closer distance with the trees framing the foreground with the small rocks, the river, the scholar depicted in the middle ground with thin brush line, and the houses in the back. We can also trace the use of perspective in this painting, indicating the painter’s knowledge of the Western technique. All of these paintings, despite their departure from the traditional landscape painting, still show the continued affinity of the subject matter.

The May Fourth Movement which took place in 1919,[17] according to several scholars, is also important in promoting Western thoughts and Western art practice in China. Many art schools established in China were based on the spirit of the movement by including Western painting together with Chinese ink painting in their main curriculum, as practiced by the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts and the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai. Shanghai constitutes to be an important ground for hybrid culture between the Chinese and the West since its opening as an international port after the Nanjing Treaty of 1842. Its characteristic as a port city shaped the artistic practice in Shanghai where advance of commercialization and urbanization had changed the live of the literati painters as new painters’ groups and cultural associations that promoted the professionalization of painters began to flourish.[18] In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, subject matter of Chinese paintings in Shanghai began to evolve into a more true-to-life reportorial pictures, using Western perspective and coloring techniques.

One of the noteworthy similarities between Zhang Daqian, Liu Haisu and Cheong Soo Pieng, who embraced Western ideas and artistic practices, is also their connection to Shanghai at some points of their life and career before they embarked on their overseas journey. Aside from Zhang Daqian who studied calligraphy and traditional ink painting in Shanghai in 1919 under Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing, both Liu Haisu and Cheong Soo Pieng are the products of the modern art academy which focused on the teaching of Western art painting.[19] However, if Liu Haisu’s works are inspired by impressionism and post-impressionism, Cheong Soo Pieng’s paintings, as we can see from the “Malay Fishing Village” are leaning toward cubism and fauvism from his training at the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts.

Furthermore, similar to Zhang Daqian, Liu Haisu, and Xubing, Cheong Soo Pieng’s “Malay Fishing Village” still keeps its connection to the traditional elements often depicted in the traditional Chinese landscape painting and the Western artistic influence that swept across China. The river is painted at the bottom of the composition with several figures – men and women – engaging in various activities at the bank of the river. The rows of dwelling are painted in the middle ground, and the trees and the horizon fill the upper part of the painting. The colors and the cubistic nuances are the evidence of Soo Pieng’s knowledge and exploration in Western artistic practice. However, Soo Pieng’s embracement into the themes and images of the life and landscape of Southeast Asia shows a significant change and departure compared to the paintings by Liu Haisu, Zhang Daqian, or Xubing.

Commenting on Soo Pieng’s paintings which employ cubism, Choy Weng Yang, a former curator at Singapore’s National Museum Art Gallery, remarks “Cubism in Soo Pieng’s works existed only in spirit. For they were sharply different from the works of Picasso, Braque or the other prominent exponent of Cubism. His new works convey not the startling intellectualism of the Cubists but his own exhilaration, of his own exciting and fresh responses to the exuberance of the tropical Singaporean habitat in contrast to Amoy and even Shanghai.”[20] According to Seng Yu Jin, Soo Pieng’s experimentation in Cubism intensified after his arrival in Singapore in 1946 as an effort to “resolve the artistic problem of representing space on a two-dimensional flat plane.”[21] His initial experiment manifested in the distortion of figurative forms, as evident in his Malay Woman (1950) (Fig. 6), and the creation of ambiguous spaces from multiple viewpoints in his landscape before he moved toward the experimentation of pictorial formats of Chinese ink paintings, such as the hanging and the handscroll formats.

Figure 6. Cheong Soo Pieng, “Malay Woman” (1950) 49 x 39 cm. Pencil on paper. Collection of NHB (Source:

Figure 6. Cheong Soo Pieng, “Malay Woman” (1950)
49 x 39 cm. Pencil on paper.
Collection of NHB

It is these particular experimentations which produce works such as Malay Fishing Village. In this experimentation, Soo Pieng challenged the Chinese handscroll pictorial format, which is meant to be viewed slowly as one unrolls the scroll from right to left by allowing the viewer to see the entire painting at once, eliminating both the starting and the ending point of the traditional format.[22] To highlight the significance of this experimentation in Soo Pieng’s artistic oeuvre, Yu Jin writes, “The combination of the Chinese hanging scroll format (and handscroll) and Euro-American notions of color theory and composition in the grid to denote space, and applied on local subject – the kelong – marks an important aspect of Soo Pieng’s contribution to the Nanyang Style.”[23]

