Cultural Medallion recipient Chong Fah Cheong on making sculptures out of wood

A theatre director, sculptor and poet each have been awarded Singapore’s highest cultural honour. Life! profiles this year’s Cultural Medallion recipients

Chong Fah Cheong’s bronze sculpture of boys jumping into the Singapore River.
Chong Fah Cheong’s bronze sculpture of boys jumping into the Singapore River.

The Cultural Medallion award may have been given to him, but sculptor Chong Fah Cheong regards it as more than a personal accolade.

The 68-year-old says: "The award is given to me personally but it's not a personal right, it's about celebrating with the art community of Singapore.

"Countries are often centuries-old before they start to recognise anything but Singapore is in a hurry to get there and it's a good thing because in any society, the heroes are in fact made so that there are role models to emulate."

A largely self-taught artist, he was himself moulded into a sculptor at the nudging of the late Brother Joseph McNally, founder of Lasalle College of the Arts.

Chong has a bachelor's degree in social science from the then University of Singapore and a diploma in curriculum studies in art and design from the City of Birmingham Polytechnic in the United Kingdom.

He was an art teacher at St Patrick's School in the 1970s when Brother McNally, an accomplished artist, was the principal. Summoned by Brother McNally to make use of wood from trees felled on campus, he made his first sculptures out of wood.

His sculptures are on display in public spaces islandwide, among them a bronze piece of boys jumping into the Singapore River, which is popular with shutterbugs, and a large-scale sculpture of a maternal figure hugging a child, which stands in Toa Payoh Town Centre.

His works are also in the national collection of art and will be on show at the National Gallery Singapore when the museum opens next year.

His peers include sculptors Iskandar Jalil, Han Sai Por and Chng Seok Tin, all of whom are Cultural Medallion recipients.

Asked if his recognition is overdue, he would only say: "I imagine that if I continued in Singapore, I would've been more anxious about it because of how life goes on here, you feel you have to get on with it."

He moved with his wife, son and daughter to Merritt in British Columbia in 1989 in part because the children were not doing well in Chinese classes in school and also because he wanted a slower pace of life.

He and his family, however, have retained their Singapore citizenship and he continues to hold exhibitions and take on commissions for work here.

He says: "People always ask me if I'm still Singaporean. I tell them I'm a true porcelain-green and Peranakan-pink Singaporean." He was born the 12th of 13 children to a doctor and a housewife, both Peranakans.

As for how his art relates to Singapore, he says he merely allows who he is, which includes being a Singaporean, to come through in his work. This is evident in his choice of Malay titles for some of his sculptures and references to his Catholic upbringing here in certain works.

He acknowledges though that his years in Canada have allowed him "to stand and stare". This in turn, has influence his practice. "I see my works as poetry in form. The textures, surfaces and material are inspired by my surroundings and what I observe," he says.

He hopes to polish his skills as a sculptor by using the award grant of $80,000 to learn new ways of handling stone. He says resolutely: "I want to do something to improve myself."


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