The martial art of painting

Two of Lee Kian Choong's works, Adventure (above) and Chance (left).

Watercolour artist Lee Kian Choong is also a taekwondo master who practises martial arts to achieve balance in his art

Lee Kian Choong is a photographer who has shot celebrities and royalty, but it took him 50 years to work up the courage to paint full time.

Nine years into his new career as a watercolourist, he recalls that his late father, a fishmonger, told him every day to study hard so he would not have "smelly hands" when he grew up.

"He would come home, place his hands on my nose and say, 'You better study or you will also smell'," Lee, 59, recalls with a chuckle.

Forty of his watercolour paintings completed in the last three years are showcased in an exhibition at the Si Bao Zhai gallery at Bras Basah Complex until tomorrow.

In his works, intense washes of green, blue and purple on rice paper evoke lotus-strewn ponds and rolling hills enlivened by tiny animals in motion - flying flocks of birds, squiggling tadpoles or curious koi.

Lee paints these in memory of the streams and fields of his childhood in Kapar, Selangor. Also because life is an ever-changing journey, especially for him.

Two of Lee Kian Choong's works, Adventure (above) and Chance (left).
Two of Lee Kian Choong's works, Adventure (above) and Chance. PHOTO: LEE KIAN CHOONG

As the eldest of 12 children, he had no hope of studying the arts and enrolled in the Technical Institute in Kuala Lumpur instead. Later, he studied computing science at the University of Sheffield in Britain. He also got a black belt in taekwondo and taught the martial art for several years.

He moved to Singapore in 1984, had a number of engineering jobs, including with the Housing Board, and became a permanent resident.

He and his Singaporean wife Yee Shau Ling, a musician and piano teacher, have two daughters and a son in their teens and 20s.

Still fascinated by the arts, he studied photography through the International Correspondence School in London and became a Fellow with The Royal Photographic Society of Britain.

In 1991, he gave up his job in a multi-national company to start a portrait studio.

Two of Lee Kian Choong's works, Adventure (above) and Chance (left).
Two of Lee Kian Choong's works, Adventure and Chance (above). PHOTO: LEE KIAN CHOONG

"My father-in-law told me I was crazy. My wife, however, was prepared to live on plain bread and helped me at the studio," he says.

Lee made a good living photographing Malaysian royalty and notables such as Singapore's President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

But he was consumed by part-time painting studies and in 2008, he shut the studio to work full time on watercolours at home, a terrace house in Ang Mo Kio.

Hao Zhen Art Gallery hosted his first solo exhibition in Singapore in 2013. The year after, he had a solo show in Hong Kong under Asia Fine Art Gallery.

In 2015, he had a showcase at the Taipa Museum in Macau.


  • WHERE: Si Bao Zhai Arts Gallery, 02-43 Bras Basah Complex, 231 Bain Street WHEN: Till tomorrow, 11.30am to 7pm


This year, he has won several accolades from watercolour societies in the United States, including a blue ribbon at an international exhibition organised by the Louisiana Watercolour Society.

He thinks his fusion style - he blends Chinese inks and Western water colours to achieve his intense pigments - sets him apart.

And he still practises martial arts to help him achieve the balance of "sensibility, sensuality and spirituality" he wants to show in his paintings.

There is no difference between taekwondo, Shaolin gongfu and the visual arts, he says.

"The method of illustration is different, but they are all the same - about life and big questions such as why we exist and why we are here."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2017, with the headline 'The martial art of painting'. Print Edition | Subscribe