It Changed My Life

The art of spreading happiness

Peter Zhuo has made good his promise to his grandfather to use drawings to make children all over the world happy

Mr Peter Zhuo, in his signature red sweater, with a drawing of Ai, the character he created to inspire children.
Mr Peter Zhuo, in his signature red sweater, with a drawing of Ai, the character he created to inspire children. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
 Mr Zhou with children in a street of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Mr Zhou with children in a street of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.PHOTO: COURTESY OF PETER ZHOU
Mr Zhou with children in Poasito, Alajuela, in Costa Rica.
Mr Zhou with children in Poasito, Alajuela, in Costa Rica.PHOTO: COURTESY OF PETER ZHOU
Mr Peter Zhuo being hugged by pupils of Evergreen Primary School, where he sits on the advisory board.
Mr Peter Zhuo being hugged by pupils of Evergreen Primary School, where he sits on the advisory board.PHOTO: COURTESY OF PETER ZHOU

When he was just six years old, Mr Peter Zhuo found himself booted out of a free trial lesson offered by an art school.

The instructor did not like the way he held his pencil - gripped between his middle and fourth finger - and said: "Forget about drawing. You can't even hold a pencil properly."

And when he naively told her he probably could not afford to sign up for the monthly lessons, she imperiously told him: "There are people waiting outside. Please get out."

A fervent drawer since he was three, he dejectedly hung around for a while before heading home to have a good cry.

After worming the reason out of him, his paternal grandfather told him a story about a boy who also could not pay for art lessons but went on to become a famous artist because he did not give up.

"My grandfather said he created Disneyland before he died. I asked him who the artist was, and he said Picasso," Mr Zhuo, now 31, recalls.

The little boy told his grandfather he wanted to grow up and become another Picasso so that he could protect the happiness of children.

It took him a few years before he realised that the old man had spun him a tall yarn and that Picasso and Walt Disney were two different people. But he kept true to his promise. He continued to draw, not only teaching children how to do the same, often for free, but also using drawings to make children all over the world happy.

In the process, he broke four Guinness Records in drawing - biggest caricature, biggest art lesson, longest group drawing and longest individual drawing on Children's Day in 2007, 2010 and 2014.

In 2011, when Japan was rocked by a tsunami, he travelled to China, Indonesia, Taiwan and Costa Rica to get children, whose lives have been affected by disasters, to draw encouraging pictures for their counterparts in Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi. These prefectures bore the brunt of the nuclear plant crisis triggered by the tsunami.

He also started Little Draws.

"It's a little movement. I teach children how to draw portraits for free, on the condition that they will go out to draw portraits for others to put a smile on even more people's faces."

In person, the man nicknamed Peter Draw has a disposition and a smile as bright as the vermillion sweaters he always wears.

"I have six of these sweaters," he says cheerily. "It's been my signature look since I was 16."

He is the second of three children; his mother is a housewife, while his father held down a number of jobs, from hawker assistant to umbrella salesman to taxi driver.

He started drawing at three.

"I'd draw people I know and Dragon Ball," he says, referring to the popular manga character. "My drawings covered every inch of a piece of paper."

Although he very much wanted lessons, his family could not afford them. His talent, however, was apparent. At 12, he came in first in a drawing contest organised by McDonald's. In his early teens, the former student of Kebun Primary and Bowen Secondary won a comic drawing competition.

It led to an apprenticeship with a local publisher and a local comic artist, from whom he learnt much.

Mr Zhuo's beloved grandfather - a divorcee who brought up three children - died when he was 16.

"He once asked me why I wanted to be an artist. I told him I wanted to change the world. He was unwavering in his belief that I would become a great artist. One of my greatest regrets was never asking him what his dream was before he died," he says.

The old man's death spurred him to take his craft even more seriously. He read books on the subject and would polish his skills by drawing caricatures in public.

His first attempt took place in a fun fair at a community centre. A cousin who had booked a booth offered it to him so he decided to sketch portraits for $10 a sitting.

The first caricature took him half an hour but by the end of the day, he could do it in 10 minutes.

"I did 27 caricatures that time," says Mr Zhuo who invested in a mobile phone and printed some name cards with the profits.

Demand started growing for his services. "I started charging $20 an hour, then $50, $100, $500 and even $1,000, although those were very rare," says the artist who funded his diploma in banking and finance at Nanyang Polytechnic with his earnings. In a good month, he could earn more than $2,000.

