Choo Keng Kwang

by Nureza Ahmad

Choo Keng Kwang (b. 3 June 1931, Singapore–d. 14 December 2019, Singapore), a first-generation Singaporean artist, was well-known for his oil paintings of landscape, animals1 and nature.2 A former school principal of Sin Hua School, Choo later headed the Art Education Department of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) until his retirement.3 Public-spirited and a generous philanthropist,4 he received awards for his contributions to education and art.

Early life
Born in Singapore on 3 June 1931, Choo was the only son of a Teochew diamond trader, Choo Kim Kye.5 The elder Choo had wanted to be an artist but unfortunately his aspiration was not realised.


As a young child, Choo’s interest in fine arts was sparked by comics and print-cartoons that he enjoyed reading.7 He attended Catholic High School and braved criticism and disapproval from his school teachers for enrolling in art courses at NAFA. His entire day was thus occupied by his studies and art classes. His hard work and determination paid off when he graduated in 1953 with two certificates, one from Catholic High School and the other from NAFA.8

Choo, however, did not become a full-time artist upon graduation. Instead, he began his career as a teacher and subsequently became the school principal of Sin Hua School at Upper Changi Road. He had married by this time and had to support a family of nine, including his elderly parents, his wife – Nah Chong Ngian, as well as her six brothers.

Choo often paid tribute to his father’s great support and encouragement in the development of his art. His father was the only one who encouraged Choo to pursue his passion in art. While his father was still alive, he would accompany Choo on his street-scene painting forays.10 Choo’s father would also often help him out at his exhibitions.11

Although Choo suffered from ill health due to a degenerative spinal cord condition, he continued painting. He first started selling his artworks at hotel lobbies and the pasar malam (night market), earning S$150 for each painting sold.12 Today, his paintings can command six-figure sums.13

Achievements
Although Choo is primarily known as an artist, he had spent more than 30 years in public education.14 Even in his professional career, Choo sought to improve the teaching of the arts. In 1982, in order to raise the standards of secondary school art teachers, the Ministry of Education started a two- and four-year Art in Education diploma course. Choo oversaw the programme and was its main lecturer.15 In 1984, he was seconded to NAFA where he was appointed a senior lecturer, before becoming head of the Art Education Department.16

As an artist, Choo is widely recognised as one of Singapore’s first-generation artists, along with his contemporaries such as Georgette Chen and Liu Kang. His artworks have been commissioned by royalty, dignitaries and governments. For instance, the Singapore government commissioned his paintings as state gifts to foreign dignitaries. His paintings were presented to the late former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, as well as China’s former Chairman, Mao Tse-Tung.17 His paintings have also adorned Command House at Kheam Hock Road, the official residence of the late former President Ong Teng Cheong.18 Choo also received commissions for paintings, murals and bas-reliefs from government ministries, statutory boards, businesses, hotels and other institutions.19 

Choo held and participated in numerous solo and group art exhibitions in Singapore and abroad.20 His works toured Southeast Asia, Japan, Europe and the United States.21 For instance, in November 1990, he became the first Singaporean artist to participate in a cultural exchange exhibition in Jakarta, Indonesia. In July 1993, he was invited to exhibit his paintings in Brunei to commemorate the Sultan of Brunei’s 47th birthday.22 His artworks are sought-after by art collectors, national leaders,23 museums, as well as public and private corporations.24 They have been sold at auction houses such as Christie’s International and Sotheby’s.25

As a public-spirited person and philanthropist, Choo was very much involved in community and charity work.26 His paintings have been sold to raise funds for various charitable causes and organisations.27 For instance, the proceeds of his works were contributed to St Andrew’s Mission Hospital and Touch Community Services.28 He opened the President’s Charity Art Exhibition in 1995 with his exhibition “Choo Keng Kwang: An Artistic Path of His Own”, which raised S$160,000 for charity.29 In 1997, he donated an oil painting to the President’s Star Charity Show.30 The sale of Choo’s paintings for charitable causes has benefited community services, institutions, associations, scholarships for the performing arts,31 and even the ASEAN Secretariat office in Jakarta, Indonesia.32 Despite having stopped painting in 2016 due to age and health concerns, he continued to donate his artworks for charitable causes.33

Choo’s artworks were reproduced on phone cards for fundraising purposes by the Chinese Development Assistance Council.34 In 1989, his paintings were featured on first-day cover postage stamps for Singapore Telecom.35 The four original oil paintings of Chinatown were then donated to the National Museum of Singapore for its permanent collection.36 He also contributed artworks to the 2015 President’s Charity Art Exhibition, which were then reproduced on stamps and ezlink cards to raise funds.37

For his contributions to art and education, Choo was conferred the Public Service Medal (PBM) in 1976 and the Long Service Award (PBS) in 1986.38

Education39
1953: Senior Middle Three certificate, Catholic High School / Diploma (Fine Arts), Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). 

