Lim Hak Tai



Lim Hak Tai (林学大) (b. 28 May 1893, Xiamen, Fujian, China–d. 14 February 1963, Singapore) was one of Singapore’s pioneer artists and art educators. He was one of the main proponents of the Nanyang style of art in terms of technique and subject matter. He was also the founding principal of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). While Lim was an accomplished artist, he focused his energies on art education despite facing many personal and financial challenges. In 1962, the government awarded him the Sijil Kemuliaan (Certificate of Honour) as part of Singapore’s first National Day Awards, in recognition of his contributions to local art.1

Early life and career in China
Lim was born in 1893 in Xiamen, Fujian province, China. He left the city in 1913 to study in Fuzhou, the provincial capital of Fujian, and graduated from the Fujian Provincial Teachers’ Training College in 1915 with a certificate in applied arts. Upon graduation, he returned to Xiamen and taught at various schools, first at No. 13 High School in Fujian, then at the Jimei primary, secondary and teachers’ training schools started by philanthropist Tan Kah Kee. It is believed that he taught art as well as other subjects such as mathematics.2

In 1923, while he was still teaching at the Jimei schools, Lim co-founded the Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts with two other artists. At the academy, he was in charge of disciplinary affairs and was the subject head for art education, introduction to art, and studies on perspective and colour. Lim eventually stopped teaching at the Jimei schools in 1929.3

Move to Singapore and founding of NAFA

Lim left Xiamen for Singapore following the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 7 July 1937, which marked the start of the Sino-Japanese war. Soon after arriving in Singapore, he became a member of the Society of Chinese Artists. Then, with the support of the Jimei school alumni in Singapore, including Tan See Siang, the son of Tan Kah Kee, Lim and a group of passionate artists established NAFA in 1938.4

NAFA started its first classes in March 1938 with an enrolment of only 14 students. Located in a small shophouse in Geylang, the school had three full-time staff, including Lim, who was not only the principal but also the head of the art education department and the instructor for watercolour and oil painting. Lim was not paid for his work at NAFA and instead earned an income from teaching art at The Chinese High School.5


Post-war challenges
NAFA was closed after Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942 but reopened in 1946 in a bungalow on St Thomas Walk. It was the only known pre-war art school to have survived the World War II. Lim resumed his work at the academy as principal and teacher.6

However, the academy faced funding and enrolment challenges after the war. Being a private school, NAFA was not entitled to subsidies like the government-run institutions. Yet, school fees were kept low and even waived for some needy students, as Lim believed in keeping art education affordable for all. Fund-raising activities were held often, but the financial situation was so dire that Lim and the school’s board of directors had to make personal contributions to help cover the operating costs. The staff were poorly paid and had to supplement their income with additional teaching jobs elsewhere, as did Lim. To make matters worse, student enrolment fell after the government stopped recognising the academy’s art education diploma in 1952 during the Malayan Emergency. However, the staff remained loyal to the school and to Lim as he persevered in his vision for NAFA.7

During this difficult period, Lim managed to recruit four like-minded and talented artists to teach at the academy. The four – Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Georgette Chen – would later become known as pioneers of the Nanyang style. Following a landmark trip to Bali, Indonesia, in 1952, the former three, together with Liu Kang, created a rich body of critically acclaimed works that now epitomise the Nanyang style.8 In the mid-1950s, Lim contracted tuberculosis. Despite his worsening condition, he continued to give his time selflessly to the academy. He was even said to have administered NAFA while lying on a daybed in the school.9

“Father of Nanyang Art”
As an artist and a teacher, Lim believed in combining Western and Chinese styles and techniques to depict local subject matter. He stressed to his staff, many of whom were Chinese migrants, and his students that their works should reveal the reality of the place they lived in, that is, Southeast Asia (or Nanyang in Chinese, which means “Southern Seas”). Through the creative responses of these students to their environment, the Nanyang style was born. For being the earliest and main advocate of this regional style of art-making, Lim had been called the “Father of Nanyang Art”.10

Lim himself was an accomplished artist who was proficient in Western oil painting as well as Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. However, because his energies were focused on art education, he was not highly prolific. He did not hold any solo exhibition during his lifetime, but participated in NAFA’s annual exhibitions and some group shows, such as those organised by the Society of Chinese Artists and the Singapore Art Society. Although many of his works have been lost or damaged, those that exist reveal Lim to be a sensitive and expressive artist who captured his subject matter vividly.11

Death and legacy
Lim passed away in 1963.12 The first solo exhibition of his works, titled Lim Hak Tai: The Father of Nanyang Art Exhibition, was held in 1991, 28 years after his death.13

As a tribute to Lim, NAFA commissioned his son Lim Yew Kuan to create a bronze bust of him for its 60th anniversary.14 The bust, which was launched in 1998, was followed by a second bronze sculpture 11 years later. The second artwork was also created by Lim Yew Kuan and commissioned by NAFA. It was unveiled in 2009 by then Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, Lee Boon Yang, as part of NAFA’s year-long 70th anniversary celebrations. The ceremony was held in conjunction with the renaming of a NAFA gallery as the Lim Hak Tai Gallery, and the launch of an exhibition on his works, Lim Hak Tai: Quintessential Nanyang.15

Family
In 1938, Lim’s wife died in Hong Kong while making her way from China to Singapore with their three sons and two daughters. During the Japanese Occupation, his eldest son was arrested for anti-Japanese activities and died during imprisonment. Lim Yew Kuan, his second son, succeeded him as the principal of NAFA.16



