I have not as yet been to Singapore (only spent a few hours at Changi airport)—but heard a lot about the place and met quite a few Singaporeans. I am fascinated by several aspects of the country—its super quick transition from the third world to the first, its cultural richness. I also find it amazing how Singapore remains pronouncedly absent from international news when it comes to scandal or turmoil (rare even for developed nations) and appears always as a top destination in tourism packages.
A finance professional and avid traveller, Yip Yew Chong is a part-time Singaporean muralist who excels at painting scenes of a bygone era. I went through his impressive and educational art last month and discussed with him his country’s social fabric, the strictness of its government, economic development, the need for conservation and much more…
You describe yourself primarily as an “accountant who loves art”—but you seem to be quite prolific with your murals, sketches and photography. There are so many people who have artistic ambitions but are unable to realise them due to the draining nature of their corporate jobs. How are you able to manage so much creativity despite full-time work? Are there any lifestyle tips you’d like to offer to those who might want to follow in your footsteps?
It is actually quite challenging to balance the time for so many things I need or wish to do in my life—corporate work, hobbies (art, travel, photography/videography), family, community activities, moments of rest, observation and inspiration. So far, I am lucky to have been able to do most of them moderately, though for some I wish I could do more. I would say…
- Keep passionate about what you do and complete it. If I were not passionate and didn’t enjoy the process, I would never have created the artworks. When I see the fruits of completing a piece, it motivates me to do the next piece and so on. I always feel blessed to be enjoying it!
- I normally don’t need and also try not to do any office work on weekends, thus dedicating two full days a week to all other activities. On most nights except Friday, I have to work late or attend teleconference meetings with my UK/US colleagues. But if I can leave office early, say by 7.30 PM, I will also use the evenings to do sketches, canvas paintings, preparations for upcoming creative projects, doing volunteering work, or catching up with friends. My manager (based in the UK) knows about my creative hobbies and volunteering work and is supportive.
- My family is stable and supportive of my spending time on my creative hobbies on the weekends or nights. My two children are quite grown up (20 and 18) and mother is fairly healthy. This allows me much more time than many of my peers with young children and aged parents. Sometimes, we do the hobby activities together such as traveling and photography, or my wife and mother will visit me at the mural painting site.
- I also plan ahead and grab appropriate opportunities to blend the various activities to maximise time and space. For example, on business trips, I have sometimes made side trips to nearby countries to pursue my travel hobby and get inspirations for my art. After a business trip in Russia, I made a side trip to Uzbekistan with plenty of photography and creative inspiration opportunities. On certain appropriate trips, my wife tagged along as well, thus maximising time with family. While having my weekend morning runs to keep fit, I will take time to enjoy the scenery, take sunrise photographs, observe the surroundings and think about new projects. I also blend my mural painting with community volunteering work. Despite all this “blending”, I always strive to be dedicated and focussed in whatever I do to complete the activities without being distracted by other things. For example, while at work in the office, while sketching or painting a mural, I do not think about other things or keep looking at my phone (which I notice many people do nowadays).
I do feel rushed at times. For example, when I was painting the 44 metres long Thian Hock Keng mural over 10 weekends (2.5 months), I had to make three business trips to London, Shanghai and Dubai. I tried to keep the travel time within the weekdays as much as possible. I would take the red eye flight out on a Sunday night and arrive in the mornings of Shanghai and London and get to the offices straight away! I will then try to get at least one good night’s sleep during the business trip. It is tiring at times, but when you have made it, it can actually be quite energising!
The images of Singapore that we see in the media are all related to high-rises and luxury and development—shopping malls, business districts, things of that sort. In your murals, however, you present a simpler, slower, certainly less materialistic picture of the island city-state. You cover a wide variety of subjects—barbers, provision shops, pilgrims, fortune tellers, children on trees, cinemas, libraries but there is a nostalgic touch to every portrayal. Do these paintings really just reflect a time in the past or are they about a side of Singapore that is very much alive today, only a little hidden from view?
Most of these are indeed lost scenes of Singapore as the country has developed really fast. The traditional infrastructure and slower lifestyle have mostly been modernised and hastened. For example, I portrayed the old cinema, library and markets which have been demolished to make way for their modern-looking successors operating with new technologies. In Singapore, we can no longer find cinemas with handwritten tickets, public libraries requiring stamping on the book due date slips, food sellers peddling on bicycles in wet markets, live poultry, ice blocks in a provision shop or coffee beans being roasted in an improvised oil drum under open fire.
