The Peak (Malaysia)


Alice Chang Oi Lai shares her talent to give autistic children a better future.


Alice Chang Oi Lai shares her talent to give autistic children a better future.

Relaxing Italian music blares through the studio as mosaic artist Alice Chang Oi Lai walks me through her art gallery and studio, nestled in a quaint bungalow in Ampang. The space speaks art, while the gallery is filled with her paintings and mosaic pieces. A quick stop at the kitchenett­e for a cup of co¡ee before we continue the tour. We come across hundreds of antique ceramic plates donated to her from Penang, organised in boxes by colour for her to use in her future mosaic art pieces. “People find me online and donate broken, chipped or no longer used plates for me to upcycle into my mosaic art. I don’t have to buy plates, and have a big collection of ceramic waiting to be turned into pieces of art,” she explains.

It is her creative growth and evolution as an artist that led Chang to dabble in mosaic art. Modern-day living has brought with it many environmen­tal issues, among which are landfills of waste. “I feel that through my mosaic artwork, I can help educate people that repurposin­g is much more environmen­tally friendly, as, in this case there is no treatment process to the materials,” says Alice. “By upcycling old porcelain plates, glasses, cups and tiles, you can use something that is broken or unusable and create something much more amazing and resilient than its original form. If it is a family heirloom of sorts, it can be turned into a modern piece of art while still maintainin­g its vintage charm. This is a creative way to preserve your family’s cultural heritage.”

In 2013, Chang was invited by Nippon Paint Malaysia to conduct art workshops for underprivi­leged children and, subsequent­ly, commission­ed to curate exhibition­s from her workshops. All funds collected from the exhibition­s are used to provide children in orphanages with vocational skills so that they are easily absorbed into the workforce once they leave the orphanage. There are also many autistic children in care homes, who had been left or abandoned there because their parents were unable to care for them. Depending on the level of autism diagnosed in each child, some can take care of themselves but, once they turn 18, they are considered adults and have to leave the orphanages. Chang wanted to give them the skills to create art so that they can earn their own incomes. “Coming from an artistic background, I hope that I can teach autistic children the basics of art and give them the foundation they need to explore their creative talent. Art is, after all, the freedom of creation.”

The homes and orphanages that Chang work with are located in Peninsular Malaysia, as well as in Sabah and Batam, Indonesia). “I’m proud to say that this is an ongoing initiative. I don’t only limit myself to supporting homes with autistic children; I help where I can or when a cause calls out to me,” Chang says.

Art is a form of therapy that is prescribed for autistic children. It is one of the ways through which children express their thoughts and feelings, and can even be a form of communicat­ion. “Working with autistic children is an amazing experience. They have their own talents and creative minds, and I have to keep reminding myself that whatever the outcomes, it is their personal self-expression. I am honoured and humbled to be given the opportunit­y to guide them in creating their own art. I will continue to be that guiding hand so that they will be allowed to explore art as a form of self-expression, as well as something they can use to earn a living with in the future.”

She believes that it is important for everyone to give back to society in any way they can and in their own capacity. You don’t need to be a millionair­e or a huge corporatio­n to do something for the community. She feels blessed that her skills as an artist can help others in some way. Chang shares that the most rewarding part of her work is the looks on the children’s faces when they see their art showcased in the exhibition­s and catalogues. “The sense of pride, selfgratif­ication and achievemen­t is priceless. For me, that is enough to make me want to continue doing this.”

With all the positives that come with philanthro­py, there are also di cult situations as each child has his or her own story. Many come from broken families; some were abandoned because of their families’ financial situation and others because their families do not know how to cope with their autism. “Life, as it is, is already tough. But for these kids, it is even tougher and it will get tougher for them as they grow older. As an artist, I’m very sensitive, and the emotions I feel for them and their circumstan­ces is my weakness. After all, I am only human.”

Her work, then, comes with a sad reality. Listening to their stories often makes her sad (not to be mistaken for sympathy), but getting to know them through teaching has made her admire and respect their tenacity, resilience and determinat­ion even more. Some children come from lower-income families but she sees the sacrifices their parents make to ensure their children get the therapy


they need. “I have the utmost respect for their parents and families,” Alice explains.

The most important thing is the support and help she has received from her friends and family. Conducting the art workshops for the children requires a lot of manpower, and her family and friends step in to help with their time and e ort. Her wish is for people to help and give where they can, to create a caring society where we care about the environmen­t and the people around us. Helping people, she believes, should come naturally to all of us.

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