Art Exhibition Extraordinaire at the Ng Fook Temple

By Iylia De Silva

May 2024 FEATURE
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The press conference on 16 February 2024.

CHINESE TEMPLES IN Penang serve as a place for worship, for ancestral prayers and for celebrations, such as the Mooncake Festival and Dragon Boat Festival.

However, on the seventh day of the Lunar New Year (16 February 2024), the Penang Wu Fu Cantonese Association did something extraordinary, and organised the Ng Fook Thong Cultural and Art Exhibition at the Ng Fook Temple. Ng Fook Thong (or Five Fortune Hall in English, pronounced as Wu Fu Tang in Mandarin and Gor Hock Tong in Hokkien) is located along Chulia Street and has a history spanning 200 years.

This bold initiative served multiple purposes: inviting both locals and tourists to explore the temple’s rich heritage, appreciate showcased artworks, and engage with participating artists.

The first thing one sees on entering the hall is a larger-than-life art piece of orange and white koi fish in a pond, hung from a mantelpiece. The artworks, totalling over 100 pieces, are placed around the temple’s courtyard, and as visitors amble from one masterpiece to another, observing the blending of traditional and modern works such as paintings, calligraphy, wood carvings, handmade jewellery and sculptures, they soon forget that the gallery venue is a temple.

One of the most prized items on display is an approximate 2m-long Chinese calligraphy in the seal script style called zhuàn shū (篆书). An objet d’art that stood out in particular for its age was gemstones (an increasingly rare find in Malaysia compared to countries like Thailand and Myanmar) arranged intricately to depict the earth from which they sprung.

Renowned artists participating in the exhibition include Ernest Zacharevic, known for the hit-with-tourists mural “Children on Bicycle”; James Sum, who is known for his Western abstract and traditional Chinese art; Fernando Cortes, a Madrid-based travel photographer; David Goh, tribal art collector and founder of Entopia; Charlyne Tan, winner of Malaysia’s Most Outstanding Carving Arts Grandmaster Excellence Award; Loh Kooi Loong, the President of the Penang Chinese Brush Painting Art Society and Yew Swee Wah, Adelaide-based artist, among others.

Lee Chee Cheng, Vice Chairman of the Wu Fu Cantonese Association, was deeply moved by the warm response to this inaugural art-at-the-temple exhibition. Over the two weeks, hundreds of visitors attended daily. Despite falling short of the 20% sales target, the artwork for sale exceeded expectations at 10%. Therefore, he deems the exhibition a success, inspiring him to propose annual exhibitions in the future, perhaps with more specific themes to interest niche markets.

Besides being a devoted member of the association, Lee runs a business known as Sung Dynasty Wood Carving, which was established in 2010. He has crafted numerous wooden signboards, ancestral tablets and seal scripts, which he says are far more popular in Taiwan and China. He regularly hosts workshops spanning two to three days, allowing enthusiasts to learn wood carving and create their own pieces for display at home. In preparation for this exhibition, he taught and guided Zacharevic to properly carve a dragon on wood for display.

Lee presenting the “C M 4 All” board to the Chief Minister of Penang.

Pressing On Despite Challenges

Reflecting on the lessons learnt from curating his first art exhibition, Lee emphasised the necessity of having at least six months to plan for such a significant event. Even seemingly simple tasks like arranging artwork for display require meticulous preparation. Lee also observed that visitors tend to arrive later in the day despite the exhibition running from 11am to 8pm. Considering the possibility that the hot weather deters visitors during the day, Lee is willing to adjust the timing to suit visitors in the future.

Adapting to modern methods of publicity also proved to be a challenge. For example, social media’s ever-changing algorithms make it hard for members of the older generation to keep up. However, they pressed onwards as the Association desired to attract younger members who could ofer their valuable digital and technological skills.

Zacharevic carved this golden dragon on wood for this exhibition under Lee’s tutelage. Zacharevic’s girl in blue is seen riding the dragon, representing 2024 as the Year of the Wood Dragon.

Funding For A Facelift

The temple’s location within the heritage zone comes with a variety of constraints, which has limited the Association’s flexibility in managing the building. Maintenance costs can be substantial, reaching up to RM200,000, with estimates of up to RM3mil for roof repairs to address leakage issues.

Founded in 1819, the temple was once known as Wu Fu Shu Yuan, functioning as a school with 12 classrooms. Today, the building is rented to hawkers at a reasonable rate. The 10% revenue generated from the art exhibition, along with other forms of donations or funds, is typically allocated to fund maintenance. This step is crucial because delaying repairs can lead to further deterioration, and higher costs.

Moving forward, the Association aims to explore diverse themes with a stronger focus on culture and traditions. While they are open to blending Western art with Asian themes, Lee is of the opinion that they must remain mindful not to dilute tradition. If the funds in hand permit, the Association might consider incorporating food sales during exhibitions or even performances like Chinese traditional orchestras. Ultimately, the objective is to preserve and pass down this culturally rich heritage to the next generation.

Several art pieces that were on display during the Ng Fook Thong Cultural and Art Exhibition.

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Iylia De Silva

is a law graduate from the University of London. Balancing work and play, she savours every moment by indulging in her passion for food, languages, music and engaging with people from diverse cultures.