Tan Choh Tee



Tan Choh Tee (b. 1942, Guangdong, China–)1 is a prominent artist known for his impressionist-style oil paintings depicting still life as well as landscapes from a bygone era in Singapore’s history. For his contributions to the local arts scene, Tan was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts in 2006.2

Early life and career
Tan was born in China but immigrated to Singapore in 1953 when he was 12 years old. After arriving in Singapore, Tan helped out at his father’s jewellery shop in South Bridge Road.3 After five years of working in his father’s shop, Tan decided that he had no interest in the business and that he wanted to paint. In 1958, he enrolled himself into the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and studied under the Nanyang Style artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Georgette Chen, Liu Kang and Chen Wen Hsi.4


Tan graduated from NAFA in 1962 and went to work for publisher McGraw-Hill Far East as a book designer. As it was a full-time job, Tan only had the time to paint on weekends and in the evenings.5 Nevertheless, Tan’s artistic abilities did not go unnoticed. In 1962, Tan won the Highly Commended Award at an exhibition organised by Esso Singapore.6

In 1976, Tan decided to resign from his work to become a full-time artist.7In that same year, he won the former Ministry of Culture’s Special Award at the National Day Art Exhibition.8

Artistic career
In the early 1970s, Teo discovered that many parts of Chinatown were fast disappearing under the government’s redevelopment plans. Having grown up in the area since he was a teenager, Tan had a special feeling for the place and felt an urgent need to capture the charm and uniqueness of the Chinatown he knew.9 Thus Teo went on a race against time and bulldozers, trying to put all the old and disappearing buildings and scenes on canvas before they vanished.10 Working relentlessly, he once managed to finish a painting in just two days.11


During this period in time, Singapore’s art scene entered a vibrant phase. There was an increase in the appreciation of the arts and art patronage.12 Having weighed the odds, Tan decided that it was time to paint full-time. Thus, in 1976, he resigned from his well-paid job as a book designer – a job which he had held for the last 13 years – to become a professional artist.13

Initially, Tan had to supplement his income by teaching art privately.14 Despite the financial challenges, Tan pushed on doggedly in his new profession. Painting at a hectic pace, he created a large number of impressive works featuring picturesque scenes of ‘old’ Singapore. Chinatown, Trengganu Street, the back alleys of Jalan Besar and the squatters in Geylang were just some of the many places depicted in his paintings. Tan’s reputation as a professional artist grew.15

In 1984, Tan returned to NAFA, his alma mater, to teach.16 He subsequently went on to attend a masterclass at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China in 1987.17

In the 1980s and 1990s, Tan started venturing overseas to countries like Thailand, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Burma (now Myanmar), Cambodia and Taiwan to paint. He also went to the United States and Europe on exchange programmes. From 2000 onwards, Tan started to travel to China to paint as well.18


In 1998, Tan was selected as the first alumni resident to stay in NAFA’s apartment in the International City of the Arts in Paris (Cite Internationale des Art). The three-month stint allowed him to meet with artists from all over the world and to attend study tours of major museums in Paris.19

Tan has held nine solo exhibitions and participated in more than 50 group exhibitions in places such as Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Indonesia. His works have been acquired by prestigious international auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s.20

In 2006, Tan was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts. In the same year, he also received the Asia Visual Arts Award from the Korean National Cultural Research Organisation.21

Tan’s paintings now sell for about S$9,000, a far cry from the early days when he charged around S$80 a painting just to cover the material costs.22 Financial reward, however, is the least of Tan’s concerns as he maintains that getting high prices for his paintings is not his goal. He paints only to please himself.23 For now, Tan is happy just to be able to continue to paint peacefully in his studio in Wessex Estate, Portsdown Road.24

Stylistic conventions
Tan is known for his series of oil paintings of Chinatown.25 His other favourite themes are old buildings and fast disappearing landscapes of urban Singapore.26

The mid-1980s marked an end to this phase in Tan’s artistic direction. He began to paint still life and landscapes he saw on his travels such as fishing villages in South Thailand, the River Seine in Paris and Huangshan in China.27

Majoring in Western oil painting while he was in NAFA, Tan went on to study Chinese brush painting under pioneering artist Chen Wen Hsi. Between the years 1962 to 1970, Tan had concentrated on Chinese ink painting. However, after 1970, Tan decided to focus on oil painting instead as it appealed to him and he found the medium challenging and satisfying.28

Deeply influenced by the Impressionists, Tan believes that art must flow out of the artist’s personal experiences. Thus, Tan always paints on location and not from photographs. He only paints still life indoors in a studio on rainy days.29

Teo was hailed as the “Matisse of the East” by the Tatler (Singapore) magazine for his impressionist-style paintings. Over the years, Tan has also developed a distinctive personal style away from the Impressionists by using Chinese ink brush techniques in his oil paintings.30

Tan’s works are collected by the National Museum of Singapore, the National Museum of Negara Brunei Darussalam and several other institutions, corporate organisations and private collectors.31

Awards
32

1962: Highly Commended Award, Our Singapore By Our Artists, Esso Singapore.
1976: Special Award for National Day Art Exhibition, Ministry of Cultural, Singapore.
2005: Creative Visual Art Award 2005, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore.
2006: Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts, Singapore; Asia Visual Arts Award, Korean National Cultural Research Organisation.

