Immediate strokes and immediate colours applied on canvas under stark conditions capture the continuity of the past in Chong Hon Fatt’s paintings. Give him the right light, and he becomes unstoppable. Next year, this amazing artist will be honoured by the Penang State Art Gallery with a Retrospective, 47 years after his first solo exhibition.
By Ooi Kok Chuen
Be it for his paintings of heritage buildings in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca or of the diaolou/tulou of China, Chong Hon Fatt has gained legions of admirers for his quaintly painted edifices of thick burnished golden-brown textures.
Characteristically, his whole canvas looks as if carved by rivulets of oil with ridges of outlines and studded pockets for windows or pediments. His unconventional preference for titanium-white, loads of it, makes for an intricate play of light nuances and subtle contrasts.
Hon Fatt is a sunbather, a sun-chaser, an avowed sun-worshipper. He basks under the scorching heat and pits his energy against the harsh natural light to bring out the prancing glow of life and elusive rhythms, with all the accompanying dainty shadows and nuances.
His best works are mostly done before noon, for aft er that shadows lapse behind the buildings to leave an unwelcome pall.
Hon Fatt is the quintessential alfresco painter. Every daub and detail is done on the spot on the easel, from generous reams of colours concocted on the palette and with a cocktail of 30-plus brushes of various sizes at hand. Orange, lemon yellow and white make the main hierarchy, and the darker shades come through a mix of dark brown, blue and green.
“All my works are done outdoors. I try to get the strokes right there and then. I don’t do any touch-up,” confides Hon Fatt , who at 70 continues to revel in capturing quicksilver natural light.
He has been painting for nearly a half-century, mostly outdoors. Largely self-taught, Hon Fatt nevertheless picked up the finer points of art when studying at the Chung Ling High School (CLHS) under art supervisor Lee Cheng Yong (1913–1974), a pioneer artist who adopted Hon Fatt as a godson. He was also fortunate that there were two other great pioneer artists teaching at CLHS – Khaw Sia (1913–1984) and (Datuk) Chuah Thean Teng (1912–2008).
When the light is good, Hon Fatt is like a person possessed. He can stand for hours oblivious to the wind, the heat and his age.
But when it is cloudy or gloomy, his mood barometer hits rock-bottom, and no matter how interesting a historical place might be in shape or form, Hon Fatt would not have interest to paint, and would hibernate till the sun comes out again.
In the early years when Hon Fatt was busy raising his family on a modest income as a bank clerk, he kept close to the Penang locale, covering landmarks such as the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Kek Lok Si Temple and Kwan Im Teng.
Hon Fatt also dabbled in watercolours in his early years, was a founder member cum treasurer of the Penang Watercolour Society from 1985 to 1999, and even won a major award in a watercolour competition held in China in 2001. He was also the secretary of the Penang Art Society from 1998 to 1999.
In early 1997, the year he retired from his bank job, he decided to paint fulltime and went into it with a vengeance, as if to make up for lost time.
He started expanding his horizons outside Penang, to Malacca and Kuala Lumpur, where he painted landmarks such as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the KL Railway Station and the Petronas Twin Towers – his only ones rendered nocturnal with the panoramic splendour of artificial light.
From 1997, Hon Fatt also started travelling overseas – to Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and New Zealand to paint, and frequently to China. He also painted his first snow scenes when he was in Canada and while it was snowy, naturally.
Even before that, in 1989, Hon Fatt clinched the First Prize in the Selangor Art Competition, which was jointly organised by Kumpulan Perangsaan Selangor and Holiday Inn.
Hon Fatt also documented Penang’s clan jetties and compiled a selection of 10 postcards. The jetties date back to the mid-19th century, with the coming of immigrants from Xin Lin She, Tong Aun and Quan Zhou in the Fujian province in China.
His jetty repertoire covers the Lim, Chew, Tan, Lee, Yeoh, Koay and Mixed Clan jetties around the Weld Quay waterfront, showing planked walkways, telegraph poles and a forest of TV aerials on zinc roofs over wooden stilt houses. Th e inhabitants were formerly goods sampan operators, boat makers, port workers, indentured labourers, fishermen and oyster-gatherers.
In 2001, Hon Fatt set himself the ambitious task of painting mosques of great architectural and historical significance all over West Malaysia. They came to include Masjid Nagore Durgha Sheriff, Kapitan Keling Mosque and Masjid Jamek Sungai Nibong (all Penang), Masjid India Muslim and Masjid Negeri (both Ipoh), Masjid Abidin Yang Bersejarah (Kuala Terengganu), Masjid Kampung Hulu (Malacca), Masjid Qariah Kampung Mendom (Seremban) and Masjid Kg Laud Kota Baru.
When Kampung Buah Pala, known as the “High Chaparral of Penang” was about to be demolished, he joined a group of 13 artists documenting the vanishing cattle-breeding community in September 2009. It resulted in an exhibition at the Galeri Seni Mutiara’s outlet in Armenian Street that December.
His painting of a Hindu temple was chosen to adorn the jacket cover of the 228-page coffee-table book, Sacred Structures: Artistic Renditions of Hindu Temples (2008). Some of the paintings by various artists featured in the book were exhibited at the Penang State Art Gallery in January-February this year.
In October this year, Hon Fatt got a rare opportunity to celebrate the double listing of the Unesco World Heritage sites in 2008 of both the Fukian tulou and George Town/Malacca (in 2009, the Kaiping diaolou in Guangdong Province was similarly honoured).
This came about in a glimpse exhibition called Warisan Bandar Berkembar (Twin Heritage Site) Exhibition which showcased 20 works each of heritage buildings of Penang and the Hakka tulou edifices. Th is was held at the Equator Academy of Art.
The 20 tulou works, together with 26 others, were the highlights of the World Yongding (Hakka) Fellowship Conference held at the Syuen Hotel in Ipoh a few days later. Hon Fatt himself is a Teochew Hakka.
His love affair with earthen buildings started during one of his trips to China when he got “shanghaied” to check out the diaolou ruins in Kaiping in 2006. Hon Fatt was smitten, and a year later, he held a grand and exclusive exhibition of his dialou paintings of Kaiping and neighbouring Taishan hosted by the Kaiping authorities. Th e event was documented in a commemorative book and featured by various local China TV stations, including the international CCTV.
His success with the diaolou paintings was to earn him a reprise, this time to do the load-bearing tulou rammed walls. So, over a 10-month period from last year, he made fi ve trips to Yongding in Fujian, and the result was a total of 49 paintings.
Both the diaolou and tulou ramparts are virtually impregnable. Th ey are earthquake-proof, wind-proof, fi re-resistant and eco-friendly, and in their heyday, could accommodate up to 80 families!
While the diaolou, built between the 15th and 20th centuries, have a longer history than the century-old tulou, they also have distinct fortified tower/ castle shapes while the tulou are rotunda or rectangular ramparts, some in concentric clusters of four or five within a palisade.
They were self-contained mini-townships and share an enclosed community security concept, especially against marauding barbarians and tribes.
While the diaolou were more densely populated because they were built in towns, the tulou were initially more inaccessible, being built in the mountainous outskirts. The Unesco listing has brought rapid development to these areas.
For a non-China artist, it is no mean feat for Hon Fatt to have been twice commissioned to paint historical fortress sites in China.
Back home, in recognition of his achievements and contributions, the Penang State Art Gallery is honouring Hon Fatt with a Retrospective next year. He has indeed come a long way since his first solo at the Chin Kang Association at Macalister Road in 1965.
Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.