These practices have all been modernised with new technologies and hygiene standards. There are still barbers operating at the back alleys in Little India or Geylang areas, old styled villages with wooden houses on stilts in Pulau Ubin and Kampong Buangkok, and caged bird singing clubs in Ang Mo Kio and Yishun new towns. However, these can be counted in one hand! Moreover, they are also on the verge of extinction. Our children still climb trees and pilgrims continue to prepare for the Hajj journey. However, the style in which they do it today is entirely different—the children will wear safety helmet and harness before they are allowed to climb the tree as part of adventure training, and pilgrims no longer need to pack a basketful of cooking utensils for shipping to Mecca for the Hajj.
As I paint these lost scenes or scenes nearing extinction, I am not lamenting their loss, as I also love the modern efficiency and high living standard of today. My goal in presenting these scenes is to remind ourselves how far Singapore has progressed—educating the younger generations of how life used to be, while allowing the older generations to cherish fond memories of the days when life was much simpler and slower. Despite less affluence, we were able to get many things done.
What about the administrative and logistical side of mural painting? How many permissions do you need to take? Also, how long does it take you to usually make a mural—planning and execution combined?
The intensity of approvals required for the mural painting will depend on the type of property the wall belongs to. The property owner and various authorities will need to give approval of the plan before the public mural painting can start. For example, a private or government owned property in a historic conservation area will require the approval of the Urban Development Authority. (Yes, even if it is a private property!) Other authorities such as National Heritage Board, Housing Development Board, Resident Committee, Town Council, the Member of Parliament of the district, Land Transport Authority, etc. may also need to give approval if the property or the road is under the governing purview of these authorities. Stakeholders such as the tenant and neighbours are also required to ensure harmony of the place. There is no one simple answer for approval or buy-in. The length of time needed to seek full approval really depends on the type of property, which can range from two weeks to many months.
The length of time taken to create a mural depends on the size, design complexity, logistical complexity and weather. I’ve done murals taking as short as 4 hours to as long as 2.5 months-10 weekends because I paint only on weekends, and that was for the 44 metres long Thian Hock Keng mural during the rainy season. There are times when I painted in the morning, and before it dried, the rain washed it away, and I had to repaint!
You have three lovely murals at the Tiong Bahru market—Pasar and the Fortune Teller, Home, Bird Singing Corner. Tiong Bahru is described online as “the hippiest part of the town”, home to an eclectic variety of beloved eateries, cafés and local shops. What is your connection with this place?
I have written a detailed blog post about that. I had several uncles and aunts who lived in Tiong Bahru in the 70s, and three of them are still living there today. My siblings and I used to stay over at their homes during school holidays to play with our many cousins. I remember vividly we went around the estate to pick the red saga seeds which dropped from the trees. At that time, in my eyes as a little kid, Tiong Bahru was a huge modern new town with concrete houses and neat amenities, as compared to the more haphazard and dilapidated Chinatown area where I lived. Another interesting connection is that my own family home in old Chinatown had its first set of sofa and Telefunken TV given secondhand from my uncle living in Tiong Bahru. Those sofa and TV sets were depicted in the Home mural.
It’s ironic that Tiong Bahru today is seen as the nostalgic part of Singapore. While I was conceptualising the mural painting, I was careful not to “gentrify” the area through my work. I tried to keep the theme as true and as relevant to its current pace and identity. I also blended the design into its environment and current lifestyle.
I noticed that you make an effort to present the diversity of Singapore in your work, both in terms of race and religion. You show Chinese, Indians, Malays, Muslims. Tell us more about this aspect of your country—its vivid multiculturalism…
Yes, Singapore has been a place of gathering from its early history and that is true to this day. The Thian Hock Keng mural, in fact, tells the story of how different immigrants came to Singapore. I love how Singapore’s various races live together in harmony, openly cross-sharing our lifestyles everyday, in every place, while retaining our own uniqueness, appreciating and respecting one another’s differences. It is precisely this melting pot of cultures which has made Singapore unique.
I have enjoyed the company of many friends, colleagues and neighbours from all races, backgrounds and nationalities in many aspects of my life. I particularly enjoyed my stint in the National Service days (compulsory military service) when I was 18. I was in a section where the majority were Malays and Indians. We all felt entirely comfortable with each other and had that true sense of brotherhood and everyone thoroughly enjoyed that stint. I remembered we were digging trenches in the forests during the Ramadan fasting month. It was tough that my Malay Muslim section mates would not drink water. As the Indians and Chinese were not fasting, we drank and ate discreetly to motivate each other.
