Until recent years, many of the writers and curators with an interest in Nanyang art have been men. The artists featured in their writings or exhibitions of Nanyang art have been largely male, revolving around familiar names like Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee and Liu Kang. With the exception of Georgette Chen, who had been the subject of three museum survey exhibitions since the 1980s, most people in Singapore would find it difficult to name another comparable female Nanyang artist.
Sun Yee: a forgotten artist
The relative lack of awareness of Singapore’s Nanyang women artists is best illustrated by the awkward case of Sun Yee (沈雁) (1919-2010). By most measures, Sun Yee would be considered a successful artist. She had studied in major art centres like Shanghai, Tokyo and Paris, including spending time at the studio of well-known French artist Fernand Léger. Her works were accepted for salon exhibitions and acquired by museums in France.
In her lifetime, she went on three world tours (in 1964-1965, 1971-1972, and 1980-1981) and held close to 100 exhibitions. In Singapore, where she eventually settled down, she spent close to three decades heading an art academy — a role which no other local woman artist had undertaken before. During her tenure, the academy nurtured many students, some of whom furthered their studies overseas and later became well-known artists in their own right.
Yet Sun Yee is little-known today in Singapore beyond a small circle of art historians, peers and former students. This may be largely attributed to the mixed legacy of the institution which she headed for so many years — the Singapore Academy of Arts. Until the official opening of Baharuddin Vocational Institute (Singapore’s first government-initiated school for applied arts) in 1971, art schools were usually started by private individuals. The most well-known examples are the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College of the Arts — thriving art colleges which today receive government funding.
In the early years, the Academy performed well, and some of its students even went on to further their studies overseas.
The Singapore Academy of Arts (“Academy”) had similar beginnings. It was initiated by the China Society (“Society”), a local organisation founded in 1949 with the aim of promoting interest in and appreciation of Chinese culture. Comprising members from different ethnic backgrounds and walks of life, the Society’s activities were largely conducted in English. Its programmes were wide-ranging including concerts, talks, publications and art exhibitions. Eventually, the Society started conducting art classes under the name of “Singapore Academy of Arts” in 1957.
The Academy initially offered classes in painting, music and opera, with the eventual aim of becoming a comprehensive school with classes in the visual arts, music, theatre, literature, photography and film, as mentioned in the Singapore Academy of Arts First Exhibition publication in 1958. In the early years, the Academy performed well, and some of its students even went on to further their studies overseas. For instance, Inche Yunos bin Aman was awarded a French government scholarship to study art in Paris in 1961. Three years later, fellow students Yeo Kim Seng and Wee Kong Chai also went to Paris to further their studies. All these were achieved during the tenure of the Academy’s first and only principal, Sun Yee. However, by the early 1980s, the Academy’s momentum slowed down, likely due to various factors.
Up until the early 1980s, despite Sun Yee’s public appeals in the 1970s for more financial support, the Academy had still not managed to raise enough funds for a more permanent home.
Firstly, the Academy constantly suffered from poor funding. In its initial years, China Society managed to secure donations from patrons like Lee Kong Chian, Loke Wan Tho, Shaw Brothers and the Asia Foundation to set up an arts fund to support the Academy’s activities. However, an art school also needed space to conduct lessons and store its materials. As the Society did not have its own premises, the Academy had to borrow spaces to use as classrooms.
Up until the early 1980s, despite Sun Yee’s public appeals in the 1970s for more financial support, the Academy had still not managed to raise enough funds for a more permanent home. Due to the lack of funding and space, the Academy could only offer evening and weekend classes. This meant that there was a limit to how much its students could learn, compared to an art school like Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts which offered full-time courses. All these factors likely had an impact on the quantity and quality of students which the Academy could attract.
Secondly, the Academy did not operate as an independent legal entity. It was always a part of China Society’s operations. Hence, the Academy’s financial viability was largely, if not wholly, dependent on the Society. Unfortunately, by the 1980s, the Society had become less active.
Like many of its founding members, Mr Lee Siow Mong — the Society’s longstanding president and one of the Academy’s strongest supporters — was also getting older. Known for his keen interest in Chinese art and culture, Lee was also a distinguished civil servant in Singapore, serving stints as permanent secretary in the education ministry and culture ministry. After leaving the Singapore civil service in 1965, he worked for 15 years for the Malaysian public service, and eventually passed away in 1989. From the mid-1960s onwards, Lee did not hold any major public positions in Singapore, and it likely became even more difficult for the Society to secure greater financial support for the Academy.
In 1987, the Society could not even run its own activities due to membership difficulties. A year later, the Society noted that the Academy had not organised any classes since 1983, and therefore decided to dissolve the art fund which had been originally set up to run the Academy’s classes. That decision effectively led to the demise of the Academy.
While Huang and Liu took cover under some trees to do their sketching, Sun Yee happily spent a few hours under the hot sun to complete her oil painting. He marvelled that the more she painted, the more energetic she became.
