Chen Chong Swee
by Tan, Kaylene
Chen Chong Swee (b. 6 November 1910, Chenghai County, Guangdong Province, China—d. 15 February 1985, Singapore), also known as Chen Kai, was a painter, educator, writer and critic. Chen belonged to the pioneering group of artists of the Nanyang Style. His contemporaries included Liu Kang, Georgette Chen, Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi. The Nanyang artists combined Western art influences with Asian sensibilities to explore their Southeast Asian identity. Chen’s contributions to the local fine art scene has made him one of the most respected and admired first-generation artists of Singapore.
Chen was born in Chenghai County, Guangdong Province, China in 1910. In 1929, he enrolled at the Union High School in Shantou (Swatow) to study fine art. It was a missionary school, which suggests that he encountered Western influences early on in his education. In 1931, Chen went on to study at the Xinhua Arts Academy in Shanghai, which further exposed him to Western art and ideas. However, Chen’s foundation was in Chinese ink painting, calligraphy, poetry and seal carving.1
In 1932, Chen left China and settled in Penang, Malaysia. He taught art in Chinese schools in Malacca and Penang before moving to Singapore in 1934. After his move to Singapore, Chen taught in primary and secondary schools that were founded by Chinese overseas merchants, such as Tao Nan School, Tuan Mong High School, The Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High School. In 1951, Chen became the head of the Chinese painting department at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), where he taught until 1975.2
Besides being an art educator, Chen was a prolific writer, contributing to newspapers, exhibition catalogues and magazines published by art associations. Chen wrote about subjects such as the differences between Chinese and Western art, and the function of art education. He was also an arts advocate, calling for the creation of a national art gallery and collection.3
Chen painted in the realist style. His favourite subjects were of the environment and he often painted outdoors, capturing a wide variety of landscapes and moods: fishing jetties, kampongs and portraits of people from different ethnic groups.4
Chen believed that a true work of art must embody “truth, goodness and beauty”,5 and it must communicate with the viewer. As a migrant artist, he was interested in creating ways to express the Nanyang or regional Southeast Asian identity. To do so, he used and mixed Chinese and Western pictorial traditions and mediums freely to depict his surroundings and what he saw. For example, in Chen’s watercolour, Returning from the Sea (1972), his effortless blending of colours and brushstrokes reflects his skill as a Chinese ink painter.6
Chen was one of the first Southeast Asian painters to use the Chinese ink and brush format to depict an Asian landscape. He was famous for his poetry and practised Chinese “idea writing”, where he would use an inscription of a few lines to emphasise the meanings of his paintings.7
In 1953, a trip to Bali with Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi inspired Chen to create paintings using bright colours and characterised by broad brush strokes.8 On his return, Chen produced one of his most famous works, Balinese Women (1952). The four artists held a group exhibition in 1953 called Pictures of Bali, which art historian T. K. Sabapathy hailed as a “precocious moment in the story of art in Singapore; aesthetic quality, pictorial skill and imagination were catapulted to levels for which there were no precedents".9
In 1984, the Chen Chong Swee Retrospective exhibition featuring some 220 of his works was held at the National Museum Art Gallery.10
A second retrospective exhibition of Chen’s works was held at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1993. The exhibition featured Chen’s paintings from the 1950s that were mostly tropical landscapes in Chinese ink and watercolour.11
In 1994, in conjunction with the group exhibition, Reminiscence of Singapore Pioneer Art Masters, the Singapore Mint produced gold and silver ingots engraved with Chen’s Drying Fish (1961): a watercolour painting of fishermen set against a rustic backdrop.12
A retrospective featuring 36 of Chen’s paintings, Passages: Selected Works of Chen Chong Swee, was held at the Singapore Art Museum in 1998. A website featuring his works (no longer online) was launched in conjunction with the exhibition13
In 2000, Chen’s work was displayed as part of a group exhibition, Xin Jia Po Chao Ren Si Da Jia Shu Hua Zhan, presented by the Singapore Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan.14
In 2010, to mark the centenary of Chen’s birth, over 50 Chinese ink, oil and watercolour paintings were displayed at the Chen Chong Swee: The Legacy of Truth, Goodness and Beauty exhibition at NAFA. This landmark exhibition, which featured some never seen before works, was jointly organised by Chen’s family and NAFA.15
In 1994, at Sotheby’s first fine art auction in Singapore, the Chen Chong Swee Charity Auction sold 138 of the 151 paintings donated by Chen’s family members. Together with a S$10,000 donation from the Hong Leong Foundation, the auction raised S$730,000 for the Chen Chong Swee Art Scholarship fund that was to be managed by the National Arts Council (NAC).16
After the auction, two of Chen’s works became the subject of a disagreement between the buyer and the NAC. The buyer refused to pay for the two watercolour works – which he had bid S$72,400 for in total at the auction, claiming that the condition of the paintings were poor. However, he eventually did pay up and donated the more expensive piece to the National Museum.17
In 1935, Chen co-founded the Salon Art Society, now known as the Singapore Society of Chinese Artists. That same year, he also received a cash award at the King George V Silver Jubilee Art Exhibition.18
Chen was also instrumental in the founding of the Watercolour Society in 1969.19 From the 1960s to the 1980s, Chen served as a selection committee member of the annual Singapore National Day Art Exhibition and was an adviser to NAFA, Life Art Society and San Yi Finger Painting Society.20
In 1965, Chen was conferred the Meritorious Public Service Star by Yusof Ishak, the first president of Singapore, for his artistic and cultural contributions to Singapore.21
