Finger painter Kwei Chin Pen, who taught Lee Kuan Yew Chinese, dies at 93

Madam Kwei died at the age of 93, leaving behind three sons, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Madam Kwei died at the age of 93, leaving behind three sons, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Family and friends said their last goodbye on Friday (March 13) to Singapore finger painter Kwei Chin Pen, whose varied career includes tutoring founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in Chinese.

Madam Kwei died on Wednesday at the age of 93, leaving behind three sons, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

She was a strict yet loving mother who was very resilient, her youngest son, Nelson Kwei, told The Straits Times at Mandai Crematorium and Columbarium on Friday.

"My mother sparked my love for singing. She sent me for music lessons and to join a choir, which started my lifelong career in singing," said the 58-year-old veteran choral conductor, who added that they shared an interest in music.

Madam Kwei had asked her husband, Mr Chen Zhenya, to make the exception of giving their youngest son her maiden surname, seeing how it is uncommon in Singapore.

Born in Nanjing, China, Madam Kwei moved in 1945 to Singapore with her husband, then an official with the Kuomintang.

They settled down in Singapore with their four sons. Mr Chen, who worked as a newspaper editor and geography curriculum developer, died in 1995 in his 70s and the couple's second son, Tony, died at age 69 in 2018.

Madam Kwei had a varied career as an educator, radio broadcaster, events emcee, actor and finger painter. She taught Mr Lee Chinese for 11 years from 1966 to 1977.

In an eulogy at the prayer service, Madam Kwei's third son, Mr Michael Chen, 67, a retired navy officer, said Mr Lee trusted Madam Kwei's proficiency in Mandarin.

He recounted an incident where she corrected Mr Lee on the Mandarin pronunciation of former Chinese premier Hua Guofeng's surname. Mr Lee pronounced it accurately on an official visit to China when Hua was premier in the late 1970s, earning praise from Hua for being the first foreign leader to say his name correctly.

"That transformed their teacher-student relationship," he added.

When she was not tutoring students and compiling geography textbooks with her husband, Madam Kwei was an ardent art collector and finger painter.

She was also the first female president of the Society of Chinese Artists, one of the oldest arts societies in Singapore, and had many solo exhibitions here and overseas.

Madam Kwei was the disciple of master finger painter Wu Tsai Yen and played a seminal role in the founding of San Yi Finger Painting Society, said Dr Bridget Tan of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa).

"Her foray into finger painting was considered somewhat unusual as it was not a well-known or ardently followed practice even in 20th-century China," said Dr Tan, who is director of the Institute of South-east Asian Arts and Art Galleries at Nafa.

She added that Madam Kwei's finger paintings were almost always accompanied by colophons and inscriptions, which followed the main values of San Yi Finger Painting Society in unifying ink painting, poetry and calligraphy.

"Her art also upheld the teachings of master Wu Tsai Yen in establishing a warm spirit of a cultural identity, building friendships and upholding human values through art-making - in particular, the unique experiences and discipline afforded by finger painting."