Tan Swie Hian



Tan Swie Hian (b. 5 May 1943, Pulau Halang, Indonesia–)1 is a multidisciplinary Singaporean artist known for his poetry, novels, paintings, calligraphy and sculptures. A highly esteemed artist, Tan has received multiple accolades both locally and internationally in the fields of literature, visual arts and the performing arts.2 For his artistic achievements, he was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts in 1987.3

Early life and career
Tan’s father, Tan Chan Pok, was from Nan’an, a city in the Fujian province of China. In 1922, the senior Tan left China and settled in Pulau Halang, Indonesia, where he made a livelihood from fishing.4


When Tan was about three years old, the family moved from Pulau Halang to the nearby town of Bagansiapiapi so that the children could attend school. Tan himself was enrolled in a Chinese school located in town. When he was about 10 years old, Tan’s parents sent him to Malacca to study English.5 After two years, they decided to send him to Singapore to study at Hua Min Xiao Xue, a village primary school in Jurong. Upon graduation from primary school, Tan enrolled into The Chinese High School.6

During his early secondary school days, Tan lost interest in his studies. He got into fights, played truant and almost dropped out of school. He had to repeat his secondary four year and was considered a hopeless case.7 His father’s business had, by then, prospered and the senior Tan owned a fleet of barges ferrying commodities and passengers.8 Seeing that Tan was doing badly in school, he wanted Tan to return to Indonesia to help in the family business. However, Tan refused as he would rather repeat another year in school than to return to Indonesia to do business.9

It was during his repeat year that Tan met two inspiring teachers who turned his life around. With their encouragement, his grades improved and at the end of the year, he actually topped his class in literature and English.10

During his repeat year, Tan started to develop an interest in reading. He frequented the school library and read voraciously, from Chinese classics to Greek mythology. At the same time, Tan started to show talent in drawing, calligraphy and poetry, winning a number of prizes on various occasions.11 Tan graduated from Chinese High in 1963.12

After graduating from high school, Tan was admitted to Nanyang University where he studied literature. He immersed himself in Western literature, studying the works of the Romantics such as Keats, Shelly, Byron and other classical authors.13 While an undergraduate, Tan served as the editor for an annual publication of the university’s Buddhist society and a literary publication by the English department.14

Tan spent his university days reading, reflecting and writing.15 He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Modern Languages and Literature in 1968.16

Upon graduation, Tan went to work at the French Embassy as a press secretary – a post he held for 24 years.17 In 1992, Tan decided to retire early so that he could concentrate on his artistic pursuits.18

Artistic career
Tan showed interest and talent in drawing even as a child.19 When his father had wanted him to return to Indonesia, Tan refused as he knew that he was not cut out to do business. By his teenage years, Tan already knew he wanted to pursue a literary career.20


In 1968, Tan graduated from university and started work at the French embassy. Tan also made his debut as an artist when his first Chinese poetry collection, The Giant, was published that same year.21 The Giant was a collection of modernist, avant-garde Chinese poetry. It was a landmark work that rocked the literary scene in Malaysia and Singapore and established Tan as a poet of standing.22

Since then, Tan has published numerous collections of poems, prose, novels, critiques and translated works. He has, notably, translated the works of French poets like Henri Michaux, Jacques Prévert, Romanian literary figure Marin Sorescu, English writer Aldous Huxley, Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and Indian spiritualists Ramana Maharshi and Jiddu Krishnamurti into Chinese.23

His achievements in the literary arena are attested to by the numerous awards he has received both locally and abroad, including the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1978), France’s premier arts award; the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award (1978); the Singapore Chinese Literature Prize (1998); and the Marin Sorescu International Poetry Prize (1999).24

Although Tan started out as a poet, his creativity is not limited to only one form of expression. He is equally at ease with other artistic disciplines such as oil and acrylic painting, Chinese ink painting and calligraphy.25 In 1973, Tan held his first solo exhibition, Paintings of Infused Contemplation, at the National Library.26 Since then, his paintings, calligraphy, sculptures, prints and seal carvings have been exhibited both locally and overseas in solo and group exhibitions, gaining him much national and international recognition as a result.27