Chinese Migration and Networks in the Formation of Modern Singapore
The history of modern art in Singapore is generally shaped by regional and global forces, namely the diaspora community, especially from China, and the British colonial occupation. The Chinese population in Singapore constitutes the largest diasporic group of more than 70% of the population, while Malay (14%), Indian and Tamil (8%) peoplesmake up the rest of the population.[24] Singapore is the only country in Southeast Asia where the Chinese population essentially dominates the land. It is hard to say that there were indigenous groups who inhabited the island before. The history of pre-colonial Singapore is not very clear since there is only limited documentation produced mostly by travelling Chinese merchants and European seafarers. Abshire writes that some evidence referencing Singapore is from the seventh century when the area of Straits of Melaka was controlled by Srivijaya kingdom, which was centered in Palembang on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Singapore is referenced as Temasek, an island which was primarily used as a meeting point for traders, rather than as a port.[25] Its strategic location in the Straits of Malaka within the trade route from China to India and beyond makes Temasek or Singapore a perfect transit point.

In 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a strategic new port city that accommodated the flow of free trade and shipments in Southeast Asia under the authority of the British colonial government who occupied most of the Malaya Peninsula. The Chinese who already settled for generations in Singapore – known as the Straits Chinese – played a significant role as intermediaries between the British/European traders with other Chinese merchants from the mainland China as well as with other indigenous archipelago traders, such as the Bugis and the Malay. They also professed political loyalty to the British Crown and were culturally influenced by British, Malay, and Chinese traditions.[26] The Chinese in Singapore and Malaya also kept their close connection and network with their friends and families in mainland, and often encouraged them to join the settlement in Singapore. The close connection and interdependency of the mainland Chinese and the Straits Chinese is evident in the cultural arena as well. During the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War and prior to the World War II, prominent Chinese artists including Xu Beihong, the Lingnan artists He Xiangni, Gao Jianfu, Yang Shanshen, and Liu Haisu visited Singapore to raise funds for China to support the war through selling their artworks in Singapore.[27] Their visit and exhibitions in Singapore must present a significant influence over the development of modern art in Singapore.

The Emergence of Modern Art Initiatives and Collectives in Singapore, 1900 – 1960s
The emergence of modern art in Singapore initially is made possible both by the Straits Chinese and the Chinese immigrants who established several artists’ groups and associations. Even though there were British artists who worked in lived in Singapore at that time, such as Richard Walker, their significance is overshadowed by the Chinese artists. These artists’ groups and associations, although they had different characteristics, were very important in developing ideas and art practices prior to the establishment of the art academy. This situation is eminent also in Indonesia where the artists’ group PERSAGI (Persatuan Guru Gambar Indonesia – The Association of Art Teachers of Indonesia) is considered to be the first association that promoted the essence of modern art. The establishment of the Amateur Drawing Association in 1909 is considered to be the starting point in the writing of art history of modern art in Singapore although its activities then became diluted with the expansion of gymnastics and social activities. The Amateur Drawing Association suggests a social network of art enthusiasts who were associated with the Straits Chinese and British Elite.[28]

Meanwhile, The United Artists Malaysia, an art society established in 1929 by mostly Chinese immigrants, had a vision to promote Chinese ink painting and calligraphy as an embodiment of Chinese culture to a migrant society “that was thought to be lacking in cultural enrichment.”[29] The first generation of Chinese migrants usually came from a merchant family or lower economic class who did not possess or could not care less for a cultural refinement. During the period of the 1920s and 1930s, however, art activities in Singapore were flourishing as numbers of art associations were established and active during this period, such as Nan Sing Arts Association, Nanyang Journalistic Caricature Association, and The Society of Chinese Artists.

