Remembering Tan Choon Ghee in Ink and Watercolour


Penang State Art Gallery receives its largest bequest ever from his widow, Madam Kam.

A rare 1961 self-portrait captures Penang’s legendary watercolourist Tan Choon Ghee (Chen Cun-yi) as a strapping 31-year-old, his gaze intent and his eyes beady. He shows a nondescript steely resolve, as if he were facing phantom imponderables.

The work, perhaps his only self-portrait, was honed after the rigours of the Slade School of Art, London (1957-1959), and the locally skewed curriculum of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA), Singapore (1949-1951). Perhaps the three-month participation in a West German exchange programme also left its mark.

Unbeknown to him then, he was at the crossroads of a bifurcating career. He was to take up a Colombo Plan scholarship in 1962-1963 to study television set design at the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) in Sydney, paving the switch to television set and costumes design and illustrations. He worked as chief set designer at the Singapore Broadcasting Service, from 1962-1966, and later, at the Hong Kong Television Broadcasting.

In his early years, Choon Ghee also taught at various times at Sekolah Weng Kai, Thung Sheng School, Sungai Ujong School, Han Chiang High School and Peng Hwa School (later renamed Penang Chinese Girls High School).

His credentials as a fine artist were already impeccable then, but post-Merdeka Malaya was an agrarian economy and did not brook well for anyone, however precocious, set on a career as an artist.

Under the facade of respectability and a well-paying job, Choon Ghee remained restless and unhappy. In 1968 he decided to throw it all away, and he quit a promising career in television. As if to commemorate his new “life”, he started signing his new works with “CHOON GHEE” in capital letters, instead of just “TAN”!

Such was his pedigree. Born in 1930 in working-class Presgrave Street (“Sar Teow Lor”, or “Third Street” from Prangin Canal, now covered up), Choon Ghee started painting at the age of 13, and was greatly inspired by Yong Mun Sen (1896-1962), whom he had met a few times.

But his real mentor was Kuo Ju-ping (nee Khor Seng Chye, 1908-1966), who encouraged him to enrol at NAFA. It is no surprise that his ink works bristled with the great verve of Cheong Soo-pieng (1917-1983), while his association with batik art founder Datuk Chuah Thean Teng (1912-2008) and Lee Cheng Yong (1913-1974) in starting an informal art tuition class (which was short-lived) at David Chen Gardens, also rubbed off on him.

At NAFA, the founder-principal Lim Hak Tai (1893-1963) bought Choon Ghee’s painting for the first time. When Choon Ghee was with ABC, the chairman, Sir Charles Moses, also bought his work.

At Slade, he was honed by two greats, William Townsend (1909-1973, teaching stint 1949-1962) and Sir William Coldstream (1908-1987). In London, he received great encouragement from the “Queen’s Artist” Edward Seago (1910-1974).

As early as 1956, he was given his first solo, organised by the Penang Art Society, at the Hooi Ann Association in Macalister Road; and he won 2nd Prize, for Watercolours, in the Peter Stuyvesant art competition.

The self-portrait is part of some 124 works donated by the estate of Tan Choon Ghee (specifically, his widow Kam Hye Sin) to the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG), making it the biggest single bequest of works by a single artist. It comprises watercolours, ink and wash, and drawings done between 1958 and 1995.

The tranche of works is on display for an indefinite period in an exhibition at the PSAG dubbed Tan Choon Ghee: Resonances of the Magical Moments.

Choon Ghee had had two solos at the PSAG in 1979 and 1985, before being accorded a Retrospective in 2000. He was also given a Retrospective, by The Art Gallery (TAG), then at Gottlieb Road in 1992, both featuring works since 1957, and both curated by collector-publisher-gallerist Datuk Dr Tan Chee Khuan.

The Art Gallery also organised another major exhibition for Choon Ghee called “A Tribute to Tan Choon Ghee”, at Art Salon@ SENI, Mont Kiara, KL, in 2009 (November 15-December 20). Choon Ghee breathed his last a year later, on December 28, 2010.

