Veteran artist Victor Chin’s work is a colourful and constant reminder of the need to preserve the nation’s historic buildings.
VICTOR Chin sounds so calm and collected talking about revisiting the past that you are convinced he is indeed one with the shadows and light so evident in his watercolour works.
However, not unlike the rather despondent tales behind these charming and colourful pre-Merdeka shophouses, Chin has a story of his own to tell.
These 64 watercolour prints of old shophouses along the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Melaka and Singapore, presented alongside corresponding photographs, will be showing at Chin’s exhibition, Shophouse Watercolours at The Red Studio in Petaling Jaya, which opens on June 14.
In the past, these works have been exhibited in several stages as a work in progress. The complete series was last exhibited in 1995. They have not been shown to the public in its entirety since then. Perhaps a walk down memory lane is now warranted.
Almost 40 years ago, Chin put paintbrush to paper and embarked on what would end up being a 15-year project (19801995) that saw the creation of these watercolour works depicting the original shophouse facades, even as these buildings fell victim to the ravages of modernity.
Over the years, one by one have disappeared or fell by the wayside.
Many have been demolished, while others remain standing, but are now a mere shadow of those glorious days when there was a lively buzz surrounding them and the communities who called these buildings home.
These paintings of shophouses, borne out of a desire to draw attention to the urgent need for a more human urban planning policy and the need for heritage conservation, immortalise not just the architecture of old, but also capture the essence of what binds us to history, culture, and, intrinsically, each other.
“I saw what was happening to our towns and cities and did what I could to draw attention to our heritage,” recalls Chin, 68, an artist, photographer, writer and social activist, who is a familiar face in the heritage conservation scene.
“But an artist can only show what is important to him or her through artworks; neither artist not art can stop the disappearing characteristics of our streets. It is sad and disappointing,” he adds.
Today, he estimates that around 20% to 30% of the shophouses featured in this show have been destroyed, with “almost all their residents evicted or forced out by higher rents”.
“The decay and lack of care for the older buildings by the owners is also an issue that is complex and not easy to understand or solve. It has to do with greed and also lack of a sense of common history and culture,” observes Chin.
Kajang, Selangor-born Chin spent his formative years in Britain, first as an art student then as a designer for film and television with BBC London. Upon his return to Malaysia, he freelanced as a designer, artist and photographer, and in 1982, founded Rupa Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, where it thrived for eight years before he shut it down in 1990.
In this watercolour series showing at The Red Studio, sentimentality shines through in Chin’s meticulous attention to detail.
But as aesthetically appealing as they are, the creation of these paintings are also very much driven by a sense of responsibility.
“I feel strongly for the Malaysian historical and cultural landscape that has shaped us as a nation, and as an artist I would like to do what I can to keep our history and culture alive, and to share it as often as possible,” he says.
A commemorative booklet will be published in conjunction with the exhibition, for the first time in both English and Chinese.
Additionally, Chin points out that these traditional shophouses in the inner heart of the cities showcased the genius of the nameless local craftsmen skilled in masonry, carving and construction.
“Families turned these buildings into their homes, many of them tenants living from hand to mouth in the neighbourhood. Together, these communities gave character, colour and culture to the streets and neighbourhoods where they lived, worked, raised families and celebrated local holidays,” he reminisces.
So this watercolour series of the shophouses offers a short visual history lesson of the early vernacular architecture of Malaya.
This complete set of prints is in the collection of Chin’s friend and collector James Yuen, who sponsored this exhibition.
“It took 15 years to complete, and after that I had to take a break to heal my emotional wounds from seeing the death of our heritage,” says Chin.
After all these years, Chin muses that he has come to terms with his “emotional wounds” and is actively keeping the memories of our historical and cultural landscape alive through conducting public walks, documentation and film (check out Rakan Mantin and
Rakan KL on Facebook).
In 2015, Chin, together with filmmaker Chan Seong Foong, put out a 20-minute film titled
Memory As Resistance, presented as part of the Freedom Film Festival in Kuala Lumpur. It features 80-year-old Grandma Kong and the other villagers of Kampung Hakka in Mantin, Negri Sembilan, joining forces to fight for their right to stay on their land. The film can be viewed online.
Despite the years, Chin is excited about talking to visitors about the upcoming Shophouse
“I am glad this exhibition gives an opportunity to relook at what we did and are doing with our inner city heritage and can bring about open conversations and also influence public debate and policy,” he says.
Chin’s shophouse series might be completed, but its influence is relentless, just like the man behind the watercolours.
“The artworks of the streets still evoke the early Chinese spirit of persistence and perseverance, and it is always good to pay homage to our ancestors who helped build the country and gave us our many identities,” he concludes.
Today, Chin continues to be engaged in art and community activism, and is currently artistin-residence (2017/18) at the Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Asian Architecture and Urban Heritage, Department of Architecture at the National University of Singapore.
Chin’s watercolour depiction of 93, Lebuh King in Penang, an unusual traditional clan house with all the traditional Chinese temple design elements delightfully compressed into the typical two-story shophouse found along the street.
Chin’s watercolour drawing of 20, Orchard Road, Singapore, an example of the Art Deco architecture design, likely built around the 1930s or 1940s. Still standing at one end of Orchard Road, its distinguishing feature is the shell or fan shape pediment sitting on the three-storey building. ‘What was radical during its day, was the V-shaped cantilevered windows from the third floor to the top of the roof line. The vertical rows of segmented windows add to the dynamic rhythms of this building,’ says Chin.
A depiction of 12, Jalan Hang Kasturi in KL, a fine example of the threestorey buildings that sprouted after the rise of tin and rubber production in the 1930s. In this shophouse, the three arches with their columns on the third floor have Roman roots and the triangular pediment sitting proudly on top of the facade has Greek influences. The floral plaster works evokes auspicious beliefs for the Chinese inhabitants.
A look at 85, Boat Quay in Singapore, a simple early brick and tile structure from the early 1900s. Windows have wooden louvred shutters to deal with tropical rain, light and wind conditions.
Early vernacular buildings at 93-97 Lorong Hang Jebat in Melaka, where the dividing shaped gable walls hold up the structure and double as fire walls to prevent fire from spreading to the next house. The upper floor has a terrace with a balustrade for family use as well as for commercial use to sun or dry foodstuff sold in the shop below.
Chin’s photograph of 93, Lebuh King in Penang, a shophouse that stands out from the rest on this street thanks to its traditional Chinese temple design elements. This clan house was once an essential shelter for the new migrant Chinese labourers when they first arrived in Penang. Today, it is still used by its members to gather and honour their forefathers.
‘Exhibiting this collection of artworks of the four early towns in Malaya again after 20 years is a commemoration of the destruction of architectural heritage and the displacement of the poorer residents of the communities. This conflict between private profits and common good is still on-going, and not just in Malaysia,” says Chin.
A watercolour work of 18, Jalan Sultan in Kuala Lumpur, one of the earliest brick, tile and timber structures in the oldest part of the city, an upgrade from the earlier buildings built with wood and thatch for roofing, which caught fire easily. A few families would share one shophouse, each carrying out their own trade.
Chin’s watercolour work of 97, Jalan Hang Jebat in Melaka, a two-storey clan house with the balcony on the upper floor divided into a three-part Roman style structure, with two smaller arches flanking one large arch.