However, it is clear that Sun Yee’s dedication to art education was matched, if not eclipsed, by the passion for her own practice. From 1960 to 1980, she held at least one solo exhibition each year, and embarked on three world tours, showing her works in diverse places including Asia, Europe, North and South America, Africa and the Pacific Islands. Her energy was indefatigable. In 1971, she had seven shows in one year!
Wherever she went, Sun Yee also took the opportunity to visit local art museums and depict the people and places she encountered. Her fascination with local culture and flora is amply reflected in her ink paintings in the National Gallery Singapore’s collection, such as “Indian Dance, Malay Dance — Ronggeng and Chinese Painting”. In 1963, Sun Yee published the catalogue Flowers of Nanyang (南洋花卉) devoted to ink paintings of local flowers.
Huang Pao Fang, her former schoolmate from Shanghai, recalled that Sun Yee had once invited him and artist Liu Kang to go outdoor painting in Singapore in 1954. While Huang and Liu took cover under some trees to do their sketching, Sun Yee happily spent a few hours under the hot sun to complete her oil painting. He marvelled that the more she painted, the more energetic she became. That scene was most likely the one captured by Liu Kang in his 1954 painting of Sun Yee, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, hard at work, as noted in Re-connecting: Selected Writings on Singapore Art and Art Criticism.
Sun Yee was also an artist with diverse interests. She was an arts writer, demonstrating a good knowledge of Chinese and Western art history. In 1966, Sun Yee published eight essays in her anthology Yitan fengyun 艺坛风云 (Diversities of the Art World, 1966). It is not known if she had written more essays after 1966.
She performed Chinese opera, collected antique ink paintings and even started her own art space at Mount Faber in 1979. The latter was intended to be a tourist destination with an art gallery, restaurant and spaces available for cultural activities like film screenings, opera performances and martial arts performances.
In many of her ventures, she displayed an entrepreneurial spirit that was rare among her peers. For instance, she boldly included commercial advertisements in her 1963 publication Flowers of Nanyang. Despite naysayers who felt that such advertisements were too vulgar for art publications, she took the view that “If there are no businessmen, there will be no city. In this 20th century, trade is the heart of society, and the whole world is talking about common markets. The progress of art must intimately tie itself to the prosperity of trade.”
Given Sun Yee’s diverse interests and lack of institutional support for the Academy, it was understandable why she could not bring the Academy to greater heights. Nonetheless, she remained well-regarded by her peers and students for her humility and generous spirit. As Liu Kang recalled in 1948 in "Shen Yan de yishu 沈雁的艺术 (Sun Yee and her art)" in Liu Kang Wenji (Anthology of Essays by Liu Kang) published in 1981, Sun Yee once said that “whenever she finishes an artwork, she immediately feels dissatisfied and wants to start painting a better piece. This reveals her modest attitude towards learning.”
In a telling anecdote, Sun Yee and her former student Lim Hwee Tiong (林辉忠) had once taken part in the same local art competition, for which Lim won an award but not Sun Yee. Despite her seniority, Sun Yee had no airs and Lim was very moved when his former principal graciously congratulated him at the awards ceremony. (From an interview with Lim Hwee Tiong on 30 December 2022.) Similarly, former student Tong Chin Sye was surprised when Sun Yee generously allowed him to borrow the Academy’s expensive plaster casts for his personal study at home. As a result of her caring attitude towards her students, a few of them like Yau Tian Yau helped look after their former principal in her old age (as she never married) until she passed away in 2010.
Sun Yee was among the artists who saw no contradiction between Western and Chinese art, and sought to integrate both.
In many respects, Sun Yee shared many similarities with her Nanyang peers like Liu Kang. In the early 20th century, these China-born artists were exposed to the same cultural environment. Many were educated in art schools that taught both Western and Chinese art. Some like Sun Yee and Liu Kang had the opportunity to further their art studies in places like Paris and Tokyo. Hence, many became proficient in both Western and Asian art traditions.
Sun Yee was among the artists who saw no contradiction between Western and Chinese art, and sought to integrate both. She was one of those who held that the new “Malaysianised” art should evolve with the times, and synthesise the scientific techniques of Western art and the traditional spirit of Chinese art, in both form and content, as recorded in “A Discussion From Chinese and Western Art to the Method of Creating Malaysianised Art” in Yitan fengyun 艺坛风云 (Diversities of the Art World, 1966).
Yet in other respects, Sun Yee was an outlier, compared to her contemporaries in Singapore. She took on the ambitious task of running an art school, whereas most of her peers chose to be art teachers. She had an entrepreneurial spirit and a fearless attitude, travelling on her own and initiating solo exhibitions around the world. Due to her many overseas trips and family contacts in Brazil, her personal networks with international museums and artists were especially wide. Yet, Sun Yee’s artworks, writings and relationships remain little studied till today. It is hoped that more research can be done in the future to re-appraise the multi-faceted practices of Nanyang women artists like Sun Yee. This will result in a much better and more nuanced understanding of Singapore’s art history.
Related: This is what Nanyang art looks like | What is Nanyang art? | Chinese bookshops in Singapore: Art salons of the 1970s and 1980s