Over the years, terms like “Nanyang art”, “Nanyang style” and “Nanyang school” have been used to apply to many past and living artists in Singapore. This has led to some confusion over how Nanyang art should be defined and whether it could still be produced today.
“Nanyang” (meaning “Southern Ocean” in Chinese) refers to the maritime region south of China. It was the collective term historically used by the Chinese for key coastal strips of mainland Southeast Asia and most of the islands of the Philippines and Indonesia, reached by sea for trade, diplomacy and religious pilgrimage.
Historical records and archaeological evidence indicate that there was a Chinese presence in Singapore from as early as the 14th century. The Chinese influx into Singapore increased when the British established a free port on the island in the 19th century. This attracted eager Chinese traders and many poor labourers seeking work. Many of these early Chinese migrants were sojourners. They still regarded China as their motherland and intended to return home once they had earned some money. By the early 20th century, the Chinese population had grown to become the majority ethnic group in colonial Singapore.
Defining ‘Nanyang art’
As Singapore grew in affluence, better-educated Chinese, such as writers and artists, arrived to run schools and newspapers catering to the local Chinese community. By the late 1920s, writers promoted the idea of Nanyang literature. They felt that it was important to create works with Nanyang content so that it could better resonate with local readers. In the 1930s, migrant artists like Chen Chong Swee and Tchang Ju Chi also began incorporating local subjects like Malay villages and peoples in their ink paintings and oil paintings respectively.
Those early beginnings of a localised art movement were disrupted by the Second World War. It was only sometime in the 1950s that Lim Hak Tai, the founding principal of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), made the first attempt to define what art in Nanyang should be like.
In his 1955 preface for the exhibition catalogue The Art of Young Malayans (Nanyang qingnian meishu), addressed to the 15th graduating class of NAFA, Lim highlighted “the artistic content and forms which youths in Nanyang should create” (Nanyang qingnian meishu de neirong huo xingshi). They comprised the following six characteristics:
i. Fusion of cultures of the different races (融混各族文化风尚)
ii. Bridging of Eastern and Western art (沟通东西艺术)
iii. Diffusion of the scientific spirit and social thinking of the 20th century (发挥二十世纪科学精神，社会思潮)
iv. Reflection of the needs of the peoples of the Federation of Malaya and Singapore (反映本邦人民大众需求)
v. Expression of local tropical flavour (表现当地热带情调)
vi. Fulfilment of educational and social needs (配合教育意义，社会功能)
It is important to realise that Lim’s guiding principles then were phrased in broad general terms and did not prescribe specific styles or subjects. This was evident from the creative outputs of the teachers whom he hired at NAFA. They included senior artists like Cheong Soo Pieng who experimented with many modern art styles and See Hiang To who was a staunch champion of traditional xieyi (writing the idea) ink painting. At the same time, NAFA also had younger teachers like Chua Mia Tee and Tan Tee Chie who favoured realist styles and sought to highlight social concerns in their artworks.
Paintings of local subjects which fused Western and Chinese styles by artists like Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi were hailed for reflecting “Malayan style” and embodying the multi-cultural spirit of “Malayan art”.
At the same time, calls for decolonisation were growing in post-war Singapore. In recognition of the movement towards self-government in 1959, both the British colonial and local elites started promoting the idea of a common Malayan identity for multi-ethnic Singapore. Paintings of local subjects which fused Western and Chinese styles by artists like Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi were hailed for reflecting “Malayan style” and embodying the multi-cultural spirit of “Malayan art”. Singapore eventually became independent, initially through merger in 1963, and then by separation from Malaya in 1965.
A ‘golden period’?
In the 1970s, Nanyang art was discussed more critically when the National Gallery of Art in Malaysia held the exhibition “Retrospective Exhibition of Nanyang Artists” in 1979. With the benefit of historical distance, the exhibition curator Redza Piyadasa highlighted the years from 1938 to 1965 as the “golden period” of Nanyang art.
1938 was the year when NAFA was founded, which he identified as the key organisation responsible for the development of Nanyang art in Singapore and Malaysia. 1965 was the year when Singapore separated from Malaysia to become an independent nation-state, which inevitably led the art scenes in both countries to develop along separate paths.
Piyadasa held that the period saw the most “innovative experimentations” by first-generation China-born artists and the two generations of students who studied under the former. These students included many who were born in Singapore or Malaysia.
A key formal experimentation of these artists was the fusion of styles drawn from Chinese ink tradition and the School of Paris movement. Apart from the formally innovative paintings, there were works produced by artists with a more “socially oriented approach” who depicted “the harsh realities of everyday life devoid of any romantic or sentimental implications”.
