Tribute to a Visionary Virtuoso

John Lee Joo-for: Born Penang , Malaysia, August 25, 1929; Died Melbourne, Australia, June 11, 2017.

John Lee Joo-for, one of the greatest acts in post-Independence Malaysian art and Australian Biblical stage theatre, has died. He breathed his last on June 11 in his Melbourne home after an intense two-month battle with cancer. He was 88.

John Lee Joo-for

He is survived by his five children, all professionals – son Jude, and daughters Francesca, Geraldine, Jeanette and Micheline.

Sharp and suave with a brilliant intellectual conceit, Joo-for lit up the visual art, theatre and literary scenes with his mock-bejewelled Oriento-Byzantine art fusion (after the mosaics of St Mark’s in Venice, Italy) in the latter half of 1960s at the same time of the incendiary fervour of Lati Mohidin’s Pago-Pago series, while also sidewinding into theatre with a prolific razzmatazz of more than 30 plays aired (RTM Playhouse on Sunday afternoons) and staged in Malaysia, Australia and New York.

It was a bonfire of the vanities when early on, his Son of Zen was staged off-off Broadway at the Hatch-Billops Studio Players in New York, on February 2, 1969.

He was on a murderous adrenalin binge: he wrote, performed, directed and produced his plays. He was adjudged the national Best Playwright (for plays in English) for three consecutive years, namely for An Explosion and Four Left (1969), Nero Has Arisen in Malaysia (1970), and The Very Modern Girl (1971). His creative Viagra was pioneering Malaysian theatre (in English) folklore. The Happening in the Bungalow; The Disappearance; The Barefoot Neighbour; The Flood (with a staged version in Bahasa Malaysia, Banjir); When The Setting Sun Sits on the Branches of the Jambu Tree... He was irrepressible, inexhaustible, incorrigible.

Apart from Son of Zen, there was The Propitious Kidnapping of the Cultured Daughter (1978), a spinoff from the Patty Hearst saga, which was staged in Australia (Melbourne and Sydney) and Malaysia (Penang and KL). He had migrated to Australia in 1973, officially accorded Australian citizenship in 1975, but only losing his Malaysian citizenship on November 12, 1984.

He lived by his mantra of creativity: “Art should be felt, cried over, laughed over and enthused over.” Given all the humanism in John Lee Joo-for’s art, his is the Life of art, and the Art of life.

The New Sunday Times drama critic Utih, a.k.a. Datuk Krishen Jit, wrote: “Some four years ago, he left for Australia and in retrospect, he took with him the extraordinary drive and energy that, for a while, made local English language drama a going concern. If not the best of a small pile of playwrights, he certainly made the greatest impact on the short-lived scene.”

He was the Angry Young Man, the enfant terrible, both a consummate and complete Artist and a literary vanguard. Apart from plays, his literary accomplishments included poetry, short-stories and later Down-Under, a musical opera, When Confucius Sings; his first novel, Twenty Seven Days Has February, and another, Sara&Sanjiro, co-written with his son-in-law Stephen Gray; and a hugely successful musical called Call of Guadalupe staged in Australia and the Philippines, with Peter Foster as musical composer and conductor.

Showman and pontificator, brash and cavalier, articulate and cogent!

His art repertoire included paintings, watercolours, oil, batik, tapestry, cartoons, ceramic, calligraphy; lithography, etchings, linocut, monotype, woodcut, serigraph; and sculpture – murals and 3D plaster of Paris.

He was born in Penang in 1929 to a family of 11 children. Joo-for’s name meant “Propitious Fire”, which was a challenge to live up to.

His art groundings were in the best of British traditions – Brighton College of Art, Camberwell School of Art (National Diploma of Design) and the elitist Royal College of Art, where his mentors included Graham Sutherland and the novelist Iris Murdoch.

Ever the mover, he was also in the thick of activism, being at various times the secretary of the Penang Art Teachers Council (later “Circle”), a founding member of the Thursday Art Group, and co-founder with Yeoh Jin Leng and the late Ismail Zain of the Malayan Art Circle in London.

He illustrated a self- made book on his London sojourn in Study Leave Abroad 1957-58, while a painting from his Kabuki series was used as cover for the book, Cries From the Heart: Stories From Around The World (Oxford Bookworms) retold by Jennifer Bassett. His looks and drama background probably earned him bit-part roles in several Hollywood movies – Lord Jim (1965), Summer Holiday (1963), Satan Never Sleeps (1962) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960).