In 1998, Tan was selected by the United Nations along with 97 other artists to illustrate a new edition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.28

Tan was one of the 19 artists selected to create artworks under the Art in Transit programme for the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train stations along the North-East Line, which opened in 2003. His piece at Chinatown station, entitled The Phoenix's-Eye Domain, comprises a wall mural depicting the story of early Chinese immigrants in Singapore and a poem in three sets of rhyming couplets describing their journey.29

In 2006, the Singapore Post released a set of 11 stamps based on Tan’s artworks.30

In 2012, Tan’s oil and acrylic painting When The Moon Is Orbed sold for S$3.7 million, a record at the time in Southeast Asia.31

Tan’s works have also been the inspiration for many visual and musical performances. Collaborating with various artists, his novels, poems and fables have been choreographed into dances. For example, Tang huang (1985), Two Wings (1992), Two Rivers (1992) and Suchness (1996) were choreographed into dances by Cultural Medallion winners Lim Fei Shen and Ying E Ding. Another collection of fables, Yu Yan yin shi (1999), was set to music by Phoon Yew Tien, another Cultural Medallion winner, and performed by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. Tan also designed the costumes for some of these productions.32

Tan is also a highly esteemed and sought-after artist overseas. In 1993, a collection of Tan’s works was published exclusively in China and his name became a buzzword there.33 In 1996, Tan was selected as one of 135 artists from around the world to have their works etched on the rocks of the Three Gorges along the Yangtze River in what would be the world’s first open-air contemporary Chinese art gallery.34 In 2000, his essay and calligraphy piece celebrating the birthday of the Yellow Emperor was inscribed on a boulder and erected in the Imperial Mausoleum at Shanxi, which is considered the most ancient tomb in China.35

Outside of Asia, Tan has also been conferred many prestigious titles and awards. In 1987, he was made a Member-Correspondent of the Academy of Fine Arts of the Institute of France. The Institute has only 50 life members and Tan is the only one from Southeast Asia.36 In 2006, Tan received the Officer in the National Order of the Legion of Honour medal. The award is France's highest honour for individuals who have contributed significantly to civilian or military life.37

In 1993, Tan Tien Chi, an avid collector, built the first private art museum in Singapore – the Tan Swie Hian Museum.38

Described by Time magazine in 2003 as “Singapore’s Renaissance Man”, Tan continues to create cross-disciplinary art.39

On 30 November 2014, Tan's ink portrait, Bada Shanren, was auctioned for 20.7 million yuan (S$4.4 million dollars) in Beijing, breaking his earlier record with When The Moon Is Orbed and cementing his reputation as the most expensive artist in Southeast Asia.40

Stylistic conventions

Tan is a multitalented artist. He does not limit himself to a single art form or medium but works consummately with a variety of art forms ranging from writing, oil painting, acrylic painting, Chinese ink painting, calligraphy, sculpture, seal carving to costume and stage designs and dramatic performances.41

Fluent in Malay, Chinese, English and French, Tan is also well-versed in Chinese and Western culture and philosophy. His works express ideas from Eastern and Western philosophy and merges elements from both Eastern and Western cultures to produce a unique style.42

Much of Tan’s art also draws deeply from Buddhist teachings. For example, Nite Kites (1996) and Six Indriyas (1996) are spiritually inspired works. The influence of Buddhism in his art is most clearly seen in his use of fables, which is an allegorical form commonly found in Mahayana Buddhist scriptures.43

Contributions
Tan was the first person to contribute to the My Library Movement initiative that was launched by the National Library Board (NLB) on 1 October 2003 to encourage people to take a stake in the library. Tan donated his personal collection comprising over 6,500 books, manuscripts, artworks and artefacts to NLB. Tan’s donated works eventually became the Tan Swie Hian Collection, which is housed on the 10th floor of the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library located within the National Library Building along Victoria Street as part of its Donor’s Collection.44 In 2006, Tan was one of 10 people selected to be library ambassadors for NLB’s Celebrating Libraries campaign.45

Awards46
1978: Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
1978: National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award.
1985: Gold Medal Salon des Artistes François.
1987: Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts.
1987: Pingat Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya by the Association of Artists of Various Resources.
1989: Chevalier de l’ Ordre Nationale du Merite.
1998: Singapore Chinese Literature Prize.
1999: Marin Sorescu International Poetry Prize.
2003: World Economic Forum Crystal Award.
2003: Honorary Doctorate of Letters by NTU.
2003: Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).
2006: Officer of the Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur.
2007: Distinguished Patron of Heritage Award.