Exhibitions
33
1978: Cologne Exhibition at Klockner-Humboldt, Deutz A.G. Museum, Germany.

1979: Art in Action, The National Museum, Singapore.
1999: One Man Art Exhibition, Apollo Art Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan.
2007: The Shanghai Art Fair, Shanghai, China.
2007: Imagining The City, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore.
2010: Art Expo Malaysia 2010, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.



Author
Chor Poh Chin



References
1. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=30; Artcommune. (2011). Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.artcommune.com.sg/resources/aaf_artists_briefs.pdf
2. National Arts Council Singapore. (2013, October 4). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award Recipients for Visual Arts. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/visual-arts/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-visual-arts
3.
Chow, C. (2006, October 21). They thought I was crazy. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Chow, C. (2006, October 21). They thought I was crazy. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ins’ Art. (2013). Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.insart.com.sg/artists/tan-choh-tee/#
5. Chow, C. (2006, October 21). They thought I was crazy. The Straits Times, p. 4; Sullivan, K. (1984, July 4). The bulldozer vs the brush. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Cape of Good Hope Art Gallery. (2009). Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.capeofgoodhope.com.sg/viewartist.php?n_id=50
7. Chow, C. (2006, October 21). They thought I was crazy. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Ins’ Art. (2013). Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.insart.com.sg/artists/tan-choh-tee/#
9. 吴启基 & 李白娟 [Wu, Q. J. & Li, B. J.]. (1999, November 26). 西洋颜彩东方意境 [Xi yang yan cai dong fang yi jing]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 47. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Art Gallery Guide. (2013). Ask the Artist: Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.sagg.com.sg/page/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=770
10. Sullivan, K. (1984, July 4). The bulldozer vs the brush. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Sullivan, K. (1984, July 4). The bulldozer vs the brush. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=30
13. Sung, B. (1979, April 4). Choh Tee gives up stable job for love of art. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Sullivan, K. (1984, July 4). The bulldozer vs the brush. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Sullivan, K. (1984, July 4). The bulldozer vs the brush. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=30
16. Blue Lotus. (2014). Singapore Artist Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://bluelotusfineart.com.sg/artists/singapore-artist/tan-choh-tee
17. Leong, W. K. (1998, May 11). Ooh la la! He’ll be off to Paris. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. 胡文雁 & 李白娟 [Hu, W. Y. & Li, B. J.]. (2006, October 21). 文化奖得主佘美幸陈楚智不言倦不知足 [Wen hua jiang de zhu She Mei Xing Chen Chu Zhi bu yan juan bu zhi zu]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 34. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Leong, W. K. (1998, May 11). Ooh la la! He’ll be off to Paris. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Blue Lotus. (2014). Singapore Artist Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://bluelotusfineart.com.sg/artists/singapore-artist/tan-choh-tee
20. 胡文雁 & 李白娟 [Hu, W. Y. & Li, B. J.]. (2006, October 21). 文化奖得主佘美幸陈楚智不言倦不知足 [Wen hua jiang de zhu She Mei Xing Chen Chu Zhi bu yan juan bu zhi zu]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 34. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Ins’ Art. (2013). Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.insart.com.sg/artists/tan-choh-tee/#; 陈楚智获亚细亚美术奖. (2006, April 15). 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Chow, C. (2006, October 21). They thought I was crazy. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2006, November 11). 文化奖得主陈楚智只为自己作画 [Wen hua jiang de zhu Chen Chu Zhi zhi wei zi ji zuo hua]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 41. Retrieved from
NewspaperSG.
24. Chow, C. (2006, October 21). They thought I was crazy. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Singapore Art Gallery Guide. (2013). Ask the Artist: Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.sagg.com.sg/page/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=770
26. Sullivan, K. (1984, July 4). The bulldozer vs the brush. The Straits Times, p. 6; Sung, B. (1979, April 4). Choh Tee gives up stable job for love of art. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Sullivan, K. (1984, July 4). The bulldozer vs the brush. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Art Gallery Guide. (2013). Ask the Artist: Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.sagg.com.sg/page/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=770
28. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=30
29. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=30
30. Ins’ Art. (2013). Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.insart.com.sg/artists/tan-choh-tee/#; Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=30

31. Artcommune. (2011). Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.artcommune.com.sg/resources/aaf_artists_briefs.pdf
32. Cape of Good Hope Art Gallery. (2009). Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.capeofgoodhope.com.sg/viewartist.php?n_id=50
33. Cape of Good Hope Art Gallery. (2009). Tan Choh Tee. Retrieved from http://www.capeofgoodhope.com.sg/viewartist.php?n_id=50



Further resources

Tan, C. T. (1985). The oil paintings of Choh Tee. Taipei, Taiwan: Art Book Co.
(Call no.: RCLOS 759.95957 TAN)

Tan, C. T. (2008). Choh Tee. Singapore: Tan Choh Tee.
(Call no.: RCLOS 759.95957 TAN)



The information in this article is valid as at 5 March 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
Personalities
Arts