He had taught, at various times, Art History and Philosophy, and Art and Drama, at St Xavier’s Institution and Penang Free School in Penang; the Specialist Teachers Training Institute and Universiti Malaya in KL; and Caulfield Institute of Technology (now Monash University) and Institute of Catholic Education (now Catholic University) in Melbourne.

Although his past was “tumultuous” (his own epithet) enough, he had lived through the Japanese Occupation, the Emergency and the May 13, 1969 internecine riots, two times riddled with life-threatening moments.

His first one-man shows at the British Council in Penang Library and USIS, Penang, in 1958, were ordinary enough.

But then, in July 1966 he unleashed his Metaphysical works (Yin and Yang, Genesis, Physique and Metaphysics, and Significant Encounter) under the cryptic Oriento- Byzantine banner, featuring 33 oil paintings, 25 prints, a set of ceramic paintings (Eight Windows In Abstraction) priced at RM1,200. Organised by the Arts Council Malaysia, it was held at the Balai Ampang, AIA Building, KL. The council also supported his 1964 solo at the Selangor Club, which included three metal sculptures.

Lee Joo For – Romance of Country Life, 1968 [45cm x 90cm TBC] woodcut.

In Contemporary Art of Malaysia, Dolores Wharton dubbed him “a graphic artist of outstanding skill and creative ability.”

Tengku Zubaidah Tengku Abu Bakar a.k.a. “Bintang” wrote: “He is everything by turn and fluctuates between intellectualism and sensualism. His paintings contain illogical hieroglyphics and sometimes obvious, sometimes irrelevant symbols, but in spite of some structural weaknesses, the heavy patina of colours is like the reflections caught in the fleeting moment of the bubble’s life. The recurring symbols sometimes decorative and effusive are a search toward finding the essence of things.”

He was commissioned to paint portraits of Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, then deputy prime minister, and wife Toh Puan Rahah, and Tuanku Syed Putra ibni Almarhum Sir Syed Hassan Jamalullail, the third Yang di-Pertuan Agong and sixth Raja of Perlis.

The Art Gallery (Penang)’s decision in giving him a Retrospective, “Lee Joo-for: 1957-1995” in 1995, was vindicated when the Penang State Art Gallery accorded him the same but bigger honours in 2008.

His detractors had thought that Joo-for had burnt out when in Australia. It was on the contrary, as his major Bible-centric plays and paintings had shown. While he was also busy teaching and retiring only in 1989, he was also taking theatre to the masses with evangelical zeal – to the streets, prisons, drug rehabilitation centres, mental hospitals and shopping malls. A Charismatic Catholic since 1976, he became a born again Christian after recovering from a mild stroke in 1981.

Portrait of the sixth Raja of Perlis.

He was also broken by the untimely death of his wife, Teresa Lean, who succumbed to cancer in October 2003.

He confided to having initially written seven plays, but burning five of them, including one called What Happened If Japan Conquered Australia, as he embraced more “conservative” values and found what he had written “too sensual, too violent, and too full of hatred.”

His artworks are all in the midst of struggles, a drama in itself, susceptible to change and allowing for self-analysis. They are replete with strong symbolisms, some with ecclesiastical fervour. The Transparent Man and the Nubile Woman, a few in an hour-glass crucible, reflecting strength and vulnerability, power and weakness of the flesh. The freedom of the bird, the virility of the horse (an interesting theme for one with a great aversion to horses) and the aggression of the bull, and with all the attendant associations of horse-riding. The “Ren” (Man) is always enmeshed in the thick forest of undecipherable hieroglyphics.

Consonant with Catholic beliefs, it runs the gamut of anti-abortion and euthanasia, and the family institution is sacrosanct.

When I was embedded with him for a week in his Melbourne home to work on the monograph of his Retrospective given by the Penang State Art Gallery in 2008, I glimpsed how his mind and soul worked with such admirable alacrity when conjuring up the alfresco Passion Play in the rambling Ruffey Lake Park in Doncaster. He had intoned: “Directing it is like running a ship, and a big one at that.”

He lived by his mantra of creativity: “Art should be felt, cried over, laughed over and enthused over.” Given all the humanism in John Lee Joo-for’s art, his is the Life of art, and the Art of life.


Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary ‘movel’ (a novel conceived as a mock movie) fantasy spun from a local legend.

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