Author
Chor Poh Chin



References
1. 陈瑞献 [Chen, R. X.]. (1996). 陈瑞献小说集: 1964–1984 [Chen Ruixian xiao shuo ji: 1964–1984]. 新加坡: 跨世纪制作城. (Call no.: Chinese RSING C813.4 CRX)
2.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Swie+Hian
3.
National Arts Council Singapore. (2012). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award Recipients for Visual Arts. Retrieved from
https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/visual-arts/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-visual-arts
4.
Woon, T. H. (2008). To paint a smile: Insights of one artist's approach to happiness. Singapore: Candid Creation, p. 47. (Call no.: RSING 158.1 WOO)|
5.
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 83. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 700.92 FGX)
6.
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 84. (Call no.: Chinese R SING 700.92 FGX)
7.
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 84. (Call no.: Chinese R SING 700.92 FGX)
8.
Woon, T. H. (2008). To paint a smile: Insights of one artist's approach to happiness. Singapore: Candid Creation, p. 47. (Call no.: RSING 158.1 WOO)
9.
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 84. (Call no.: Chinese R SING 700.92 FGX)
10.
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 84. (Call no.: Chinese R SING 700.92 FGX); Woon, T. H. (2008). To paint a smile: Insights of one artist's approach to happiness. Singapore: Candid Creation, p. 47. (Call no.: RSING 158.1 WOO)
11.
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 87. (Call no.: Chinese R SING 700.92 FGX)
12.
黄惠玲 [Huang, H. L.]. (1989, March 20). 四杰出华中校友谈母校·情依依 [Si jie chu Hua Zhong xiao you tan mu xiao qing yi yi]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13.
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 87. (Call no.: Chinese R SING 700.92 FGX)
14.
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 88. (Call no.: Chinese R SING 700.92 FGX)
15.
母亲在云端微笑 [Mu qin zai yun duan wei xiao]. (2003, August 12). 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Swie+Hian
17.
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 74. (Call no.: Chinese R SING 700.92 FGX)
18.
母亲在云端微笑 [Mu qin zai yun duan wei xiao]. (2003, August 12). 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; 方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 91. (Call no.: Chinese R SING 700.92 FGX)
19.
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 88. (Call no.: Chinese R SING 700.92 FGX)
20.
Woon, T. H. (2008). To paint a smile: Insights of one artist's approach to happiness. Singapore: Candid Creation, p. 48. (Call no.: RSING 158.1 WOO)
21.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Swie+Hian
22.
Woon, T. H. (2008). To paint a smile: Insights of one artist's approach to happiness. Singapore: Candid Creation, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 158.1 WOO)
23.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Swie+Hian; Woon, T. H. (2008). To paint a smile: Insights of one artist's approach to happiness. Singapore: Candid Creation, p. 52. (Call no.: RSING 158.1 WOO)
24.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Swie+Hian; Tan Swie Hian. (2005). 简介 [Jian jie].Retrieved from http://tanswiehian.sg/index.php?lang=zh-Hans&CODE=02
25.
Yap, S. (2007, April 20). Artist Tan Swie Hian launches the write stuff. The Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26.
Toasting milestones. (2004, August 21). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27.
Tan Swie Hian. (2005). 联展选录 [Lian zhan xuan lu].Retrieved from http://tanswiehian.sg/index.php?lang=zh-Hans&CODE=02&section=group_exhibitions
28.
Candid Creation Publishing. Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.candidcreation.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=74
29.
Tan, S. Y. (2005). Tan Swie Hian at Chinatown – The Phoenix’s-Eye Domain. Retrieved from http://tanswiehian.sg/images/en/essays/chinatown_en.pdf
30.
Singapore Post. Take home a piece of art on stamps [Press release] Retrieved from http://www.singpost.com/download/AboutSingPost/Media/NewsReleases/2006/PR20060216.pdf
31.
Asia News Network. (2012, December 3). Singapore artist's work sells for US$3m. Retrieved from http://www.asianewsnet.net/news-39718.html
32.
Tan Swie Hian. (2005). 表演艺术 [Biao yan yi shu].Retrieved from http://tanswiehian.sg/index.php?lang=zh-Hans&CODE=03a&section=performing_arts
33.
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2002). 巨匠陈瑞献 [Ju jiang Chen Ruixian]. 新加坡: 创意圈工作室, p. 77. (Call no.: Chinese R SING 700.92 FGX); Oon, C. (2000, March 6). Happy Birthday, Yellow Emperor. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34.
Swie Hian on the rocks of the Three Gorges. (1996, March 7). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35.
Candid Creation Publishing. Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.candidcreation.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=74
36.
Toasting milestones. (2004, August 21). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37.
A toast to Tan Swie Hian. (2006, June 7). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38.
Candid Creation Publishing. Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.candidcreation.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=74
39.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Swie+Hian
40.
Shetty, D. (2014, November 30). Tan Swie Hian's painting sold at auction for S$4.4 million, breaks own record for priciest work by Singapore artist. The Straits Times; Shetty, D. (2014, December 1). 5 things to know about Tan Swie Hian. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
41.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Swie+Hian;
Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 190. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
42.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Swie+Hian
43.
Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 190. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
44.
Loh, S. (2003, October 2). Tan parts with rare artefacts. The Straits Times, p. 3; Leaving a legacy. (2005, November 12). The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Chen, R. X. (2005). Tan Swie Hian collection catalogue. Singapore: Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, National Library Board, p. 11. (Call no.: RSING q700.92 CHE)
45.
Tom. K. (2006, January 26). Envoys get booked. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
46.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Swie Hian. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Swie+Hian; Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 545. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003-SIN-[HIS])



