Obituary

Finger painter was also teacher of Lee Kuan Yew

Madam Kwei's sons Nelson Kwei (centre) and Michael Chen (left of Nelson) at their mother's funeral in Mandai Crematorium yesterday.
Madam Kwei's sons Nelson Kwei (centre) and Michael Chen (left of Nelson) at their mother's funeral in Mandai Crematorium yesterday. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG
Finger painter Kwei Chin Pen (above) was the disciple of master finger painter Wu Tsai Yen and played a seminal role in the founding of San Yi Finger Painting Society.
Finger painter Kwei Chin Pen (above) was the disciple of master finger painter Wu Tsai Yen and played a seminal role in the founding of San Yi Finger Painting Society.ST FILE PHOTO

Nanjing-born artist Kwei Chin Pen was a strict yet loving mother with a varied career

Family and friends said their last goodbye yesterday to Singapore finger painter Kwei Chin Pen, whose varied career included 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 yesterday.

"My mother sparked my love of 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 Chen Zhenya to make the exception of giving their youngest son her maiden surname, as it is uncommon in Singapore.

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

They settled down in Singapore with their four sons.

Chen, who worked as a newspaper editor and geography curriculum developer, died in 1995 in his 70s. The couple's second son, Tony, died aged 69 in 2018.

Madam Kwei had a varied career as an educator, radio broadcaster, events emcee, actress and finger painter.

She taught Mr Lee Chinese for 11 years from 1966 to 1977.

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

He recounted an incident where she had 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 Mr Hua was premier in the late 1970s, earning praise from Mr 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 the first female president of the Society of Chinese Artists, one of the oldest art societies in Singapore, and had many solo exhibitions here and overseas.

She 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 Southeast Asian Arts and Art Galleries at Nafa.

She added that Madam Kwei's finger paints 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 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2020, with the headline 'Finger painter was also teacher of Lee Kuan Yew'. Print Edition | Subscribe