From SG to the US

Successful Singaporeans abroad: From Nasa scientist to clay artist

In the beginning, Dr Wee Hong Ling (above) says she would sell just two pieces of her artwork a year, but she stuck it out. Now, she is an award-winning sculptor and her art pieces are part of collections in galleries.
In the beginning, Dr Wee Hong Ling (above) says she would sell just two pieces of her artwork a year, but she stuck it out. Now, she is an award-winning sculptor and her art pieces are part of collections in galleries.ST PHOTO: MELISSA SIM

The image of bankers, lawyers and accountants working in multinationals is what normally comes to mind when most people think about the Singaporean community in the United States. Yet, of late, more Singaporeans are taking the path less travelled. From selling ayam goreng and writing plays to crafting pots, Singaporeans are finding novel ways to make it in America. The Straits Times US Correspondent Melissa Sim talks to five of them about how they got started and the challenges they faced in their chosen fields. 

She may have lived in the United States for the past 23 years, but Dr Wee Hong Ling, 47, says she is always thinking of ways to give back to Singapore and is proud to represent Singapore at international ceramics competitions.

"My sculptural work always focuses on home and my longing for home," she said, referring to the tiny ceramic houses which are signature Wee Hong Ling pieces.

Recent exhibitions here have played on the theme. In 2013, her show at the Arts House was titled Sojourn, while an earlier 2011 exhibition at Sculpture Square was called No Place Like Home.

 
 
 
 

Interestingly, the New York- based artist said it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks which "formed the foundation" of her Singapore identity. 

"I was living in New York and the first phone call I got after the attack was from the permanent mission of Singapore to the United Nations," she said. "I felt that my people were looking out for me."

With a scientist's eye for detail, Dr Wee explains the process of shaping, glazing and firing clay - not surprising as the singleton had been a National Aeronautics and Space Administration research fellow before embracing ceramic art.

Her first brush with clay came in 2000, when her friend arranged for her to take a class.

"I was awful at it," she exclaimed, but it flicked an artistic switch in her and she was hooked. "It was so clear to me. I want to rush to the studio to make work. I never rush to the lab to turn on computers," she said.

She plunged into ceramics full time after completing her PhD in geography in 2005 and gave herself five years to see where she could go with her art, living on money she had saved as a doctoral student.

In 2006, she won first prize at the Ceramics Biennial organised by the New Hampshire Institute of Art. 

"It was very helpful, because my choice was validated," she said. 

But it was not always plain sailing. "In the beginning, I would sell two pieces a year," she said, but she stuck it out. Now, her pieces are part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Singapore and the Guangxi National Art Centre, among others.

Her big project this year is to organise a Singapore arts festival called Something to Write Home About, to showcase Singaporean creatives based in the US and Singapore. She says it will be her tribute to SG50.

Singaporeans are finding novel ways to make it in the US. Watch their stories as told by Straits Times reporter Melissa Sim at http://str.sg/ELK.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2015, with the headline 'SG US From to the From Nasa scientist to clay artist'. Print Edition | Subscribe