Woon brothers do their bit for budding artists

Their foundation is sponsoring new Nafa art prize, supporting students here and abroad

The Woons - (counterclockwise from front) Wee Phong, Tek Seng, Wee Teng and Wee Hao - are united in their passion for fine art, which has spurred them to support bursaries and other programmes for art students.
The Woons - (counterclockwise from front) Wee Phong, Tek Seng, Wee Teng and Wee Hao - are united in their passion for fine art, which has spurred them to support bursaries and other programmes for art students. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Five students graduating from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) each won cash prizes of $1,500 to $6,000 in June for their final-year projects in the inaugural Nafa Fine Art Graduating Awards Competition.

Behind the prizes is a little-known foundation set up in 2007 by four art-loving brothers - the Woon Brothers Foundation, which has been promoting art education, art collecting and helping the needy ever since.

Three of the four brothers - Tek Seng, 67; Wee Phong, 62; and Wee Hao, 61 - own the well-known Killiney chain of coffee shops, while Wee Teng, 58, is a retired lawyer.

The top prize for the Nafa competition is named after their father, Hainanese chef and confectioner Woon Tai Jee.

The brothers have pledged to sponsor the art competition at Nafa for at least five years, giving a total of $70,000 in prize money.

The sponsorship is similar to the art prize they started three years ago at Northumbria University in England - Wee Teng's alma mater.

A lover of Buddhist art and antiquities, he started collecting pieces while in primary school. He founded Singapore's first Buddhist museum, Nei Xue Tang, at Cantonment Road in 2005.

However, poor health forced him to part with the museum and its 40,000 Buddhist art pieces. He passed the "custodian's role" to Singapore tycoon Oei Hong Leong for an undisclosed sum in 2007.

With the money, and profits from investments in property, construction and other businesses, the Woons set aside $10 million for the foundation to make a difference.

Teck Seng, a former money broker who started Killiney Kopitiam's chain of coffee shops in 1993, said: "The foundation wants to promote art education and art collecting, and to do good with the money that we gained from our art collection."

"Personally, I have started to buy works of lesser-known Singapore artists in order to support them," he added.

Together, the brothers own a huge collection of paintings and sculptures; Wee Teng's Buddhist art pieces are the most substantial in number and value. The works are stored at warehouses in Singapore and England.

The Woons have also donated works from their collection to museums both here and abroad. Last year, they gave an 800-year-old silver cyclindrical reliquary from the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Dali to the Yunnan Provincial Museum, their first major donation in China.

Said Wee Teng: "We have given to the Asian Civilisations Museum, and to museums and Buddhist temples in other parts of the world, including many in Thailand."

Wee Phong and Wee Hao, both civil engineers, started the family's construction company, Welltech, in 1984. They said the foundation wants to do more in Singapore and welcomes proposals.

Wee Hao said they had been supporting student bursaries at Singapore Management University, and also donating money to the century-old Sian Chay Medical Institution, which is expanding.

The foundation started its good works in England, where Wee Teng studied law, married a local girl and bought a house. His two grown-up sons are based there.

Since 2008, the foundation has supported bursaries and programmes for the law school at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, where Wee Teng studied from 1979 to 1982.

Wee Teng, who retired as a lawyer eight years ago, said: "We gave over £10,000 each year for book prizes and bursaries for needy law students, as well as to the Student Law Centre there, to help pay for exchange programmes and overseas training for the students."

"We also initiated the Access to Justice Fund at the centre, to help cover court fees for those who are seeking legal redress, but cannot afford to pay the fees," he added.

In 2012, the brothers launched the Woon Brothers Foundation Painting and Sculpture Art Prize at Northumbria University. The competition is open to all graduating students from tertiary-level art institutions in Britain.

The top prize winner gets £20,000 (S$43,320) in cash, as well as free use of an art studio and mentorship by a famous artist for a year.

Wee Teng said: "Apart from the art prizes at Northumbria and Nafa, we have been giving out scholarships and bursaries to needy students at Pho Chang Fine Art Academy in Thailand for several years."

Said Nafa president Chia Mia Chiang: "Our students have been encouraged by the foundation's generosity and keenness to support the fine arts.

"It helped spur them on as they created their graduation artworks, pushing them to the next level of artistic excellence."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2015, with the headline Woon brothers do their bit for budding artists. Subscribe