“I have read that it was a saying of an ancient Greek that the first requisite for happiness was to be born in a famous city.”–V.S. Naipaul, 1967.
Pity the plight of the artist born at the periphery, not just of the occidental world, but of the oriental world too.
Chua Ek Kay was born in Teochew, China, just as the old China was crumbling under the Communist onslaught. His family fled to the safety of Singapore, then a British colony, where young Ek Kay grew up in a world situated uneasily between East and West.
China had always had a troubled relationship with those at its periphery: as early as the fourteenth century, the Chinese who left for Nanyang or the South China Sea were treated as deserters and would be punished if they ever returned.
With the advent of the Republic in 1911, the official attitude towards the huaqiao (or overseas Chinese) became much more favourable, when it was thought that capital from the wealthy Nanyang huaqiao could help China compete with the industrialised West. Echoing western rhetoric, it even became popular in some quarters to cast the Nanyang huaqiao in the role of the heroic colonisers of “unoccupied” southern lands.
While some huaqiao welcomed the change, others were more ambivalent. One Chinese intellectual, Liang Shaowen, remarked as he travelled through the Straits Settlements:
“But when you speak with [the huaqiao] do always remember—never ever mention “zhong guo” [China]… If you make such a blunder, he will argue with you. This is because he considers himself a British citizen. Except his eyes are neither blue nor his hair blond. “Zhong guo” is the synonym of weakness, powerlessness, filth and despicability, so he is afraid to identify himself as/ with “zhongguoren” [Chinese].”1
Nonetheless, as recent emigrants, Ek Kay’s family identified strongly with their Chinese heritage. Ek Kay began his studies of traditional Chinese painting with his father, there being few opportunities for formal instruction. He even attended a Chinese-medium school, albeit one in which learning English was mandatory.
As much he loved his art, what possible future was there for a Chinese artist in a cultural backwater like Singapore? The answer was “none” and so Ek Kay, the oldest of seven, dutifully set aside his brushes in favour of business, at least for a time.
He continued to work on his painting. He studied Chinese ink painting from Fan Chang Tien, himself an emigré from China and a proponent of xieyi , literally “writing the meaning” of a painted object rather than merely capturing its likeness (a traditional Chinese idea that was very influential among twentieth century American abstract expressionists, by the way).2
But Ek Kay began to question his attempts to capture a land and culture that were receding into the distance. His understanding of China would always be limited. He realised that he had to work with what he knew, and that wasn’t the China of ancestral imagination but his real home, Singapore.
So he replaced his traditional Chinese landscapes with Singapore streetscapes, while continuing in the xieyi style. His artistic breakthrough met with a mixed response. Chinese art circles in Singapore, conservative as diaspora must be everywhere, rejected the new works, while contemporary art critics adored them.
Ek Kay always had mixed emotions about his reception. Why had his own people rejected him while others did not? And those who embraced him–did they ever understand the ancient cultural references present in his works?