It Changed My Life

Talent time for karung guni man

Mr Tan Chong Bin at his first solo exhibition, Voice Of A Karung Guni Man, at Artcommune Gallery in Bras Basah. Thirty pieces of his works are on display and more than 10 pieces, ranging in price from $400 to $1,700, have been sold.
Mr Tan Chong Bin at his first solo exhibition, Voice Of A Karung Guni Man, at Artcommune Gallery in Bras Basah. Thirty pieces of his works are on display and more than 10 pieces, ranging in price from $400 to $1,700, have been sold.PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN
Mr Tan plying his wares in Sungei Road.
Mr Tan plying his wares in Sungei Road.PHOTO: WONG PEI LIN

Self-taught artist gets day in the sun with his own exhibition after a gambling-riddled life

Nearly 50 years ago, when Mr Tan Chong Bin was a teenage labourer on an Orchard Road construction site, he noticed an interesting mark on a beam.

Someone had taken a lump of wet mud and thrown it at the building column, leaving behind an imprint which looked like a woman's skirt.

His imagination fired, he used a piece of charcoal to draw in the body of a curvaceous dancer.

Not long after, a message appeared next to his drawing.

"Someone expressed surprise that such a skilled artist should exist in a place like that," says Mr Tan, now 63.

His artistic talents were to remain unrecognised over the next few decades, as the illiterate man beavered away at a series of jobs - coffee boy, hawker, contractor and now, rag-and-bone man - to make ends meet.

But two years ago, the self-taught artist met Mr Ho Sou Ping, a gallery owner, who was captivated by, and started buying, his outsider art.

The term refers to art that defies the conventions of the mainstream art world. Its practitioners include those with disabilities or mental illnesses, the homeless and the self- taught.

Another break came last year, when a 152cm by 122cm painting titled Ever Changing Of Artworks won him a Highly Commended Award in the UOB Painting of the Year competition.

In the past week, Mr Tan finally got his moment in the sun as an artist. In his first solo exhibition, called Voice Of A Karung Guni Man, 30 pieces of his works were put up at Mr Ho's Artcommune Gallery in Bras Basah.

In a style that has earned him comparisons with the late American painter Jackson Pollock, the works - gloriously textured in acrylic - explode in a multitude of vibrant colours.

Already, more than 10 pieces, ranging in price from $400 to $1,700, have been sold.

As the unlikely artist sits down at the gallery for this interview, a distinguished and smartly dressed man strides over.

Based in Hong Kong, the Singaporean doctor has just bought one of Mr Tan's paintings and wants to tell the artist that he loves it.

Mr Tan says: "It is called Journey Of Life. My paintings speak of what I have gone through."

And he has had quite a journey.

The eldest of five children, he was born in a village in Skudai, Johor, to a carpenter and a housewife.

When he was five, his family moved to Singapore, where they lived in a kampung in Hougang. Not long after, his father had a nervous breakdown.

"He said he heard noises and saw things up on the roof. My mother had to take him for electroconvulsive therapy," says Mr Tan, adding that his father eventually went back to his village in Xiamen, China, and died after a fall in the mid-1970s.

The former pupil of Xinmin Primary School says with a laugh that school did not agree with him.

"I failed the first three years, repeated one year, and then left school. I was more interested in playing tikam," he says, referring to the traditional guessing game.

His artistic talents, however, surfaced early.

"At eight, I was drawing a lot of cartoons. And at 12, I started drawing portraits. There was a studio in Sungei Road that taught people portraiture. I would peep and observe this old man sketching," he says.

Not long after he left school, a relative who had a business making cabinets in Alexandra hired him as an apprentice.

"My salary was $30 a month. I was given meals and a place to stay, but had to work every day," he says.

He left three years later, after a nasty scolding for botching up a painting job.

With a rueful grin, he lets on that he had developed a gambling habit by then and would often squander his earnings at illegal street gambling stalls.

"It was terrible. I would sometimes go home and steal from my mother, and use her jewellery and rings to bet," he says.

For a while, he slept in the storeroom in a friend's home, and earned his keep by hawking fruits at night markets.

Next, he became a "gopher" for a chap ji ki syndicate. The illegal lottery used to be popular with housewives and, in the 1950s and 1960s, syndicates had daily turnover running into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"I would be driven to houses to pick up bundles of betting slips, hidden in flower pots or other places. I was paid $10 a day," he says.

