The young man from Chaozhou went to study in Shanghai, working diligently in art and eventually succeeding as a great master of the Shanghai School of painting. He then came to settle in Singapore in the1950s and began nurturing a whole generation of ink artists. He was of course Mr Fan Chang Tien! Fan studied under Wang Geyi who had been a student of Wu Changshuo, a founder of the Shanghai School of Painting, which makes Fan’s pedigree impeccable. The significance of Fan was in the fact that he brought the Shanghai-style painting out of China to Singapore. Though merely an offshoot, it is nonetheless full and rich as it is a style that has got the most followers in Singapore. Logically speaking given the demographic origins of early settlers in Singapore, the Nanyang artists should have had a greater affinity with the Lingnan School instead. Why then has the influence of the Shanghai School been more pronounced? Obviously the crucial factor was the third-generation Shanghai School artists such as Fan Chang Tien and Huang Pao Fang.
Fan’s students in Singapore included Lim Cher Eng, Chua Ek Kay, Chun Keng Boon, Lim Kay Hiong, Nai Swee Leng, Heng Chye Kiang, Henri Chen Kezhan and Tay Kiam Hong. Each of them has come into his own as established artists with their individual distinctive style. This was Fan’s greatest achievement. He understood very well Qi Baishi’s famous line: “He who learns from me will flourish but he who paints like me will fail.” He taught students the fundamental skills for foundation, every stroke and gesture that they do now is the result of their own endeavour and exploration. Fan’s own paintings are very traditional adhering to the conventions of the Shanghai School and betraying traces of Wang Geyi’s influence. If Pan Shou is regarded as the guardian of the tradition of Chinese classical poetry in Singapore, then Fan must be the guardian of literati ink tradition in the South Seas. To both Pan and Fan, tradition must have been of the utmost importance.
However, with the students of Fan Chang Tien, tradition is not that intractable as they constantly seek to innovate and change. I think this may have much to do with Singapore’s geographic position and multicultural background. While Nai Swee Leng tends to be relatively closer to the Shanghai School he has also absorbed the virtues of the Lingnan School. Lim Kay Hiong shuttles between the East and the West when painting in oil and in ink especially with his ever loveable subject of cat. The drastic change seen in Henri Chen’s works leaves hardly any trace of of Shanghai School. Here I would like to say a little more about Chua Ek Kay. I still remember my initial surprise when I first saw his paintings particularly those semi-abstract yet visibly angular lotuses suggesting almost a touch of haughty stubbornness and yet clearly poetic. Perhaps it is this sense of poetry that blunts the haughtiness of his lotuses but enhances the feeling of elegance, fragrance and depth of the images. It may be observed that Chua apart from learrning the Shanghai style from Mr Fan devoted much attention studying Chen Wen Hsi’s technique of ink painting. In essence Chua Ek Kay was a poet and his poetic sensibility is everywhere in his paintings including those of his street scenes.
I have recently been involved in planning and organizing “Exhibition of Works by Fan Chang Tien and His Students” (from 1st to 11th July at 4th floor Chui Hua Lim). The main movers behind the exhibition are Prof K K Phua, Fan Chang Tien’s daughter Teresa Yao, and her husband Paul Yao. In the process I have noticed how strong the bond is among Fan’s students as well as the love and gratitude they feel for their teacher. Says Nai Swee Leng, “Mr Fan never collected fees from his students who often scrounged or a meal or two at his house.” Lim Kay Hiong recalls, “Teacher Fan always kept a low profile and hardly ever went out to socialise. He never talked about money or sold his paintings. All he did was to discuss art.” In those days artists were generally less concerned about the commercial aspect of their work. Even if they were their prices would be reasonable, which is probably why many among them became masters.
Fan may not be as well known as Georgette Chen, Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee or Liu Kang, but his importance as a pioneer is certainly no less. This is especially so in terms of the rich legacy which flourishes among his first-generation and now second-generation students, many of whom distinguished themselves by their practice. At the moment I cannot think of any other pioneer who can boast as many students in the region as Mr Fan.
This article was originally published in Lianhe Zaobao
6 July 2017
Translated from the Chinese by Teo Han Wue