Career40
1954: Principal, Sin Hua School (Sin Wah School), Upper Changi Road.
1984: Seconded to NAFA / Head, Art Education Department, NAFA. 

Awards and honours41
1976: Public Service Medal (PBM) for contribution to art, conferred by the late President Benjamin Sheares.
1981: Community Award, Bundaberg Art Society, Australia.
1983: Special Award, National Day Art Exhibition.
1986: Voluntary Service Medal for contribution to art, Singapore ART ’85 – 50th Anniversary, Society of Chinese Artists Award / Long Service Award (PBS) for contributions to education.42
1989: Selected artist for Outstanding Singapore Artists Exhibition series, Ministry of Community Development.43

Family
Father: Choo Kim Kye (deceased).
Wife: Nah Chong Ngian.
Children: Two sons and three daughters.44



Author

Nureza Ahmad



References
 

1. The perfect picture – that’s Choo’s aim. (1976, June 4). The Straits Times, p. 9; Leong, W. K. (1995, July 20). President’s art-for-charity kicks off next weekThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Toh, W. L. (2019, December 15). Acclaimed Singapore painter Choo Keng Kwang dies aged 88. The Sunday Times, p. A10. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB's eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
2. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 13. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
3. The perfect picture – that’s Choo’s aim. (1976, June 4). The Straits Times, p. 9; Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. 3 Choo Keng Kwang paintings on auction. (1994, September 28). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5Chow, C. (2001, August 4). Work in progress. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Chow, C. (2001, August 4). Work in progress. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5Chow, C. (2001, August 4). Work in progress. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Chow, C. (2001, August 4). Work in progress. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5Chow, C. (2001, August 4). Work in progress. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Chow, C. (2001, August 4). Work in progress. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Leong, W. K. (1995, July 20). President’s art-for-charity kicks off next weekThe Straits Times, p. 3; Chow, C. (2001, August 4). Work in progress. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 225. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
15. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 232. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
16. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 232. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
17. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 225. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
18. Phan, M. Y. (1994, November 25). President commissions two paintings for new official residenceThe Straits Times, p. 3; Leong, W. K. (1995, July 20). President’s art-for-charity kicks off next weekThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5; Veloo, R. (1993, October 3). His teacher can eat their wordsThe Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 225. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
20. Leong, W. K. (1995, July 20). President’s art-for-charity kicks off next weekThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 230. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
21. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 225. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
22. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 232. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
23. Leong, W. K. (1995, July 20). President’s art-for-charity kicks off next weekThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5; Veloo, R. (1993, October 3). His teacher can eat their wordsThe Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 226. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
25. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 226. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
26. 3 Choo Keng Kwang paintings on auction. (1994, September 28). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. 3 Choo Keng Kwang paintings on auction. (1994, September 28). The Straits Times, p. 8; Leong, W. K. (1995, July 20). President’s art-for-charity kicks off next weekThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 226, 233. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
29. Leong, W. K. (1995, July 20). President’s art-for-charity kicks off next weekThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 225. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
30. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 226. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
31. 3 Choo Keng Kwang paintings on auction. (1994, September 28). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 226. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO); Leong, W. K. (1995, July 20). President’s art-for-charity kicks off next weekThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, pp. 226, 233. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
33. 邓玮婷 [Deng, W. T.]. (2018, June 3). 庆祝88岁大寿 朱庆光捐四画作 为老人之家筹善款 [In celebration of his 88th birthday, Choo Keng Kwang donated four artworks to raise funds for  Home For The Aged]. 联合早报. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
34. CDAC to launch phone, MRT cards. (1996, May 7). The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 233. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
36. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 233. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
37. 谢燕燕 [Xie, Y. Y.]. (2015, November 2). 八画家联办总统慈善画展 画作也制成限量易通卡和邮票筹款 (Eight artists jointly organised President’s Charity Art Exhibition. The artworks are also reproduced on limited editions ezlink cards and stamps for fundraising). 联合早报. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
38. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 225. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
39. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Tan, B. H. (1989, April 19). A principal man of art. The Straits Times, p. 5Chow, C. (2001, August 4). Work in progress. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 229. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
42. Choo, K. K. (2002). The selected works of Choo Keng Kwang. Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, p. 225. (Call no.: RSING q759.95957 CHO)
43. Outstanding Artist a ‘beacon to the young’. (1989, April 13). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
44. Chow, C. (2001, August 4). Work in progress. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at December 2019 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
Philanthropists--Singapore
Painters--Singapore
Artists--Singapore
Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists
Award winners--Singapore
Arts>>Painting>>Oil painting
Artists