...based on Piyadasa’s account, Nanyang art, as an art movement, had largely lost its dynamism by the mid-1960s.
Piyadasa’s 1979 definition of Nanyang art was broadly aligned with Lim Hak Tai’s earlier one in 1955. Both definitions encompassed the works of senior and younger artists who expressed their local realities in diverse artistic styles and media.
However, while Lim framed his definition within the context of national self-determination, Piyadasa regarded the Nanyang artists as modern art practitioners pursuing individual self-determination, uninhibited by convention or tradition.
Piyadasa also saw the Nanyang art movement in historical terms and argued that there was a “decline in terms of the collective energies of these artists” by the 1960s. The level of experimentation had become “predictable” and “institutionalised”, and individual artists had started to “seek their own directions”. Hence, based on Piyadasa’s account, Nanyang art, as an art movement, had largely lost its dynamism by the mid-1960s.
Their art was no longer about Nanyang as a lived present, but “post-Nanyang”— a nostalgic yearning for the past.
Nonetheless, artists continued to create art with the local subject matter, well into the 1970s and 1980s. However, in 1985, when NAFA and the Malaysian Institute of Arts co-organised the Nanyang Art Exhibition (Nanyang fengge meizhan) featuring works by living Singaporean and Malaysian artists, there were some dissenting voices who opposed the term “Nanyang” and questioned the definition of “Nanyang style”. This eventually led artist Ho Ho Ying, in his 1998 essay “Post-Nanyang Style” (Hou Nanyang fengge), to distinguish the “Nanyang works” by first-generation artists from those by second-generation artists like himself.
While the works by both groups appeared similar through its incorporation of local subjects, artistic motivations differed due to the changing times. Ho observed that the “first-generation” artists had responded to and depicted their immediate environment. These were typically rural tropical scenes which were still commonly seen up till the 1960s. However, for younger artists like Ho, their formative years were the post-1970s period when the “Nanyang” environment was rapidly industrialising and urbanising. Hence, as Singapore’s landscape changed, so did the art of the “second-generation”. Their art was no longer about Nanyang as a lived present, but “post-Nanyang”— a nostalgic yearning for the past. That was the main conceptual difference between Nanyang art and post-Nanyang art. Hence, Ho saw Nanyang art as an art historical development, and not an ongoing artistic movement defined by subject matter or formalistic concerns.
Seen in that light, “Nanyang artists” should be limited to those who were born in and had spent their formative adult years in China before settling down in Singapore.
Who are the Nanyang artists?
Using Ho’s definition, it is useful to define the parameters of Nanyang art even more precisely. In its strictest sense, the term “Nanyang” was used by those who associated themselves more closely with China and took their point of reference from China. Seen in that light, “Nanyang artists” should be limited to those who were born in and had spent their formative adult years in China before settling down in Singapore. These included artists such as Lim Hak Tai, Chen Chong Swee, Liu Kang, Yeh Chi Wei, Chen Wen Hsi, Georgette Chen and Cheong Soo Pieng.
Many shared similar backgrounds, having lived through some of China’s most tumultuous times. Despite becoming a modern republic in 1912, China faced decades of power struggles among local warlords, invasion by the Japanese, and bitter civil strife between the nationalists and communists. The chaos only ended with the rise to power of the latter and the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Leaving for Nanyang
Due to the turmoil, many artists sought refuge or a better livelihood by leaving for Nanyang. Many had assumed that they would stay in Nanyang for only a few years before returning to China. However, due to various circumstances, some eventually settled in Singapore permanently, after bringing their families and then finding employment, primarily as art teachers. When Singapore gained independence in 1965, most took up citizenship. Hence, few would have continued to regard themselves as Nanyang (as opposed to Singaporean) artists after 1965.
In the early 20th century, the Nanyang artists were exposed to the same cultural environment. At the time, China was just opening up to the possibilities of the West. Many intellectuals like political reformer Kang Youwei argued that China’s progress needed to be propelled by Western science and technology. The May Fourth Movement in 1919 further ignited the drive to strengthen China through cultural reforms, resulting in traditional Confucian concepts giving way to Western ideas.
Consequently, China’s education system sought to integrate Western knowledge as a way of modernising the country. Art education was no exception, and Western art started to be taught in government art schools from the early 20th century onwards.
A Western art foundation
Most of the Nanyang artists had studied in these early art schools. In the past, Chinese ink painting was traditionally taught through copying from senior artists and masterpieces. Increasing contact with the West and Japan in the early 20th century led to the emergence of art schools in China which favoured Western-style or, at least, what was perceived then to be more scientific, methods of instruction.
