CHINESE INK painting was once a focus of Penang’s Chinese community, especially among groups passionate for Chinese arts and culture, during the 30s and 40s. That was when artists from China still came to Penang, nourishing and inspiring the place. Some settled down and sought to earn a living here, while some came to exhibit and sell their artworks to raise funds for the war relief efforts in China.
Angie Ang mounting a piece of Chinese painting on rice paper at her workshop Photo: Angie Ang.
During that period, Penang art collectors and artists actively supported artists from China by holding exhibitions and activities to showcase and market their works. The founding of Penang Art Society (PAS) by a group of local Chinese in 1953 was advocated by Xu Beihong, a prominent artist from China. The society was founded with a focus on Chinese art paintings and calligraphy.
Angie Ang Hong Leow who has been involved in marketing art since 1983 explains, “At that time, the market for Chinese art was mainly about paintings by prominent artists from China. Our local artists rarely painted Chinese art during that period. Collectors were mostly local Chinese businessmen and traders, especially those in the tin mining industry. In the 1990s I saw a few local artists like Rosalynn Teoh, Hon Peow and Sim See San who were trained in Chinese art starting to conduct Chinese brush painting classes.” Specialised in restoring and mounting Chinese paintings and calligraphy on rice papers, Angie sees a growing interest in local Chinese art based on the increasing demand for Chinese art mounting and framing services at her art gallery cum framing shop Lekuan Art Gallery located at Pulau Tikus.
Shen Ying and her students at her class at PCBPAS. Photo: Shen Ying.
Observing her father Ang Swee Hin persevere in promoting knowledge and skills of Chinese brush painting as an art teacher after the family migrated to Penang in 1948, Ang Tin Kean decided to continue her father’s legacy both in painting as well as in promoting Chinese art in Penang. She founded the Penang Chinese Brush Painting Art Society (PCBPAS) in 2012. Through frequent activities held by PCBPAS, including art exhibitions, art classes and art exchange programmes among artists from different countries, Chinese art has been central to the Penang art scene in recent years. The society rapidly expanded from 11 members to about 250 members today. “Besides seeing more people actively engaged in our activities held at our centre, we observed the expansion of business at an art supplies retailer in town who has started to import more supplies of Chinese art materials and tools from China due to the greater demand. Furthermore, our members are frequently invited to conduct Chinese art classes as one of the school co-curriculum activities at some Chinese schools,” says Tin Kean.
As the main supporter who has continuously finance and advise on the operation of PCBPAS, Loke Gim Tay has personally developed a strong passion for Chinese art through his engagement in activities and events initiated by the society. “In the beginning, due to limited awareness and appreciation, our charity art shows received a very poor response. At last, I bought up all exhibited artworks as my support to the society. As we went along with more activities to create awareness, we slowly saw fruitful results. Nowadays, more people are aware of and understand Chinese art, not only as a form of art but also as a meditation accompanying the painting process. It is a medium for spiritual and personality development.”
Chinese artists from Shanghai visiting the PCBPAS centre for an art and cultural exchange session. Loke Gim Tay (in orange) is the advisor and main supporter of PCBPAS. Photo: PCBPAS.
Being trained under the discipleship of “Shanghai School” (Haipai) Chinese Brush Painting art (Freehand Style), Shen Ying started to conduct art classes at PCBPAS four years ago. Over the years, the number of students has grown to about 60. Besides the locals are students who fly in from Australia, the US and India to join her classes.
Loke sees an increasing market demand for Chinese art. “Many of our exhibitions achieve remarkable sales. We see an increasing trend between RM300-RM1,000 per piece to RM1,000-RM6,000 per piece. These strongly motivate the society to keep moving forward.” However, Tin Kean clarifies, “Although we observe an increase in sales and prices of Chinese paintings, we still lack serious collectors investing in Chinese art in Penang. Most people buy a piece of Chinese painting merely for display at home, with a belief that it will bring good luck and positive energies.”
A Chinese brush painting by Becky Choong. Photo: Becky Choong.
According to Alvin Chia who manages Ming Fine Art at Straits Quay, clients who buy Chinese paintings are mostly Malaysian Chinese. “At first sight, Chinese paintings seldom attract foreign clients, but I have managed to market our collection of Chinese paintings by selected local artists to clients from different countries, both Western and Asian, by storytelling the history, materials, subjects, techniques as well as the meaning of each component of a piece of Chinese painting.” Although marketing to local Chinese seems much easier, Chia encounters challenges in convincing them to buy Chinese artworks by local artists. “They tend to compare local works to Chinese classical paintings created by artists in China.”
The Way Forward
As art marketer, Chia encourages local artists and talents who are practising Chinese art to keep improving in skill and creativity in order to compete in the global Chinese art market.
Seeing the bright future of Penang’s Chinese art scene, Shen Ying always emphasises creativity while preserving the essence of the fine tradition of Chinese art. She encourages her students to dare to be creative after mastering the basic skills and techniques of Chinese painting. “To keep Chinese art relevant and connected to our future generations, I believe we must attempt to contemporarise Chinese art creations, and make traditional art more easily accepted.”
Sharing the same opinion, Shen Ying, Tin Kean and Becky Choong (an artist, art curator cum art critic) see the urgent need for experienced and qualified teachers or mentors for Chinese art to nurture more high quality talents in Chinese art in Penang and Malaysia. Tin Kean says, “I hope to see a proper learning centre for Chinese art in Penang where learners are formally taught and trained under a well-designed teaching and learning syllabus by experienced and qualified teachers.”
Loke feels thankful to see more support from the state government, not only in funding but also in attending PCBPAS events. “I think, with strong and continuous support from the government, Penang’s Chinese art scene will keep flourishing!”
Nicole Chang has just completed her PhD at the Department of Development Planning and Management, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.