Unlike his friends, his priority upon completing his national service in 2006 was not to find a job but act on his dream to draw and bring joy to children. Free drawing clinics were organised for children from the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore and other charitable organisations.

His parents were not enamoured of his decision but he was set on helping children.

"I have this idea about changing the world and I guess the best way to start is to empower the young. I will be an example to them," he says, adding that he wants to inspire them to dream big and live their dreams.

His intrepid nature and his earnestness endeared him to many, earning him many supporters and mentors along the way.

A writer and consultant, for instance, linked him up with Mr Warren Buckley, the former chief executive of Suntec Singapore, when he wanted to draw the world's largest caricature. And that was how he got into the Guinness Records for his 360 sq m portrait of action star Jackie Chan in Suntec City in 2007.

The next year, he spent 24 hours sketching portraits - with no food or drink or toilet break - for the public at McDonald's in East Coast Park.

The event was to help non-profit organisation Habitat for Humanity raise funds to build a home for a family of four in Batam.

At the 12th-hour mark, his hand started to hurt. But the queue of people waiting to have their portrait done kept him going.

"I was in another zone. I wouldn't have heard anyone if they had called my name. I only felt the pain and the aches all over when I stopped," says Mr Zhuo, who drew 952 portraits and raised $8,500 in those 24 hours.

There were several more mammoth charitable projects, including one which involved children in all the Asean countries.

Many of the projects he took on attracted sponsors, including organisations such as Capitaland. Although he did not draw a regular salary, he made enough from commissions and art projects to get by.

However, in 2009, he fell into a funk when he realised the expenses he had chalked up over two years - including materials and fees for consultants and general helpers - for his Asean project and some of his other endeavours totalled more than $100,000.

"My mentors and supporters were busy paying all these bills so that I could continue doing what I was doing. I felt very stressed. I took on as many assignments as possible to pay them back even though they did not expect me to," he says.

"It got to a point when I became really tired, even my heart and mind were tired. I was poorer at 26 than I was at 16."

He spent a few months in 2009, cooped up in his room, letting his hair grow long and not stepping out of his family's four-room flat in Ang Mo Kio. Fortunately, his good sense prevailed.

"I asked myself what my grandfather would have wanted me to do. I knew he would have wanted me to face my problems and learn from my mistakes," he says.

His brush with the blues made him stronger.

"It made me more determined than before. I decided I shouldn't take everything upon myself, I should just concentrate on what I can offer," he says.

Pursuing his passion has made his a colourful life.

On a trip to South Africa, he broke away from his group to visit orphanages and ended up at the home of Nobel Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, where he had a chat with the social rights activist.

A former Costa Rican ambassador linked him up with another Nobel Peace Prize winner: Mr Costa Arias, the former president of Costa Rica.

"He asked me what I wanted to do," says Mr Zhuo, whose trips are usually funded by organisations and a coterie of individuals who support his vision.

When he told the former president that he wanted to collect inspiring drawings for the children of tsunami-stricken Japan, he was directed to a school principal in Paosito.

There he met a little girl, Val, who was instrumental in making him navigate a new turn in his life.

Val lost her mother in an earthquake which rocked Costa Rica.

"She cried when I told her about Japan. She said she could not draw anything to help the children there because her life was empty after she lost her mum. She didn't have anybody to help her celebrate her birthday and her home was empty," he recalls.

He was so touched that he made her a promise.

"I promised her that one day, our world will be one where our memories of our loved ones will not go away even when our loved ones go away," says Mr Zhuo, whose autobiography Draw On Love will hit bookstores next week.

After a long period of pondering, he hit on the idea of Present, a free app which allows users to film videos as well as edit, store and view them from anywhere in the world. It also comes with geo-tagging and time-stamping features.

Parents, for instance, can easily call up videos to relive their children's first moments, grandparents can record messages for their future grandchildren.

His convictions earned him the trust of several angel investors, who have pumped in nearly half a million dollars into the app's development. Nanyang Polytechnic gave him and his team of eight tech geeks a space to work on Present. After 19 editions over 18 months, Present was launched last month.

He declines to reveal the number of users but says reception to the app has been promising and there have been interesting propositions from different quarters.

The transition from artist to chief executive of a start-up, he admits, has been edifying, albeit challenging. But he will never give up drawing. In fact, he has plans to launch a series of paintings revolving around Ai - a character he created - and to open an art school.

"If you can pay, pay. If not, just join. No one will be turned away."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'The art of spreading happiness'. Print Edition | Subscribe