Hence, the first Chinese government art schools to teach Western art, emphasised draughtsmanship, focusing on perspective, light and shade, and accuracy of depiction. Common teaching methods included using pencil, charcoal, watercolour and oils for drawing from plaster-casts, still-lifes, nude studies and painting from nature. Concurrently, these academies continued to teach Chinese ink painting.
However, Western art, with its structured methodology of instruction, was easier to teach. Hence, the academies tended to start with Western art as a foundation course. Chinese art was deemed more conceptual, and therefore, usually offered at the advanced level. This marked a new generation of artists who were more distanced from Chinese art. However, they were also the first group which was, at least, familiar with, if not proficient in, both Western and Chinese art traditions.
A search for modernity
By the 1930s, there were diverse opinions about how Chinese art should be modernised. Some like Xu Beihong advocated academic realism, while others such as Lin Fengmian and Liu Haisu favoured modernist styles. Like-minded artists collaborated frequently to found societies, start magazines or organise exhibitions to further their own causes.
However, the brief flowering of modern art groups and exhibitions in the 1930s only lasted less than five years. In a period of national turmoil, artists were expected to create works with a national character, addressing social and political concerns before individual needs. Modern art, emphasising individual subjectivity and foreign associations, was considered divorced from the people.
By the late 1930s and in the years leading to the communists’ rise to power in 1949, fewer contacts with the West and the growing demand for national content and social usefulness, meant that the modern art movement gradually lost momentum in China.
Chen Wen Hsi once remarked, “My foundation in Chinese painting is rooted in China, whereas my training in Western paintings was perfected in Singapore.”
The Singapore environment
However, for artists who left China in the 1930s and 1940s to seek a better livelihood, they found a haven in Nanyang where they had the freedom to continue their modernist practice, far removed from the turmoils and restrictions faced by their colleagues in China in the ensuing decades.
While some Nanyang artists occasionally produced works with socially-oriented content in Singapore, it was clear that most were pursuing art purely for individual self-expression. Some commentators, like Piyadasa, have argued that the Nanyang art movement should be seen as an extension of earlier modernist developments in pre-war China.
In the relatively more stable environment of Singapore, the Nanyang artists continued to work and practise. Local schools provided employment as art teachers. Art societies provided platforms for exhibitions and artistic exchange. Books and information on world art were also more readily available.
By the 1950s, the lively art scene and market in Singapore was supported by a growing network of collectors, exhibition venues, art societies, writers, curators and art supplies shops. Chen Wen Hsi once remarked, “My foundation in Chinese painting is rooted in China, whereas my training in Western paintings was perfected in Singapore.”
For the Nanyang artists, their life in Singapore did much to consolidate their understanding of Western art and increase their exposure to a wider range of ideas and concepts than would have been available to them in China, especially after the communists came to power in 1949.
Creating Nanyang art
Similar to some of the discussions taking place in China in the 1930s, many Nanyang artists sought to synthesise Western and Chinese art by relating Western art to their understanding of Chinese art. In the xieyi Chinese ink painting tradition, artists were unconcerned with physical likeness. They were focused on capturing the spirit or essence of the subject, which in turn, was seen as a reflection of the artist’s temperament and character. Hence, Western modern art with its emphasis on subjectivity rather than representation, was consistent with Chinese xieyi principles.
For instance, Liu Kang held that “the arts of East and West seem to be converging… Cezanne, who is referred to as the father of modern art, rejected the scientific and analytical tendencies of Impressionism and Pointillism… He discarded the desire for objective depiction pursued by the Western artists and instead embraced the subjective expression of the Eastern artists.”
Indeed, an openness to new ways of expression and the ability to draw freely from diverse sources of art traditions and practices are hallmarks of the Nanyang artists.
Such discourse produced considerable experimentations among the Nanyang artists in both the ink and oil media. For instance, artists like Chen Chong Swee incorporated Western fixed-point perspective and use of shadows in their works, which are traits not usually found in traditional Chinese ink paintings. Others like Chen Wen Hsi used their understanding of Western modern styles like Cubism and Abstraction to create unconventional compositions for their ink paintings.
There were similarly innovative approaches in Nanyang oil paintings. For instance, Cheong Soo Pieng favoured the prominent use of black lines and thin washes of colour to imbue his oil paintings with the atmospheric mood associated with xieyi landscapes. Others like Yeh Chi Wei incorporated archaic-style Chinese inscriptions in their oil paintings, to convey the flavour of ancient ink rubbings.
Hence, the Nanyang artists saw no strong contradiction between Western and Chinese art. Their preference was to integrate both. Indeed, an openness to new ways of expression and the ability to draw freely from diverse sources of art traditions and practices are hallmarks of the Nanyang artists.