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Painting the past for the future

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
The 51-year-old works with Cambodian artist FONKi to create a unique piece for Street Art Fest ++. GT2/Taing Rinith

Is it a clever choice for a person almost reaching their fifties and without formal art training to quit a full-time job to focus on being an artist, a career mostly known for unstable income? Yip Yew Chong, a prominent Singaporean mural artist, certainly thinks so, saying it was one of the best decisions he’s ever made. His desire to craft artworks, which are not only evocative and bursting with humour, but also associated with the past, has urged him to travel off the beaten track. Now, in the ongoing Street Art Fest++ in Phnom Penh, Yip is sharing his cherished moments through sketches and mural paintings of places to Cambodian art lovers. Story by Taing Rinith.

At the launching of Street Art Fest++, a historical event to mark the 55-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and Singapore, on Saturday last week, Yip Yew Chong, who arrived in Cambodia the week before, performed a live painting in front of the audience, along with FONKi, a Cambodian street artist.

With a few brushes in his hands, 51-year-old Yip painted energetically and passionately, creating pictures of a glass of shaved ice and a glass of black coffee with condensed milk, which are enjoyed by both Cambodians and Singaporeans under the hot sun. Nothing could disturb him during the process; not even the loud music or the applause from the audience.

Not far from his live painting session was a mural, which Yip had spent three days working on to be unveiled on the first day of the art festival. The mural depicts a landscape combining the “unspoiled nature of Cambodia” and the modernised Merlion park of Singapore. Right in the middle of the work is a picture of his young self, playing in the river with a Cambodian boy.

“When I am painting, it is like I am meditating.” Yip explains. “I put myself into the scene and imagine what it looks like. There is no model because I usually paint things that are no more. When I do my work, I look at my surroundings: the local environment, the people, the cultures.”

It’s hard to believe that it was just two years ago when Yip became a professional artist. For more than 25 years before, Yip had been working in a financial position at several well-known corporations, including Reuters and Visa. But in 2018, inspired by the vibrant street art scenes in many countries, including neighbouring Malaysia, Yip decided to shift from numbers to nostalgic murals. Singapore could also do it, he thought.

Yip never fails to inject humorous elements into his murals. GT2/Taing Rinith

Growing up in a working-class family who live on the second floor of a shophouse owned by an Arab family in Sago Lane, Yip has shown his artistic talent since a very young age, but it was never formally developed. He was chairman of the Art Club at top boys’ school Raffles Institution (RI), where he had also painted props for school plays and a 50m mural on a wall at the school’s swimming pool.

“I did not get into art early in life because Singapore is very practical: it’s always ‘technology first’,” he says. “I had to choose the corporate life first to support myself, but the art was always there.”

Yip enjoyed his accounting career, but for three years, while he was working as the finance director of a British multinational corporation, he was painting at night, on weekends and even during lunch breaks. Then, the art absorbed him so much that he decided to retire from his nine-to-five, with encouragement from friends as well as the support of his wife and children.

Since 2015, he has painted about 50 murals all over Singapore, from the streetside barber in Everton Road to the stunning 40m painting of early Hokkien immigrants at the back of the Thian Hock Keng Temple in Telok Ayer Street. All those are products of his paintbrushes and imagination, and he says that asking him to choose the painting he likes the most is like forcing him to choose a favourite child. Yet, a beautifully evocative scene of a Cantonese opera troupe performing on an open-air stage in the 1970s (which can be seen in Temple Street) is exceptionally special for the 51-year-old artist.

Yip’s latest mural in Temple Street was displayed at the Street Art Fest++. GT2/Taing Rinith

“It’s a gift to my beloved Chinatown, where I grew up. I have fond memories of chasing street wayang there,” Yip says. “But, I also love painting the nostalgic scenes from the past, something that no longer exists. That is a very good way to keep the memories alive.”

His reputation as an evocative street artist has spread to other countries, leading to him being commissioned to paint murals in, among other places, Malaysia, Hong Kong and India. At the moment, he is showcasing his work in Cambodia, the two-week Street Art Fest++.

“Yip’s artistic career is very special,” says FONKi, a Cambodian street artist who was also featured at the art fest. “The way he paints using his imagination is very natural and we are glad to have him here to share it with our local artists.”

“It is my second time in Cambodia, but I am still excited to be here,” Yip says. “When it comes to street art, Cambodia and Singapore has a lot in common. There are so many talented artists and there is a huge space for growth.”

While Yip has already proved that it is never too late for one to follow his or her passion, his message to young people who want to become street artist is simple: do it now!

“You have to do it truly from your heart, and never give up, although it means you have to work under the blazing sun,” he says. “Of course, you will also have to ask for permission from the local authorities and the owner before you start painting on any structure.”

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