The Society of Chinese Artists, which was established in 1935 and marked the beginning of art institutions in Singapore, constituted another aesthetic orientation that was different compared to the United Artists Malaysia. Its members were more influenced by the idioms and expression of Western art and driven by the 1919 May Fourth Movement in mainland China. Most of its members were alumni of Shanghainese art academies: The Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University of Art and Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts. According to Kwok Kian Chow, this association and its new aesthetic would form the foundation of art in Singapore in the 1930s and 1940s, “the preamble to the Nanyang School of the 1950s.”[30] Another pillar of the development of Singapore art in the 1930s is the establishment of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in 1938 which was founded by Lim Hak Tai. Lim Hak Tai designed the curriculum after the Chinese art academies in Shanghai, incorporating Western painting tradition (Academic Realism and the School of Paris in its Post-impressionist, Symbolist and Fauvist aspects) and the traditional Chinese ink painting.

Initially, the formative period of modern art in Singapore was subjected to the tension between Chinese nationalism and Nanyang regionalism – the conception of the identity of Nanyang or Southeast Asia as a different entity from mainland China[31] It was after the arrival of later Chinese émigré artists including Cheong Soo Pieng and his contemporaries; Liu Kang (graduated from the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts, continued to study in Paris between 1928 and 1933 and was president for the Society of Chinese Artists from 1946-58), Chen Chong Swee (graduated from the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts in 1931, arrived in Singapore in 1946), and Chen Wen Hsi (graduated from both the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts and Xinhua Academy of Fine Art in the late 1920s and early 1930s, arrived in Singapore in 1947, met Liu Kang and Chen Chong Swee at Xinhua), that the formulation of the Nanyang Style began to take shape.

Cheong Soo Pieng’s experimentation with both Chinese and Western pictorial tradition and the integration of the kelong-scapes, in the case of Malay Fishing Village, “reflected conscious attempts made . . . to produce artistic forms reflective of a multi-ethnic cultural milieu and also, to the larger Southeast Asian contexts.”[32] His methods of representation and pictorial structures proved to be consequential for other artists, as noted by Michael Sullivan, a lecturer at the University of Singapore in the 1950s, that “Soo Pieng’s influence on the younger painters of Singapore has been powerful and direct.”[33] In his tribute to Cheong Soo Pieng after his death in 1983, Sabapathy also remarked that “In a narrative encompassing modern artists in Asia, he will secure a formative stature.”[34]

Malay Fishing Village” was painted by Cheong Soo Pieng in 1957/8, eleven or twelve years after he migrated from China and settled in Singapore. It represents his early stage of exploration and experimentation which incorporates his challenge to traditional Chinese ink painting tradition and pictorial format, his engagement with the new aesthetic of the West, and his embracement of the Nanyang locality. His innovation places him as one of the most important figures in the history of modern art in Singapore, especially in the formation period of the Nanyang Style, which shapes the artistic practice of modern art in Singapore.

Modern art in Singapore, however, cannot be sterilized from foreign channels and influence as Singapore itself is made up by migrants, mostly from mainland China. Because of the social and political turbulence that swept across China until the mid-twentieth century, many intellectuals and artists began to emigrate out of the country and settled in Singapore and Southeast Asia in general. Traditions and new ideas between mainland China and Singapore are closely linked and they travel with the network and movement of the people. The connection of origin and shared ideas, as shown in Cheong Soo Pieng’s close link with Lim Hak Tai and with other graduates and alumni from Xiamen and Shanghai, plays a significant part in determining the trajectory of modern art in Singapore.

[1] Yeo Wei Wei, Cheong Soo Pieng: Visions of Southeast Asia. (Singapore: The National Art Gallery, 2010), 16.

[2] Yeo Wei Wei, ibid.

[3] Seng Yu Jin, “The Life of the Artist,” in Cheng Soo Pieng: Visions of Southeast Asia, ed. Yeo Wei Wei et al. (Singapore: The National Art Gallery, 2010), 16.

[4] Wang Gung Wu, “Ming Foreign Relation,” in China and Souheast Asia, ed Geoff Wade et al. (New York: Routledge, 2009), 245-254.

[5] Seng Yu Jin, The Life of the Artist,” 20.

[6] Seng Yu Jin, ibid, 23.

