The Shophouses of Tan Choh Tee 陈楚智

Low Sok Leng Low Sok Leng
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Tan Choh Tee's intricate oil painting of shophouses in early Singapore.

I was alerted to an art exhibition of Tan Choh Tee 陈楚智’s works and went hurriedly to the exhibition on its last day.  The exhibition featured the 2006 Cultural Medallion winner’s works from 1979 to 2017. 

I was most captivated by the Nanyang artist works in the 1980s and found that some of these works were published in an art book titled Choh Tee in 2008.  

I wanted to see more of his art works of the 1980s and so went in search for this book.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the book under lock and key in the National Library. 

Apparently the library had only one copy of the book that was personally autographed by the artist.

Tan's painting of a bustling street in Chinatown Singapore lined with food stalls and customers eating.

Most of the paintings in the book were scenes of Chinatown, Singapore River and Sungei Road Thieves Market in the 1980s, bustling with activities in the streets, stalls and shophouses. 

You can feel the aged shophouses, the lively marketplace, the crowded food stalls, and the colourful bum boats in the paintings. 

The paintings were very busy, with lots of details and activities happening at the the same time:

The legs of the stools at the food stalls, the poles of clothes hanging from the windows of the shop houses, the weaves of the baskets containing items for sale; the multiple canvases that shelter the food stalls, the sardine packed shops houses, the chock full bum boats on the Singapore River. 

It was impressive: the busyness was perfectly balanced and do not overwhelm the paintings with fatigue.

Tan's oil painting of a busy fruit stall in Chinatown Singapore.
The paintings were largely brownish and grayish as buildings and streets filled most of the canvas, with strokes of colours standing out unexpectedly:

The blue canvas roof, the yellow windows, the blue streak on the wall; the brown braised ducks hanging at the food stall, the red stove in front of the shop house, the green base of the trishaw on the street.  

It was arresting; the brilliant use of colours gave energy to ordinarily dull buildings, streets and everyday life.
Chinatown and Singapore River are very popular subject matters for Singapore artists, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.  The shophouses of Tan Choh Tee 陈楚智 are amongst the best I have seen.

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