Pioneer painter stayed in Singapore thanks to some help from Lee Kuan Yew

Teresa Yao (above), daughter of Chinese ink painter Fan Chang Tien (below), with her dad's painting and book Fan Chang Tien - The Literati Artist.
Teresa Yao (above), daughter of Chinese ink painter Fan Chang Tien (below), with her dad's painting and book Fan Chang Tien - The Literati Artist.PHOTOS: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, COURTESY OF TERESA YAO
Teresa Yao (above), daughter of Chinese ink painter Fan Chang Tien (below), with her dad's painting and book Fan Chang Tien - The Literati Artist.
Teresa Yao (above), daughter of Chinese ink painter Fan Chang Tien (below), with her dad's painting and book Fan Chang Tien - The Literati Artist.PHOTOS: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, COURTESY OF TERESA YAO

Without the timely intervention by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew some five decades ago, Singapore would have lost the late Fan Chang Tien, a pioneer Chinese ink painter who groomed several generations of art talent here, to another country.

The artist's daughter, Teresa Yao, was barely 20 and a nursing student at the Singapore General Hospital when she met Mr Lee at the hospital in 1962.

China-born, Shanghai-trained artist Fan had just lost his job at Chung Cheng High School then, due to the school's new policy of hiring only local graduates. After Mr Lee heard of her father's plight, he intervened and a year later, Fan landed another teaching job at Whampoa Secondary School. He later became a Singapore citizen.

This quite unknown past of the artist is revealed in the book, Fan Chang Tien - The Literati Artist, which Teresa, now a real estate agent, and her retired architect husband Paul Yao, 84, have put together. The 338-page book in English and Chinese will be launched at The Arts House this evening in conjunction with a symposium on Fan and the opening of a week-long exhibition of his paintings.

It contains 166 of Fan's best works of birds, flowers and landscapes, which come complete with poems he wrote on each of them in both Chinese and English. There are also several essays by art critics, including Low Sze Wee and Low Khee Choon.

Remembering her meeting with Mr Lee in the interview with Life! last week, Teresa says: "He was very friendly and helpful and, till this day, my family is very grateful to him."

She believed that her father, who died in 1987, aged 80, would have returned to China or gone to Bangkok to teach if he did not have a job here.

The artist's latest show, which opens today, is his fourth posthumous one since the first at the former National Museum Art Gallery in 1989.

Fan left China in 1937 when the Sino-Japanese War broke out to help raise funds overseas and to teach. He first went to Hong Kong and Bangkok before coming here in 1956 to teach art.

Former Singapore National Art Gallery director Kwok Kian Chow had praised him for grooming the present generation of Singapore's Chinese ink and brush painters.

Teresa, the eldest of Fan's four adopted daughters, says the book and the exhibition were 20 years in the making since her late midwife mother started compiling her father's works in 1994. But the project was aborted after her mother died three years later, at the age of 86. "So the book is published to fulfil my mother's wish who had wanted my father's legacy in art to live on," she says.

Her husband, Paul, who helped her decipher all the poems written on the paintings in Chinese and translated them into English for the book, says: "In the process, I learnt a lot more about my father- in-law than when he was alive, especially his views on life and his humility."

The bamboo plant, he points out, remained Fan's favourite subject because to the artist, it represented resilience, the trait of a gentleman.