Build­ing aware­ness

Vet­eran artist Vic­tor Chin’s work is a colour­ful and con­stant re­minder of the need to pre­serve the na­tion’s his­toric build­ings.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By ROUWEN LIN star2@thestar.com.my Shop­house Wa­ter­colours is on at The Red Stu­dio, Lot 100-013, Level P1, The School, Jaya One, Petaling Jaya, Se­lan­gor from June 14-29. The show is or­gan­ised by Ate­lier Art Space. There will be an artist talk at the galle

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

Wa­ter­colours show.

“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.

— VIC­TOR CHIN

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.

— Pho­tos: VIC­TOR CHIN

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.

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