[7] Graham Hutchings, “Modern China: A Guide to a Century of Change,” (Cambridge, Massachusets: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[8] Seng Yu jin and Grace Tng, “Bridging Worlds,” in Cheng Soo Pieng: Visions of Southeast Asia, ed. Yeo Wei Wei et al. (Singapore: The National Art Gallery, 2010), 58.

[9] Seng Yu jin and Grace Tng, “Bridging Worlds,” 57.

[10] Seng Yu Jin and Grace Tng, ibid, 79.

[11] T.K. Sabapathy, “Breaking All the Rules,” The Straits Times, September 26, 1991, 19.

[12] Anthony Reid, “Imperial Alchemy: Nationalism and Political Identity in Southeast Asia,” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 49.

[13] According to Zhang Zhidong, the Western countries are not as good for overseas study as Japan for several reasons. First, “the trip to Japan is shorter and costs are lower, so more students can be sent. Secondly, Japan is nearer, so it is easier to monitor the students. Thirdly, the Japanese written language is closer to Chinese and so more comprehensible. Fourthly, there is profusion of western books, and what is not to the point in western studies has already been omitted or judiciously amended by the Japanese. China and Japan are close in their social conditions and customs, so it is easy to do as they do. To get the maximum results with the minimum effort, there is no better choice.” (Lü Peng and Bruce G. Doar, “A Pocket History of 20th Century Chinese Art,” (New York: Charta), 2010, 108)

[14] Lü Peng and Bruce G. Doar, “A History of 20th Century Chinese Art,” 116

[15] Lü Peng and Bruce G. Doar, ibid, 125.

[16] Lü Peng and Bruce G. Doar, op.cit.

[17] Many Chinese scholars equate the May Fourth Movement and the New Cultural Movement – the Chinese cultural Renaissance, the reforming of Chinese cultural practices in accordance to Western model in order to bring Chinese ideas and thought into direct contact with the contemporary thought of the world. Several scholars, such as Joseph Chen, however argues that the New Cultural Movement had initiated in 1915 and by 1919, it was already in the making. Therefore, Chen refuses the conception of the May Fourth Movement as synonymous to the New Cultural Movement. Chen argues that the May Fourth Movement is essentially a “patriotic protest movement of the Chinese people for direct political action, and in its collaboration with the new cultural ‘thought’ movement, rendered an invaluable service to the final dissolution of old Chinese tradition and the birth of a true Chinese nation.” (Chen, Joseph T. “The May Fourth Movement Redefined.” Modern Asian Studies 4, no. 1 (January 1, 1970): 63–81.)

[18] “After 1919, ink artists faced a totally different social and cultural atmosphere. The momentum of the new cultural movement determined that the Shanghai School’s manner of painting, with its subtle touches of newness, would lose its power and influence and seemingly become a cultural aberration. The Shanghai School’s manner was basically a phenomenon of free play which only became possible as agricultural society began its gradual collapse. The most famous Shanghai painters had not really entered into modern society, in terms of thinking. . . The relative weight of literati taste and urbanite interests depended on each painter’s cultivation and character. Due to the velocity that came with steamships and guns, literati landscapes disappeared rapidly” (Lü Peng and Bruce G. Doar, “A History of 20th Century Chinese Art,” 96)

[19] Liu Haisu went to Shanghai when he was 14 years old to study Western painting. In 1912, together with Wu Shiguang, Wang Yachen, and Ding Song, Liu Haisu founded the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, the first art academy which emphasized the importance of Western art training methods. He promoted the Western method of painting nudes which drew controversy in China. He also emphasized the importance of painting directly from the nature.

[20] Seng Yu Jin and Grace Tng, “Bridging Worlds,” 114.

[21] Seng Yu Jin and Grace Tng, ibid, 113.

[22] In this experimentation, Soo Pieng also challenges the hanging scroll format which emphasizes a space continuum between the foreground, middle ground and background by using the near and far sides as a horizontal axis to frame the picture, allowing the middle ground to hold the entire composition using mainly grid-like lines, as shown in his painting titled “Untitled (Water Kampung Night)” (Seng Yu Jin and Grace Tng, ibid, 120-3).

[23] Seng Yu Jin and Grace Tng, ibid, 123.