The new PSAG addition is a memorable vignette comprising figure studies, street scenes at home and abroad, with landmark places or iconic buildings and people basking in the sunny weather, a landscape blending Chinese ink virtuosity and Western composition paradigms (1992), quaint rural life, coastal and maritime sceneries, and interiors and deck-life on the luxury cruise Queen Elizabeth II which he sailed in 1992.

Although Choon Ghee was also adept in oil and charcoal, it is his watercolours and ink repertoire that set him apart for the sheer quality of verve, vim and vitality.

“I like watercolours because they dry faster, is also handy and clean and suits me better as I paint from observation. I also like its transparent nature,” he told me once. He found the range and lines from photographs delimiting.

His watercolours are distinct for their pearly hues, sound draughtsmanship, light quicksilver sable brushes, brevity of details and fluid colours.

Notable in this bequest are a 1958 Saigon boat view of a standing woman paddling away and a time notation of Christmas Eve, and an inside-ferry view, and unusual scenes of out-of-way places – Bludonz in Austria, and Boccadasse, near Genoa, in Italy, besides one on Marseilles, France.

Otherwise, the subjects trawl his usual thoroughfare of Venice (Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal) and Rome in Italy; Perth, Melbourne and Sydney in Australia; Hong Kong; Vietnam; Singapore; the Anglican St Paul’s Cathedral and Trafalgar Square with its obelisk in Britain; Lisbon in Portugal; the Stephan Platz in Vienna in Austria; Barcelona in Spain; Montmartre and Paris in France; Amsterdam in Holland; and Germany.

His Penang street scenes are replete with the facades of Straits Eclectic-Baroque heritage façades of heritage buildings in Penang, there are also the quaint architecture of the Cheung Fatt Tze “Blue Mansion” and houses of worship like the Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Daoist Kew Ong Yeah Temple and the 1978 Khoo Kongsi (“Leong San Tong”), which, however, is not as impressively immaculate as the 1985 work on the same subject, called “Khoo Kongsi at Cannon Square” (53.5cm x 63.5cm), which set his watercolour record of RM24,200 premium at the June 2011 Henry Butcher Art Auction.

He was extolling the architectural heritage of Penang with his inimitable renditions long, long before Penang was listed as a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site in 2008.

There are also a few early works on the hardy Samsui women labourers of Hakka descent who worked in tin mines and at building sites.

Choon Ghee leaves a legacy of spirited moments of people in open public spaces with the dexterity of strokes and languid colours in a celebration of living, which relates to his Hitchcockian presence in direction and interpretations. He inspired legions of artists to preserve Penang’s rich architectural heritage like Datuk Chong Hon Fatt, Peter Liew, Lui Cheng Thak, Lee Weng Fatt, Jansen Chow, Khoo Cheang Jin, Ch’ng Kah Khien and Alex Leong.

He told me in 1988: “The person will not be there for you to paint, not even for a minute. You see people, trees, buildings, cars, at a glance. You see without focusing on anything. You don’t see the details.

“You have to be part and parcel of the scene, if you are to imbibe its moods, its ambience. Hot or cold, you are part of it, something you can’t get if you work in an air-conditioned room.”

With his redoubtable stature, one would expect Choon Ghee to hit six-digits in the local auction market, but his record was only a premium of RM46,200, for his oil, “Kapitan Kling Mosque” (1994, 58.5cm x 38cm), set at The Edge auction in June 2013.

PSAG board of trustees chairman Lee Khai was effusive in his thanks to Kam Hye Sin for the largesse of works, hoping that it would spur others to follow suit. The PSAG has already eight other works besides a portfolio of 35 sketchbooks acquired in 2014 “at very affordable prices.”

In reciprocation, he said: “The PSAG plans to set up a Tan Choon Ghee Room… when we get the room next to the ground-floor space.”

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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