Further resources
方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2006). 陈瑞献选集 [Chen Ruixian xuan ji]. 新加坡: 创意圈出版社.

(Call no.: Chinese RSING 808.8 CRX)

陈瑞献 [Chen, R. X.]. (1983). 陈瑞献纸刻 [Cartogravures]. 新加坡: 智力出版社.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 736.98 CRX)

陈瑞献 [Chen, R. X.]. (1983). 陈瑞献文集 [Chen Ruixian wen ji]. 新加坡: 新加坡新闻与出版公司.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING C810.08 CRX)

Chen, R. X. (1984). Portraits. Singapore: Intellectual Pub.
(Call no.: RCLOS 757.3 TAN)

陈瑞献 [Chen, R. X.]. (1992). 陈瑞献诗集: 1964-1991 [Chen Ruixian shi ji: 1964-1991]. 新加坡: 智力出版社.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING C811.5 CRX)

陈瑞献 [Chen, R. X.]. (2001). Chen Ruixian [Tan Swie Hian]. 新加坡: 南洋艺术学院.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING q700.92 TSH)

陈瑞献 [Chen, R. X.]. (2012). 陈瑞献个展 [One-man exhibition by Tan Swie Hian]. 北京: 北京华严文化艺术中心.
(Call no.: Chinese RCLOS 759.95957 CRX)

方桂香 [Fang, G. X.]. (2009). 诗人镜头: 陈瑞献摄影作品集 [A poet's lens: Tan Swie Hian's art of photography]. 新加坡: 创意圈出版社.
(Call no.: Chinese RART 779.095957 FGX)



The information in this article is valid as at 26 February 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Sculpture
Artists--Singapore
Cultural Medallion Recipients (Art)
Arts, Singaporean--20th century
Award winners
Chen, Ruixian, 1943-
Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists>>Cultural Medallion Recipients
Painting
Painting--Singaporean
Calligraphy
Personalities>>Biographies>>Authors>>Cultural Medallion Recipients