[24] Jean Abshire, “The History of Singapore,” (Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood, 2011), 3.

[25] Jean Abshire, ibid, 16-17.

[26] Kwok Kian Chow, ”Channels and Confluence: A History of Singapore Art,” (Singapore: National Heritage Board, Singapore Art Museum), 13.

[27] These artists were often hosted by the eminent architect and artist Ho Kwong Yew whose house in Tanjong Pagar became a focal point of art activities in Singapore during the 1920s and 1930s (Kwok Kian Chow, “Channels and Confluences: A History of Singapore Art,” 27).

[28] Kwok Kian Chow, ibid, 13.

[29] Because the pioneering Chinese migrants who came to Southeast Asia were mostly merchants and mine labors, “In the social-cultural fabric of the Southeast Asian Chinese immigrant society, there was the conspicuous absence of gentry class – the bearer of traditional aesthetic value and the class from which artist would come. This social circumstance brought about a weak presence of traditional Chinese high culture” (Kwok Kian Chow, ibid, 15).

[30] Kwok Kian Chow, ibid, 16.

[31] Kwok Kian Chow, ibid, 8.

[32] Seng Yu jin and Grace Tng, “Bridging Worlds,” 88.

[33] T.K. Sabapathy and K.C. Low, “New Styles from a Turbulent Era,” The Straits Time, August 2, 1983, 1. (, accessed in February 2, 2014, 5:14 pm).

[34] T.K. Sabapathy and K.C. Low, ibid.

Abshire, Jean E. The History of Singapore. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood, 2011.

Chen, Joseph T. The May Fourth Movement in Shanghai; the Making of a Social Movement in Modern China. Leiden: Brill, 1971.

Chen, Joseph T. “The May Fourth Movement Redefined.” Modern Asian Studies 4, no. 1 (January 1, 1970): 63–81.

Cheong, Soo Pieng, and National Museum (Singapore). Cheong Soo Pieng: 1917-1983. Singapore: National Museum of Singapore, 1991.

Chua, Kevin. “On Teaching Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art.” Third Text 25, no. 4 (July 2011): 467–73. doi:10.1080/09528822.2011.587947.

Frost, Mark Ravinder. “Emporium in Imperio: Nanyang Networks and the Straits Chinese in Singapore, 1819-1914.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 36, no. 1 (February 1, 2005): 29–66.

Ho, Lee-Ling, and Ann Gee. Who Is Cheong Soo Pieng?, 2013.

Hutchings, Graham. Modern China: A Guide to a Century of Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Kwok, Kian Chow, Singapore, National Heritage Board, and Singapore Art Museum. Channels & Confluences: A History of Singapore Art. Singapore: National Heritage Board : Singapore Art Museum, 1996.

Lee, Soo Ann. Singapore: From Place to Nation. Singapore: Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2007.

Lü, Peng, and Bruce G Doar. A Pocket History of 20th-Century Chinese Art. Milano; New York: Charta, 2010.

MENKHOFF, Thomas, and Chalmer E. LABIG. “Trading Networks of Chinese Entrepreneurs in Singapore.” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 11, no. 1 (April 1, 1996): 128–51.

Peng, Lu, Bruce Doar, and Fan Jingzhong. A History of Art in 20th Century China. Milano: Charta, 2010.

Reid, Anthony. Imperial Alchemy: Nationalism and Political Identity in Southeast Asia. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Reminiscence of Singapore’s Pioneer Art Masters: Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi : 11 March-22 March 1994. Singapore: Singapore Mint, 1994.

Sabapathy, T.K and K.C. Low. “New Styles from a Turbulent Era”. The Straits Time. August 2, 1983.

Sabapathy, T.K. “Breaking All the Rules”. The Straits Times, September 26, 1991.

Soo Pieng, Singapore, Ministry of Culture, and National Museum Art Gallery (Singapore) National Museum (Singapore). Cheong Soo Pieng Retrospective. Singapore: The Ministry, 1983.

Yeo, Wei-Wei, Yu Jin Seng, Grace Tng, and Singapore National Art Gallery. Cheong Soo Pieng: Visions of Southeast Asia. Singapore: National Art Gallery, 2010.




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