Engineer paints zodiac signs on refurbished Capitol Theatre's dome ceiling

Mr Yang De Wen (above), on having to do precise calculations when painting the zodiac on the dome’s ceiling. -- PHOTO: LWC ALLIANCE
Mr Yang De Wen (above), on having to do precise calculations when painting the zodiac on the dome’s ceiling. -- PHOTO: LWC ALLIANCE
Mr Yang De Wen, on having to do precise calculations when painting the zodiac on the dome’s ceiling (above). -- PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Mr Yang De Wen, on having to do precise calculations when painting the zodiac on the dome’s ceiling (above). -- PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Mr Yang De Wen (above), on having to do precise calculations when painting the zodiac on the dome’s ceiling. -- PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Mr Yang De Wen (above), on having to do precise calculations when painting the zodiac on the dome’s ceiling. -- PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

Perched on scaffolding, Yang De Wen handpainted zodiac signs on the dome ceiling of Capitol Theatre, lying on his side at times

When the epic Singapura: The Musical production about the twilight years of colonial Singapore opens at the newly refurbished Capitol Theatre this Tuesday, it will fittingly unfold under the stars, in a manner of speaking.

Theatregoers can look up during the intermission and gaze upon the Grande Dame's vaulted dome ceiling that has been restored.

On it, the 12 painted zodiac signs shimmer like constellations in the night sky, lit by a warm, golden glow, as if grazed by the sun's rays.

It may be hard to imagine that the stellar artwork took shape in six months, under the hands of 22-year- old artisan Yang De Wen, a greenhorn with no formal art training.

China-born Yang, who graduated from Temasek Polytechnic last May with a diploma in chemical engineering, is quick to credit his superiors at LWC Alliance, a firm that specialises in bespoke facades for buildings. "I owe it to my bosses and team, who guided me and gave me a lot of suggestions on how to do it," he says in Mandarin.

Yang, who loves art and design but pursued engineering at his parents' behest, submitted his design upon a friend's introduction and it was chosen from seven proposals. He was recruited by the company and he began the project last July and completed it in late January this year.

The brief given by LWC's client, Ms Juliet Choo from Capitol Investment Holdings, was to propose a modern interpretation of the original zodiac artwork, done in blue and white tiles and installed in the 1960s. It also had to be done in a style that complemented the building's design.

A spokesman for the developer says: "The zodiac on the dome is an integral part of the theatre and well remembered by visitors. We traced the theatre's roots and tried as far as possible to retain the art deco touch."

Some of the instructions included adding detail to the facial features of Aquarius' water carrier and refining the look of the water and its hydria container.

Yang recalls: "I had to re-draw all the signs. Some of them, including Cancer, Gemini and Scorpio, were very difficult because they had a lot of tiny details."

After drawing the signs, he had to ensure his arrangement of them squared with the original, with the correct spacing and proportions.

To do this, he took his boss' suggestion and devised a prototype of the dome using the cover of a bubble- tea cup.

He was then tasked to paint a proper mock-up of the zodiac sign, Leo, to 90 per cent of its original scale - 2.8m in length - before tackling the actual works.

He approached the final painting, done on the scaffolding over an intensive two months, with an engineer's precision and rigour, using calculations and grids to get it right.

"I couldn't afford to make a mistake as it would be almost impossible to fix. So I calculated the sizes and dimensions, then traced the outlines using foam boards.

"We also used a laser device to ensure the profile of each sign was correct," he says.

And though he nervously shuns any comparison with Michelangelo, Yang also suffered similar neck and arm aches that afflicted the exalted Renaissance artist who worked on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

For two months and six days at a stretch, he painted lying on his side or craning his neck.

Yang adds: "I wasn't the only one painting. I had an assistant, a Bangladeshi foreign worker called Sumon, who helped me a lot. He was very hardworking."

The public will get to see the fruit of their labour on Tuesday, but Yang's parents have already previewed it. He says with a smile: "I was very happy to show it to them. They told me, 'We regret making you choose chemical engineering over art'."

jianxuan@sph.com.sg