Remembering Yong Mun Sen (Born Kuching, Sarawak, January 10, 1896. Died Penang, September 29,1962)

Often called the "Father of Malaysian Painting", Yong Mun Sen was a fourth-generation Malayan who grew up in Kuching but ended his days in Penang. His many paintings are found in veritable collections throughout the world. Despite his attempts at discouraging his many children to stay away from artistic endeavours, one of his sons, Cheng Wah, became a famous painter in his own right. And it looks like the family talent will move on to another generation.

THE LEGEND OF Yong Mun Sen is one of the most gripping of an art of a people and time in the formative years of Malaya and after.

Painting pioneer (oil, watercolours, Chinese brush, batik, pen and charcoal), sculptor (plaster of Paris, wood-carving), art activist (forming of societies), studio photographer and calligrapher; no wonder Mun Sen is popularly dubbed the "Father of Malaysian Painting:' The ups and downs of his life and art are reminiscent of that of Vincent Van Gogh, the unofficial patron saint of the suffering impecunious artist.

A fourth-generation Malayan born as Yen Lang (he changed his name to Mun Sen in 1922) in Kuching, Sarawak, and educated in China before returning to work in Kuching, then Singapore and Penang, he set the template of the carefree, halcyon days of palm-fringed kampongs, rubber estates and tin mines and also an interesting vignette of ordinary people at work and play.

Much has been written and said about him but strangely, none from the true heir in spirit and substance, his son Cheng Wah (born 1943).

There is one other artist son, Kheng Wah (born 1945), but Cheng Wah, who bears striking resemblance to his father, is closest to matching Mun Sen's great records, and in many ways, his life and art also paralleled his father's, but in different ways.

Mun Sen forbade his 11 children from taking after him, but as Cheng Wah is wont to point out, “It's in the genes:”

Yao Chew Mooi, Mun Sen's second wife after the death of his first wife Lam Sek Foong of a stroke in 1941, was reported to have said, "Despite being an artist, my husband had forbidden him (Cheng Wah) to follow in his footsteps. It was his dying wish that he (Cheng Wah) took up business, and not art:' Yao, as Cheng Wah unwittingly revealed for the first time, was not his real mother but brought him up like her own. Neither is he Sek Foong's son. That would probably explain why he was driven out of the family house in Air Hitam at one point.

“My real mother died during the Japanese Occupation. There were no details about her. My grandmother didn't tell me,” blurts Cheng Wah, but there is an undisguised fondness for Yao, whom he praises for her loyalty, duty and sacrifices.

When Mun Sen died in 19 62 from stomach cancer coupled by a protracted disability caused by a stroke in 1956, Cheng Wah was studying at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) in Singapore. He was in his "third year" (promoted by a year).

Collection: Penang State Art Gallery

“My mother sent me a telegram that my father had died and I returned to Penang by train, never to go back to Singapore to resume my studies.”

Mun Sen died aged 66 in his photo studio cum gallery premises at 166 Penang Road (that section of the building had been demolished and is now just a vacant car park).

“My father suffered for many years. He would scream in anger and there were times he cried in the night from the pain and from the fact that he could not paint," he recalls. "I always marvelled how my mother looked after him and brought us up. There were two shops but one got sold off by my stepbrothers. We also rented out the downstairs section of our shop. Later (1966), I took back the whole shop,” he says.

Cheng Wah remembers he helped supplement the family's meagre income through giving tuition, rearing pigeons and selling quail eggs.

Because his mother insisted, Mun Sen had to take Cheng Wah along on his painting excursions.

“My father was very hot-tempered. We were all terrified of him, especially getting caned by him.

“He wouldn't let me go near him when he was sketching but I spied on him from a distance. Having suffered for his art, he didn't want us to be artists.

“I got to study the paintings left unfinished in the house. He worked very fast, with a quick flurry of strokes. He also wetted all the paper first and hung them up overnight and would only paint on them the next day. He used very good Whiteman paper,” he says.

One man who was very close to Mun Sen was Ah Kow, the trishaw man.

“Ah Kow would take him to wherever he wanted to go, usually to Nature places in Tanjung Bungah and Batu Ferringhi. But when they went to town, I did not get to follow them.

“Ah Kow was also an accomplished photographer, having won several Salon prizes from competitions held in France and Switzerland.

“He was like my father's personal taxi man but he was paid for by (philanthropist cum art collector) Loh Cheng Chuan through a special arrangement.

"My father did a portrait of Loh Chen Chum and also one of Yap Ah Loy. Loh was the biggest collector of Chinese art then and he donated a lot of his priceless works to China. He was a physician (bonesetter) and we used to visit his shop in Kimberly Street. He was an expert kungfu fighter and headed the Ang Teng Hoay (Red Lantern Clan)," he says.

It was with Loh that Mun Sen formed the Penang Art Society in 1953 with Loh as president and Mun Sen as vice-president. Mun Sen also co-founded the Penang Chinese Art Club in 1935 and was its vice-president with Lee Cheng Yong as president.