Authors

Kaylene Tan and Valerie Chew

 

References
1. Tan, B. T., & Loke, J. (Eds.). (2009). Lim Hak Tai: Quintessential Nanyang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 3–6, 10–11, 67, 71. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 LIM); National Day honours. (1962, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 1; Art school principal dies at 70. (1963, February 17). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. 传承与开拓: , 中两国艺术交流展: 林学大及林友权美术作品展 = Crossing visions: Singapore and Xiamen: Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan art exhibition. (2011). Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 30, 156. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CRO)
3. Tan, B. T., & Loke, J. (Eds.). (2009). Lim Hak Tai: Quintessential Nanyang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 66. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 LIM); 传承与开拓: , 中两国艺术交流展: 林学大及林友权美术作品展 = Crossing visions: Singapore and Xiamen: Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan art exhibition. (2011). Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 156–157. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CRO)
4. 传承与开拓: , 中两国艺术交流展: 林学大及林友权美术作品展 = Crossing visions: Singapore and Xiamen: Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan art exhibition. (2011). Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 32, 45, 158. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CRO); Singapore Art Museum. (1998). Imprints on Singapore art: Works of 40 NAFA artists. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum. Singapore: The Author, p. 10. (Call no.: RSING 709.5957 IMP)
5. 传承与开拓: , 中两国艺术交流展: 林学大及林友权美术作品展 = Crossing visions: Singapore and Xiamen: Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan art exhibition. (2011). Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 159. (Call no.: RSING Chinese 759.95957 CRO); Tan, B. H. (1988, April 6). Art academy turns 50. The Straits Times, p. 1; Sabapathy, T. K. (1981, February 28). Hak Tai points the way. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. 传承与开拓: , 中两国艺术交流展: 林学大及林友权美术作品展 = Crossing visions: Singapore and Xiamen: Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan art exhibition. (2011). Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 32, 161. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CRO); Tan, B. T., & Loke, J. (Eds.). (2009). Lim Hak Tai: Quintessential Nanyang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 LIM)
7. 传承与开拓: , 中两国艺术交流展: 林学大及林友权美术作品展 = Crossing visions: Singapore and Xiamen: Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan art exhibition. (2011). Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 34. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CRO); Ong, Z. M. (2006). A history of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (1938 –1990), pp. 74–75. Retrieved from ScholarBank@NUS website: http://scholarbank.nus.edu.sg/bitstream/handle/10635/15776/Ong%20ZM.pdf?sequence=1
8. Singapore Art Museum. (1998). Imprints on Singapore art: Works of 40 NAFA artists. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum. Singapore: The Author, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 709.5957 IMP); 传承与开拓: , 中两国艺术交流展: 林学大及林友权美术作品展 = Crossing visions: Singapore and Xiamen: Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan art exhibition. (2011). Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 34, 56. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CRO); Sabapathy, T. K. (1981, February 28). Hak Tai points the way. The Straits Times, p. 7; Sabapathy, T. K. (1981, December 6). Nanyang artists and their style. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
9. Singapore Art Museum. (1998). Imprints on Singapore art: Works of 40 NAFA artists. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum. Singapore: The Author, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 709.5957 IMP); Tan, B. T., & Loke, J. (Eds.). (2009). Lim Hak Tai: Quintessential Nanyang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 10. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 LIM)
10. 传承与开拓: , 中两国艺术交流展: 林学大及林友权美术作品展 = Crossing visions: Singapore and Xiamen: Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan art exhibition. (2011). Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 9, 29, 37–38. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CRO); Singapore Art Museum. (1998). Imprints on Singapore art: Works of 40 NAFA artists. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum. Singapore: The Author, pp. 13–14. (Call no.: RSING 709.5957 IMP); Tan, B. T., & Loke, J. (Eds.). (2009). Lim Hak Tai: Quintessential Nanyang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 LIM); Sabapathy, T. K. (1981, February 28). Hak Tai points the way. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. 传承与开拓: , 中两国艺术交流展: 林学大及林友权美术作品展 = Crossing visions: Singapore and Xiamen: Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan art exhibition. (2011). Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 29, 36, 38–39, 62–63. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CRO); Tan, B. T., & Loke, J. (Eds.). (2009). Lim Hak Tai: Quintessential Nanyang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 7–9. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 LIM)
12. Art school principal dies at 70. (1963, February 17). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. 传承与开拓: , 中两国艺术交流展: 林学大及林友权美术作品展 = Crossing visions: Singapore and Xiamen: Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan art exhibition. (2011). Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 54. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CRO)
14. Leong, W. K. (1998, April 17). Nanyang’s resurrection. The Straits Times, p. 49. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Tan, B. T., & Loke, J. (Eds.). (2009). Lim Hak Tai: Quintessential Nanyang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 LIM); Shetty, D. (2009, March 5). Arts academy honours founder. The Straits Times, p. 56. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. 南洋美专之父 – 林学大 [Father of NAFA – Lim Hak Tai]. (1988, January 24).  [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 38; Leong, W. K. (2005, March 4). A lesson in the art of survival for Nafa. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Yap, W. C. (Interviewer). (1998, April 15). Oral history interview with Lim Yew Kuan [林友权] [Transcript of cassette recording no. 002011/24/1, p. 1]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/



Further resources

Mr. Ho shows duchess the way
. (1955, July 31). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Wright, N. (1950, October 29). East and West meet in a Malayan style of painting. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2 December 2014 and correct as far as we can 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.

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