But his career was short-lived. On his seventh outing, he was chased and caught by a policeman on a motorcycle.

"I was fined $300, but my boss paid for it," he says.

He loved his free-wheeling and reckless life so much that he decided to dodge national service when he received his letter to enlist in 1969.

"I moved from place to place and did many jobs," says Mr Tan, who was, among other things, a barbecued cuttlefish hawker, construction worker and machinery cleaner.

But the law caught up with him in 1976, when he was 24.

"I was eating in People's Park when there was a spot check. I was surrounded, there was no escape," says Mr Tan, who served six months in prison.

After his release, he started working for a contractor. His gift of the gab came in handy and soon he was turning up for work neatly decked out in office wear and earning a few thousand dollars a month.

But his gambling addiction proved his undoing. He became mired in gambling debts to the tune of $30,000 and had to borrow from his employer, girlfriend and even loan sharks.

"My boss fired me. My girlfriend's brother blasted me for cheating her of her money. I borrowed $5,000 from a loan shark. After one year, I had paid $4,800 in interest but still owed him the principal sum," he says with a sigh.

Through a contact, he got into the rag-and-bone business. Luck was on his side. Not long after he started, he found a box of old coins and first day covers in an abandoned house and managed to sell them for a tidy profit.

Before long, he was travelling to Penang and Bangkok to source for items ranging from old comics to toys that he could sell in Singapore.

One of his biggest loot came from another rag-and-bone man in Bugis.

"I bought a heap of stuff from him at $1 a kilogram. But among them were stamps and first day covers which I easily sold for $2 each. I made thousands from that," he says.

Although he paid off his old debts, he did not stop gambling and incurred new ones. "It was one of the reasons I stopped going to Penang in the late 1980s. I owed people there some money."

With a shrug, he says: "I guess it is life. No one forced me to gamble and I cannot blame anyone."

He toned down his recklessness in the late 1980s, when his mother suffered a stroke which left her paralysed. He and his siblings took turns to look after her. She died about 10 years ago.

Since then, he has been beavering away in Sungei Road.

His earnings are erratic. On good days, he earns more than $100. On bad ones, he takes home nothing.

His life may have gone off on many tangents, but one thing has remained constant: his love for art.

Mr Tan never stopped painting. He even entered an art competition held in City Hall in 1976.

Rendered on a block of wood, his entry featured stars, the sun, the moon and flying birds. It represented his life and yearning for direction, he says, but the work impressed the judges not one bit.

But he was not discouraged and he continued working on different styles. For inspiration, he would pore over art books and attend art exhibitions.

He sold a few odd paintings done in Chinese ink to a jade dealer who knew he could paint, but few others had any inkling that he was an artistic soul.

About 10 years ago, a friend passed him a video on Pollock. The late painter's style enraptured him and inspired him to experiment with different brush strokes and impasto techniques.

"I tried and tried, and then told myself, 'Eh, buay pai leh,'" he says, using the Hokkien term for "not bad".

Two years ago, when he found out that Mr Ho was looking for old paintings, he tried to interest him in several he had picked up as a rag-and-bone man.

"He didn't like any of them, so I told him I could also paint. He said to show him, so I did," Mr Tan says.

Mr Ho, an artist himself, was impressed by the sophisticated paintings, which he felt also packed an emotional wallop.

He bought several pieces.

Mr Tan says: "A few months ago, he told me he wanted to stage an exhibition for me. So I started working on a new series for him."

These pieces - alongside some of his older works, including his UOB award winner - are now on display at the exhibition.

The bachelor paints in the mornings in his makeshift studio in the Circuit Road flat he shares with his younger brother.

In the afternoons, he hightails it to Sungei Road, where he has a stall with another petty peddler.

The exhibition has been getting him write-ups in newspapers and websites in the past month.

"I now have people supporting me and buying my art. It gives me incentive to work harder," he says sheepishly.

When asked if he regrets the way he has lived his life, he scrunches his face and shakes his head.

"Life's a journey. If I had lived life well, I might not be painting today."

Nursing a mint in his mouth, he leans over and confides: "You know, when I was five, my maternal grandmother told me that if I didn't leave Skudai to come to Singapore, I would inherit all her rubber estates.

"Actually, if that had happened, I would probably be talking to you now in a wheelchair. With all that money, I would have lived and partied so hard, it would not have ended well."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Talent time for karung guni man'. Print Edition | Subscribe