Cheng Wah believes that all of his father's best works had been collected by institutions and individuals such as Sir Malcolm McDonald, the British Commissioner-General for South-East Asia. Besides Britain, his works were also avidly collected in the us and Australia.

"Every time he (McDonald) came in his battleship, he would drop by to see my father and buy lots of paintings from my father. He even offered to take my father's whole family to London but my father turned him down as he was patriotic and didn't like anyone to control him.

"My father was also a good friend of the great China horse painter Xu Beihong, who gave my father a large horse painting but we lost it. A lot of his own paintings were lost during the Japanese Occupation," he adds.


Kek Lok Si Temple Watercolour on paper 36cm x 53cm

View of George Town from Penang Hill Watercolour on paper 36cm x 53cm

More than the Chinese guan xi (networking relationships), Cheng Wah says that the admiration for him from his peers helped open doors for him when he was studying at Nafa.

"Many artists such as Lim Hak Tai, Cheong Soo-pieng, Chen Wenxi, Georgette Chen and Lim Cheng Hoe helped me a lot because of my father. Hak Tai liked me to massage his shoulders whenever he got aches," he recalls.

Ditto Loh, and also the Cathay cinema magnate-philanthropist and bird photographer Datuk Loke Wan Tho.

"Loke Wan Tho came in his own private jet and bought 20 paintings from me. He wanted to sponsor me to go all over the world to paint, but unfortunately he was killed in a plane crash.

"Brother Joseph McNally (1923-2002) was my art teacher at St Xavier's, and when I did my first solo exhibition, where all the works were sold out, he wrote the foreword for me," he says.

What was Mun Sen's ambition or philosophy in his art?

"I remember him telling my mother that he wanted to paint one painting with just one stroke representing the whole painting. He never lived to do that."

What's the biggest lesson he had learnt from his father, either one-to-one or through watching him?

"My father taught me to be honest with your friends. Until now, I still live by that policy. I may be poor but I am still honest," he adds.

Obviously, Cheng Wah is a chip off the old block right down to being hit by a stroke.

"I can't paint already. I can't hold the brush. My brain on the left side has affected my holding the brush on the right side," Cheng Wah sighs, the slight slur revealing that he has yet to fully recover from his stroke of one year, although he goes for regular physiotherapy in a gym near his house in Tanjung Bungah, and acupuncture at Lam Wah Ee Hospital.

"I think it's genetic. My dad got it and I got it. Luckily, it is not a serious one. It gave me a warning. But still, I can't paint," he says, adding that his practicing meditation since young helps.

"That's life. Buddha said, 'Life is suffering, samsara: It's not easy to get out of samsara."

Cheng Wah has three sons and a daughter from his first wife, now divorced, and two daughters from his second wife.

He revived the Mun Sen Gallery, first briefly at The Garage, Penang, and then in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, taking up two upstairs lots for eight years before he moved to Beijing and Shanghai in China to work in a fast-train project, staying there for another three years.

He had also set up his art business in Hawaii (batik painting and furniture, five years), the Philippines (three years) and Hong Kong (Cheng Wah Art Gallery in the Hong Kong Hotel in Kowloon, three years) before returning to Malaysia to set up a handicraft cum batik business in Teluk Bahang for seven years, and a batik-painting gallery at Leith Street, once an enclave of Taipu Hakka tycoons.

Cheng Wah helped in the negotia-tions when the family tried to sell an entire Mun Sen collection of 148 works belonging to Yao, which had been appraised by London valuers Spink and Son Ltd in 1979 to be worth Rm1.7626mil.

"I don't own any of my father's works," he says matter-of-factly.

"We tried to sell the works to the National Art Gallery (NAG) for only Rmi.smil. Now the works are worth a lot more. A large oil painting measuring four metres by six metres, for instance, could fetch Rmimil."

The paintings did not sell, he claims, because of politics and partly of disputes within the family.

Harvest Oil on canvas 87cm x 107cm

"Tun Tan Siew Sin was interested in buying the whole collection for himself," he adds.

He says the collection had since been broken up with two pieces going to Bank Negara for only Rm200,000 while most were sold to Dr Tan Chong Guan.

Asked to comment on Mun Sen fakes in the market, he says, "In life, these things are bound to happen. There are a lot of unscrupulous people around who want to make some fast money. This is unhealthy, not only for the artists but also for the art market.

"At one time, some people even thought that some, of Mun Sen's paintings were painted by me. If so, I would have been a multi-millionaire by now. I don't have to, as my paintings can sell. These people don't have the mindset to look into the finer points. The brushstrokes and colours are different," he rasps.

"It was the same thing with John Constable (British landscape artist, 1776-1837) who had a son who was also an artist."

Any regrets of becoming an artist?

"I've always wanted to be an artist when young. Now I can't paint anymore. Fame doesn't mean anything to me. Life just goes on. I live now from moment to moment. My life is fading away," he says, adding that he wants to sell off his remaining 60 oil paintings.

"I have also painted three watercolours in abstract just before my stroke," he says.

