Acclaimed Singapore painter Choo Keng Kwang dies aged 88

Choo Keng Kwang gained a reputation as a painter who could combine Western impressionism and rules of perspective with traditional Chinese brushwork.
Choo Keng Kwang gained a reputation as a painter who could combine Western impressionism and rules of perspective with traditional Chinese brushwork. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Acclaimed Singapore artist Choo Keng Kwang, known for his oil paintings of Chinatown and doves, died in the early hours of Saturday morning (Dec 14) at the age of 88.

The master artist, who was admitted to Sengkang General Hospital earlier this month after suffering a stroke, is survived by his wife, five children and six grandchildren.

Born in Singapore in 1931, Choo was the only son of a Teochew trader. After gaining certificates from Catholic High School and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) - where he had enrolled simultaneously - he began his career as a teacher.

He was later the principal of Sin Hua School and head of the art education department at Nafa.

He started on-the-spot painting in the streets when he was in his 30s. Accompanied by his tireless father, who would carry easel and paints and an umbrella to shelter his son, he headed to places such as Chinatown and staked out his subjects for hours on end.

Choo eventually gained a reputation as a painter who could combine Western impressionism and rules of perspective with traditional Chinese brushwork. He continued working on his paintings and woodcuts in spite of the pain due to a degenerative spinal cord condition.

The artist, who made numerous trips across South-east Asia, depicted the rural lifestyles in the region. He is also remembered for his paintings of animals. He once had more than 20 doves in his Pasir Ris home, and also kept a pet rooster as well as about 10 Persian cats - all of which became subjects in his paintings.

He was awarded the Public Service Medal in 1976  for his contributions to art. A long-time  philanthropist, he has also donated his paintings and proceeds from their sales to charity. 

Former president Ong Teng Cheong was a fan of Choo's work. The Singapore Government also commissioned his paintings as gifts to foreign dignitaries.

In 1989, four postage stamps were issued bearing the artist's Chinatown paintings.

Choo's eldest daughter Ivy Choo, 62, says: "He was a great father. He never lost his temper. I admire him because he did a lot for charity. He was generous - regardless of whether you were relatives, friends or (others). As long as he was able to, he would help."

Film-maker Eric Lim, 55, recently filmed Choo for his documentary Memories Of Chinatown that premieres next month. He says Choo had a jovial personality.

"He painted almost every corner and street of Chinatown - except Sago Lane. He loved the character of Chinatown, and loved to go there for the food."

Choo stopped painting his favourite haunt, however, "as the view has changed a lot", Mr Lim said.

Choo was still working on his art when Lim filmed him in October. "I was amazed. Even with a mild stroke, he had the determination to complete his paintings," said the director.

Mr Johnny Yu, whose gallery DaTang Fine Arts has held six exhibitions of Choo's work since 2003, told The Straits Times in Mandarin: "In the early days, people said his work was similar to Lee Man Fong's. But even though there are similarities, the two artists had different styles and Choo tends to be better at painting larger works."

The gallery sold a 2.1m by 1.3m dove painting by Choo for $228,000 in 2013.

Mr Yu, who described the late artist as amiable and unassuming, added: "Now that he's gone, it's a big loss for the arts scene in Singapore."

A wake for Choo will be held at 6 Pasir Ris Way until Wednesday (Dec 18). The cortege will depart at 2pm on Wednesday for Mandai Crematorium.