Migration, Transmission, Localisation: Visual Art in Singapore (1886-1945) 流动迁移在地经历: 新加坡视觉艺术现象(1886-1945)

Published in 2017, the Chinese book titled Migration, Transmission, Localisation: Visual Art in Singapore [流动迁移在地经历: 新加坡视觉艺术现象 (1886-1945)] depicts how Singapore was an important hub for artists who travelled to and lived in Singapore, and also highlights the visual arts such as advertisements and comics published in early Chinese newspapers and magazines, which contributed to a better understanding of Singapore’s early art history.

The author, Yeo Mang Thong (姚梦桐) is a Singaporean educator and scholar with a background in Chinese Studies. He did not formally train as a curator nor does he have a background in art history. Yeo started to collect first-hand information on Singapore art from early Chinese newspapers since the 1980s. His first Chinese book on Singapore art history titled Essays on History of Pre-War Chinese Paintings in Singapore (新加坡战前华人美术史论集) is one of the most well-cited and important reference materials for scholars in the field. Fueled by strong interest and dedication, Yeo continued his research on pre-war art history in Singapore and published his findings on numerous occasions over the past 30 years.

Yeo faced challenges in conducting research into the early period of Singapore art history. Many archival sources such as artists’ artworks, letters and photographs have been lost over time, some destroyed during Japanese Occupation, and some artists were killed during the Sook Ching massacre. He adopted methodologies that focused on research into visual art works such as paintings, calligraphy, seals, signboards as well as illustrations (e.g. cartoons, woodcuts, advertisements and images) published in the pre-war Chinese newspapers, mainly Lat Pau (叻报), Sing Po (星报), Thien Nan Shin Pao (天南新报), Sin Kuo Ming Press (新国民日报), Chong Shing Yit Pao (中兴日报), Union Times (总汇新报), Sun-Poo (晨报), Cheng Nam Jit Poh (振南新报), Nanyang Siang Pau (南洋商报), Sin Chew Jit Poh (星洲日报), and literary supplements like Nanyang Siang Pau Wenman Jie (文漫界, The World of Literature and Cartoons) and Sin Chew Jit Poh pictorial supplement, Starlight (星光画报) edited by artists-writers, Dai Yinlang (戴隐郎) and Tchang Ju Chi (张汝器).

Before the early 20th century, there were limited art activities in Singapore. Yeo’s study period starts in 1886 when the Chinese calligrapher, Zhong Dexiang (钟德祥) came to Singapore and began selling his calligraphic pieces. Chinese migrants, emotionally attached to their motherland,  continued the traditions of composing poetry for paintings and calligraphy as well as seal carving and inscribing plaques for shops and temples. They were concerned with the political situations and economic conditions in China. In early 20th century, following the Chinese Revolution in China, commercial advertisements appeared in the Singapore local newspapers with slogans that emphasized “reclaiming China’s rights; promoting Chinese goods”. More art activities could be noted, and reached its peak period in the five pre-war years from 1937 to 1941, such as fundraising art exhibition to raise relief funds to fight Japanese aggression and save the motherland. After Singapore fell under Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, all art activities and main local publications were controlled by Japanese military to use cartoons and art as propaganda tools to broadcast their decrees.

The book consists of 12 essays that construct the Singapore early art history from 1886 to 1945. Out of which, five essays revolved around the main art activities in Singapore Chinese society during different time period. The first and last essays depict the art activities of Chinese community in Singapore during pre-war (1886-1941) and the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945) respectively. The other three essays look into the art scene and activities of Singapore Chinese community  over three periods — during the late 19th century (1886-1899), the early 20th century (1900-1929) and the five-year period before the War (1937-1941). In addition, another two essays narrate the Nanyang flavour in the advertising illustrations of local Chinese newspapers in the 1920s as well as cartoons and woodcuts in Singapore during the pre-war period (1936-1941).

Another five essays depict the founding of Singapore Society of Chinese Artists in 1935 and the contributions of four artists to the development of Singapore art history — Khoo Seok Wan (邱菽园) (1874-1941), Tchang Ju Chi (张汝器) (1904-1942), Karl Duldig (卡尔杜迪希) (1902-1986) and Situ Qiao (司徒乔) (1902-1958). Among them, Khoo, the founder of the Chinese newspaper Thien Nam Shin Pao, was a key figure in promoting local cultural activities among Chinese community in Singapore while engaged in close interactions with China artists from the late 19th century to the 1930s. Known as the “gifted scholar of Sinchew”, Khoo used his knowledge, expertise and financial resources to spread Chinese culture to the local Chinese community. The newspaper promoted popular artists’ creative works and calligraphy regularly. Even when Khoo was declared bankrupt in 1907 and after being discharged from bankruptcy in 1913, he remained active in the art and literary scenes until 1941. He also played a key role as a journalist, and had numerous articles published in local newspapers and journals, including Thien Nam Shin Pao, Lat Pau, Nanyang Siang Pau, Sin Chew Jit Poh, The Unions Times. By using the Khoo Seok Wan family art collection and Chinese daily newspapers as primary sources, Yeo was able to construct a clearer picture of the pre-war art history of the Chinese community in Singapore.

The English translation version titled Migration, Transmission, Localisation: Visual Art in Singapore (1866-1945) was published by National Art Gallery, Singapore in 2019. This makes it more widely accessible to researchers and those who are interested in the Singapore’s early art history. Both Chinese and English versions contributed greatly to advancing scholarship on Singapore’s art history from late 19th century to early 20th century.

Here are several illustrations extracted from our digitised newspapers, which are used in the book:

Published in Thien Nan Shin Pao on 19 August 1899 (p6), an advertisement from the seal-engraving shop, Zuishi Xuan (醉石轩, The Studio of Drunken Stones) offered customer a wide range of services, such as the sales of art pieces by renowned Chinese masters from Shanghai, hanging of scrolls and mounting of calligraphy and painting, inscribing signboards for shops, producing festive couplets, etc.


A cigarette advertisement from the Nanyang Brothers Tobacco Company Limited (中国南洋兄弟烟草公司) published in Lat Pau dated 20 April 1921 (p1) to promote a cigarette brand called “Great Wall” (长城) with text to remind fellow Chinese to support Chinese products and “love your country”.


A cartoon drawn by an artist, Chen Kunquan (陈坤泉), titled “The warlords’ true colours” (军阀的庐山面目), published in The Unions Times (总汇新报) on 15 February 1930 (p15). The cartoon shows deceitful warlords disguising their malicious intents with a friendly handshake, to satirize their hypocrisy and unabashed opportunism.


An illustration titled “A plea by Aw Boo Haw to help the refugees in Shanghai” (胡文虎为上海灾民请民) drawn by unknown artist, published in Lat Pau on 24 March 1932 (p11). It encouraged local Chinese to visit the New World Amusement Park from 25 to 27 August and support fundraising activities.



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