1. Balinese Women (1952) – Oil.
2. Deep Thoughts (1952) – Watercolour on paper.
3. Drying Fish (1961) – Watercolour on paper.
3. Pounding Rice (1971) – Chinese ink and colour on paper.
4. Returning from the Sea (1972) – Watercolour on paper.
Chen was married and had five children.22
Chen died from a stroke in 1985.23
1. Tan, B. T. (2010). Chen Chong Swee: Revolution in paradise. In Chen Chong Swee: A legacy in truth, goodness and beauty Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 8–18. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
2. Tribute.sg. (2012). Chen Chong Swee. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Chen+Chong+Swee
3. Painter, teacher, writer. (1993, March 9).The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Tribute.sg. (2012). Chen Chong Swee. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Chen+Chong+Swee
5. Kwok, K. C. (1996).Channels & confluences: A history of Singapore art. Singapore Art Museum: Landmark Books, p. 25. (Call no.: RSING 709.5957 KWO)
6. Tribute.sg. (2012). Chen Chong Swee. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Chen+Chong+Swee
7. Accessible art. (1993, March 9). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Painter, teacher, writer. (1993, March 9).The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Failed art. (1990, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 82. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Page 19 Miscellaneous Column 2: Exhibitions. (1984, November 17). Singapore Monitor, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Painter, teacher, writer. (1993, March 9).The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Ang, E. E. (1994, March 11). Art and artists cast in gold and silver. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Exotic scenes that are just a mouse click away. (1998, June 18). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Tribute.sg. (2012). Chen Chong Swee. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Chen+Chong+Swee
15. Cheah U-H. (2010, December 24). Homage to Truth, Goodness and Beauty. The Business Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Leong, W. K. (1994, January 23). Paintings net record $3m. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Leong, W. K. (2010, December 23). Mystery girl in painting. The Business Times, p. 10; Leong, W. K. (1994, February 5). Buyers complain of 'poor condition' of paintings. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Tribute.sg. (2012). Chen Chong Swee. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Chen+Chong+Swee
19. Cheah U.-H. (2010, December 24). Homage to Truth, Goodness and Beauty. The Business Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Painter, teacher, writer. (1993, March 9).The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Painter, teacher, writer. (1993, March 9).The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Leong, W. K. (2010, December 23). Mystery girl in painting. The Business Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Sabapathy, T. K. (1985, February 27). Much more than an artist. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
陈宗瑞 [Chen, C. S.]. (1983). 陈宗瑞彩墨画集 [The paintings of Chen Chong Swee]. 新加坡 : 南风美术社.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CCS)
Chen, C. S. (1993). Chen Chong Swee: His thoughts, his art. Singapore: National Museum.
(Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
Chen Chong Swee retrospective. (1984). Singapore: Ministry of Culture.
(Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
Drawings & Sketches – National Museum Art Gallery. (1976). Singapore: National Museum Art Gallery.
(Call no.: RCLOS EPHE O575)
Sotheby & Co. Singapore. (1994). Chen Chong Swee charity auction. Singapore: Author.
(Call no.: RSING 759.95957 SOT)
The information in this article is valid as at 20 January 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.