Provision Shop was made for a house owner on Everton Road, Coffee Story for a business (Academy, Roastery and Café) and the Assisi Hospice family get-together scene for a charity. Which of these experiences was the best for you?
They are all “best” and unique experiences in their own good ways. I am a person who loves diversity. Different experiences add spice to our lives. Each project gives me a specific view of how things get done. My interactions with private house owners offer me a glimpse of how art collectors value art as a need to feed the soul while nurturing the local creative scene. Interactions with commercial businesses who strive to create a unique customer experience with limited resources teach me resourcefulness and pragmatism. Charitable projects affirm my spirit of volunteerism and give me opportunities to meet and better understand the hardships of the less fortunate, as well as the often forgotten caregivers and volunteers.
You are an avid traveller. Travelling, you write, is an education and you enjoy setting off to “off-beat places to experience and be inspired by unique lands, their cultures and earth’s wondrous nature”. How many countries have you visited? How many times do you travel per year? And which are your most memorable trips till date?
I love travelling. I have been to around 50 countries and actually wish to see many more if I have more time and money. Since I started mural painting, I have travelled much less. Otherwise, each year, I try to make a trip to a new country or new region with a different culture. In every new country, I try doing a homestay if possible, as it offers an insight into the lifestyles of the people of the land. I particularly enjoyed my homestay with a Berber family in Morocco while on a trek, and a Mongolian nomadic family’s tented homestay with my wife. I would say my most memorable trips are my first backpacking trips to the Nepal Himalayas in 1990, 1991 and the ancient Silk Road in 1993. I can still vividly remember the sights and smells of the people and places, many of which have now been modernised.
Who are your favourite street artists—both in your local Southeast Asian context and globally?
Just like I appreciate diversity in travelling and interactions with people, I appreciate all forms of street art in Singapore and around the world. I actually can’t name a favourite because each style is distinctive and adds texture in a different form to the whole scene. However, I must admit I was inspired by world acclaimed Lithuanian street artist Ernst Zacharevic, whom I believe was the one who started the craze in Malaysia and now it has spread to Singapore. I spotted his work in Victoria Street in Singapore and that inspired me to try street art. My initial style was modelled after his (painting life-size figures of local cultures), but I think I have now developed my own style with a lot of intricate details in the murals. In addition, I am very impressed by the life-like faces of the murals painted by Russian artist Julia Volchkova. The expressions are captivating and for a moment, one will mistake the mural for a real person.
Do you keep yourself informed of the Singaporean art scene—major events, trends?
I try to visit some art exhibitions and shows whenever time allows, so as to observe how other artists create their works, learn their techniques, concepts, trends and even how they price☺. It is also a good place to connect with fellow artists, gallery owners and show organisers. The art scene in Singapore is buzzing more and more year on year with many more shows being added, e.g., Art Stage, Urban Art Festival.
Now a question related to politics and government. Yesterday I came across a few quotes by your first PM Lee Kuan Yew (1923– 2015):
If Singapore is a nanny state, then I am proud to have fostered one.
I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters–who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.
As somebody with a great deal of social awareness, what do you make of your founding father’s words?
Lee Kuan Yew is right! I am grateful for what he has made Singapore to be today. I think many Singaporeans and residents will agree. Personally, I do not feel we are too nanny a state all the time and in every aspect as we have evolved. We need to be nannied a little at some point of time when are children, but as we grow up, we will also tell the nanny when and where we need more space in our own lives.
There is more dialogue in Singapore today. Taking the balance of pursuing economic progress and efficiency with conservation of natural and cultural heritage as an example. Many people and groups have told the government we need more of the latter now that the country as a whole has attained a level of affluence and infrastructure. People are contributing to the cause and I think the authorities are listening more than ever before. Street art was once considered vandalism and never allowed, but look at the diverse street art we have today. In a way, it is still less spontaneous and muted than many other countries, but that also keeps Singapore uniquely orderly and clean. So it is an evolving balance.
What is one thing about Singaporean society that you wouldn’t trade for anything in the world?
Peace. It is one of the three desired achievements of our National pledge – “…so as to achieve Peace, Prosperity and Progress for our Nation…” It is the first and in my view, the most important, without which all others cannot be achieved.
What is one thing about Singaporean society that you wish you could change if you had the chance?
I truly wish we could rebuild some of the lost natural and cultural heritage of Singapore, including forests and beautiful buildings which had been demolished to make way for new developments in our economic pursuits. This wish is at the heart of my current involvements in promoting conservation of what we still have but are at the risk of losing.