Lim Cheng Hoe 林清河 – Painting Singapore

Sok Leng Sok Leng
4 minute read

Lim Cheng Hoe's watercolour painting of a Malay kampong in early Singapore.

I never knew there was a pioneer watercolour artist in Singapore until I learned about the “Lim Cheng Hoe 林清河: Painting Singapore” art exhibition at the Singapore National Gallery

After visiting the exhibtion and reading up on him, I realized he was below the radar as he did not attend nor teach at  the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, which the other pioneer artists did. 

He was mainly self taught and continued to work in his job as a clerk in the Public Utilities Board until he retired.  

Although he was a Sunday painter, art was a serious passion and not a leisurely pursuit to him. 

He liked natural landscapes and painting in the outdoors so he travelled all around Singapore to paint.  He was a hard working painter and often returned to the same places to paint, inadvertently tracking the changes to these places. 

He painted kampongs, beaches, gardens and the Singapore River – rustic scenes of Singapore in the 1930s to 1970s.  As Singapore became urbanized, he painted construction sites and high rise buildings. 
Singapore is small and we do not have many natural landscapes to paint.  He did venture to nearby Malaysia to paint occasionally, but I guess it was not as easy and affordable to travel overseas in those days.

But it not matter to Lim Cheng Hoe to paint the same places repeatedly, to practice and hone his skills, even though it could be boring.  His dedication to his art is admirable.

Lim's watercolour painting of a construction site in early Singapore.

I was impressed with the paintings of the construction sites.  I did not think that construction sites have much “point” to be painted but he showed it otherwise. 

The paintings were a showcase of his superior draughtsman skills and showed that it takes an artist to see the beauty in the everyday.
I felt that his paintings of the Singapore River had a timeless feel to them. 

Perhaps it was the atmosphere and mood of the Singapore River that was captured at a moment, instead of the accurate representations of boats and godowns. 

Perhaps it was his “advanced” watercolour techniques, as if the painting was painted today instead of the 1960s. 

Lim's watercolour painting of the Singapore River in early Singapore.

Perhaps it was his interestingly varied interpretations of the Singapore River. 

There was a sketch that was typical of paintings of the Singapore River, with the river choke full of bum boats. 

There was a watercolour painting of the Singapore River in an unusual scroll like format typical of Chinese ink paintings.  

There was a painting of an island (Pulau Saigon) on the Singapore River that has since disappeared with the urbanization of Singapore, scenes that are forever etched in history. 

There was a watercolour painting where he used fine lines to highlight the buildings and boats by the Singapore River.  There was another painting in a similar scene without the lines but only strokes and washes. 

His earlier paintings of the Singapore River showed more form and texture, where the boats or buildings were more clearly defined.  His later works captured more mood, where boats and buildings were lost in the painting.
I enjoyed the exhibtion tremendously.  There was a strong sense of connection looking at familiar scenes of Singapore and there were gushes of pride at such a talented Singaporean artist.
“Lim Cheng Hoe 林清河: Painting Singapore” art exhibition runs until 9 June 2019 at the National Gallery in Singapore.  Admission is free for Singaporeans.    

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