Now, the Mun Sen genes is showing in his youngest daughter Khoon Mei, i6, who seems adept at painting orchids which could be initially passed off as a Khaw Sia (1913-1984), what more complete with his trademark dewdrops.

"It's a Mun Sen rebirth, a revival. You can't groom anyone to be a genius. It has to be in the genes. One has to love art. Some people can paint their whole life and can't even produce one good painting!" he says.

Would he encourage his daughter to be an artist, knowing the cycle of suffering?

"I can't decide for my children. It's quite genetic, but I hope my (youngest) daughter won't and I don't think she wants to be an artist."

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing about the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.

Footnote: A taunt by artist-critic Redza Piyadasa on Dr Tan Chee Khuan's (now Datuk) repeating a claim of Mun Sen being the Father of Malaysian Painting, led him (Dr Tan) to write the 216-page hardcover book, Social Responsibility In Art Criticism in 1998 in rebuttal.

Seventeen things very few people know about Yong Mun Sen (Extracted from paper clippings in the Straits Times/New Straits Times archives. Note: Some are from other publications)

1. Mun Sen was a fourth-generation Malayan. His great-grandfather Yong Soon Ngo was among the first Chinese settlers in Kuching around the 1840s. He (Soon Ngo) was a Taipu Hakka who started the family fortune in coconut and pepper plantations, a business further developed by his son Woon Chun and grandson Boon Chan

2. It was only in 1930 that Mun Sen switched from pencil and charcoal drawings to the use of watercolours, on which his fame is built. He made some of his oil "brushes" from pounded rattan-cane.

3. His main "sidekick" was his younger brother Yen Koon. He had one other brother and eight sisters.

4. Datuk Tay Hoot Keat (1910-1989) conceded in a newspaper report to learning the finer points of watercolours from Mun Sen, despite him being trained at the Camberwell School of Art (1948-1952) and Mun Sen being self-taught.

5. He was given a Memorial show at Chen Voon Fee's Galeri 11 in Kuala Lumpur in April 1966. An official Memorial show was held in 1972 at the NAG (March) and the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) (September). In 1999, the PSAG gave him a Retrospective (curator: Dr Tan Chong Guan).

6. In the 1940s, Mun Sen's works were acquired for the Royal Academy of Arts and the Launceston Gallery, both in Tasmania.

7. American millionaire W.H. Tandet of Connecticut offered to buy up all his oils and watercolours for the Museum of Modern Art, NewYork. In1941,Tandet invited Mun Sen to visit and paint in the us, but he (Mun Sen) declined because of his love for Penang.

8. Mun Sen painted a portrait of Kapitan Cina Yap Ah Loy (1837-1885) from photographs. No one on record had seen the painting, and its fate is unknown.

9 Mun Sen remarried after Lam Sek Foong died, after bearing him five children. His official second wife, Yao Chew Mooi, who was from the Ipoh family of Yap Swee Lum, a descendant of Yap Ah Loy, bore him another five children.

10. In 1948, Mun Sen was commissioned to do a series of eight paintings for the British Industries Fair that May. The themes were traditional crafts, jungle products, tin mining, rubber industry, sea and river products, minerals, coconut and oil production and other plantation products. But he was only paid a paltry sum of RM250.

11. He pawned his watch for RM15 to put up as down-payment for the rent of his first studio, Tai Koon, in Chulia Street, Penang in 1922 before he shifted to Penang Road and renamed it Mun Sen Studio (1930). Business was so good that he set up another studio from a reconverted mansion at 58 Northam Road (1931).

12. His fortunes greatly suffered in World War II during the Japanese Occupation (1941-1945), when he turned to farming. Also, with fellow pioneer artist Lee Cheng Yong (1913-74), he drew anti-Japanese posters.

13. When he suffered a stroke during a solo exhibition in Malacca in 1956, it was not his first. He had suffered a mild stroke in 1954 when in Penang.

14. In the catalogue of Singapore Art Society's Triple Tribute Memorial (Lim Hak Tai, Tchang Ju Chi and Yong Mun Sen) in 1966, a total of 31 Mun Sen paintings were shown with six watercolours owned by Yao listed as being Yong Cheng Wah's.

15. A self-portrait of Mun Sen in oil, painted in 1953, was reported in The Sunday Mail dated May 26,1968 as in the collection of another of his sons, Yong Chu Hwa, from his first wife.

16. The Yong family originally wanted to use the Mun Sen collection (148 works) as collateral to borrow from Bank Bumiputra to set up a Yong Mun Sen Art Museum. According to Yong Cheng Wah, automobile tycoon Loh Boon Siew had agreed to donate a building for the museum.

17. Spink & Son had valued the Yao Chew Mooi collection of 148 Mun Sen works at Rm1.7mil, listing Rmii 5,000 for a 1941 Self-Portrait and Rmi 05,000 for a 1945 portrait of Yao Chew Mooi. But in a report in The Star dated March 3,1991, the NAG Acquisition Committee, under P.G. Lim, had reportedly valued both works at only RM110,000. Resorts World had picked up the RM100,000 tab for six other of Mun Sen's works, and donated them to the NAG.

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