Lim Cheng Tju
The often-paraphrased William Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past” is still so powerful because it finds application in so many situations. Talking to 86-year-old Singaporean artist Lim Yew Kuan at the cafeteria of the British Library makes the significance and relevance of history palpable as it permeated our conversation about art and memory.
Yew Kuan knows fully well the weight of history. He has been carrying it since he was young, when his father Lim Hak Tai became the founding principal of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in 1938, one of the first art academies in Southeast Asia. The founding of NAFA is linked to the outbreak of the war in China in 1937. Lim senior and his young family moved to Singapore when the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out. NAFA was set up with the help of the Society of Chinese Artists in Singapore, many of whom supported the anti-Japanese war effort and who were executed when Japan occupied Singapore between 1942 and 1945. In the 1960s, Yew Kuan succeeded his father as the principal of NAFA. One can imagine the weight of history Yew Kuan has carried all his life – the legacy of his father as a giant in the annals of Singapore’s art history and the war memories of evacuation, separation and death.
It was during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore that the Lim family experienced a personal tragedy that inspired Yew Kuan to paint Lingering Fear (余悸) in 1954, the painting that I will discuss in this short essay. During this period, NAFA was closed and Lim senior had to depend on friends to feed his family of five children. To supplement the income for the family, Yew Kuan’s elder brother sold ice cream. Like many young men at that time, he was also firmly anti-Japanese and was part of the underground resistance. In 1943, he received word that the Japanese were on to him. He was advised by friends to leave home, but he stayed as his family depended on him for income. A week later, the Japanese police came to arrest him and he was never seen again.
At that time, Yew Kuan was 15 years old. The arrest left a huge impact on him. When asked why he decided to recreate this event in a painting 11 years after the incident, Yew Kuan replied that he wanted to remember his older brother and also to capture the horror he felt in his heart as a young boy. That is why he named the painting Lingering Fear as the horror of the exact moment has never really left him.
Looking at the painting 60 years on, one is struck by Yew Kuan’s skillful use of light and dark to depict the sadness of permanent separation. The eye is drawn immediately to the centre of the painting which shows the elder brother being led away. He is dressed in a white singlet and a pair of shorts, indicating that this was a surprise arrest that took place in the middle of the night. But if we pay attention to the white apparel of the older brother, which is in direct contrast to the darkness of the room, we realize that he is also being portrayed as a symbol of purity and heroism in Yew Kuan’s young mind. The light source is located to the left of the painting and throws shadows on the face of the Japanese police or what could also be Chinese collaborators. But their sinister action is not the focus of the painting. Our gaze is drawn to the look on the elder brother’s face. He turns back to look at his family, his gaze landing on the extended arm of his mother. Behind her is Yew Kuan’s elder sister, Yew Kuan himself, Yew Kuan’s father and the youngest brother who was still a toddler then. The young Yew Kuan is dressed similar to his elder brother, a possible hint that might indicate him having identified with his childhood hero.
Yew Kuan told me that he drew an earlier version of this painting as a charcoal sketch. In that rendition, the lady with the extended arm is actually the eldest sister, the oldest sibling in the family. Yew Kuan’s mother was actually in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. To make the painting more dramatic and to make the family complete, the mother ‘returns’ in the final rendering. The deliberateness of Yew Kuan’s artistic choices hint at the social message behind the painting and the sympathies it tries to invoke in its viewers. While the painting has a message about the trauma of war, an understanding of Yew Kuan’s family history and art lineage shows it is more complex than that. His father Lim Hak Tai was a product of the May Fourth movement, a firm follower of the Chinese literary giant Lu Xun and his maxim of art for society’s sake. Lu Xun placed a premium on art forms that could reach out to the masses in an effective way. Cartoons and woodcuts were the chosen maidens, the “sister art forms” to educate and mobilize the people to action. When NAFA was opened in 1938, it offered woodcutting classes. Yew Kuan came from this social realist tradition. A painting was appreciated just for its aesthetical properties but it was supposed to raise social awareness, too.
Lingering Fear is about 1954 as much as it is about 1943. 1954 was a turning point in the history of the student movement in postwar Singapore. Chinese middle school students protested against the National Service Bill introduced by the British colonial government. On May 13, 1954, students and the police clashed in the streets and 48 students were arrested and charged with rioting. The University of Malaya Socialist Club wrote an article in their organ, Fajar supporting the Chinese middle school students. As a result, the police raided the university hostel in the early morning of 28 May to arrest the Fajar editorial board on the charges of sedition. Seen in this context, Lingering Fear is not just about the war. It also referred to another battle that was being fought between the people and the British authorities in 1954. To depict the act of arresting someone in 1954 is to make a political statement.
It is no surprise then that Lingering Fear was not shown to the public for years. Yew Kuan candidly shared that to show the painting in the 1950s could be a sensitive thing to do. Today, Yew Kuan said he was not so politicized as compared to his peers in the Equator Art Society (Yew Kuan was the first president of this social realist arts group which had a strong anti-colonial stance) as politics is subjective. “There is no right or wrong in politics,” he said. But Yew Kuan was clearly on the side of history and was firmly against colonial rule and used his art to push for independence. He drew covers for student magazines promoting self-determination. One particular cover showing a mother carrying a child at a voting centre got him into trouble with the authorities. In July 1958, Yew Kuan left for London to study at the Chelsea School of Art. Upon his return to Singapore in December 1961, he had to report to the police for questioning for three consecutive days (by this time, Singapore had gained self-government, but the newly elected government had turned against its former leftist comrades). Yew Kuan was interrogated about his activities in England and his social realist art in the 1950s.
If the starting point of Lingering Fear is a personal loss, the painting gains traction when one learns the youngest of the Lim brothers, Yew Qu, was heavily involved in trade union activities in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1964, Lim Yew Qu left for China when his activities came under too much scrutiny from the police. The family lost touch with him and never saw him again. There were unconfirmed rumours that he had returned to Malaysia to join the Malayan Communist Party and had died in the jungles.
Like many of the art works produced in the 1950s, Lingering Fear finally saw the light of the day when it was less sensitive to exhibit them. It was eventually bought by the National Art Gallery of Malaysia and was renamed Night Arrest. In 1997, it was exhibited at the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan. Remembrance of such social realist art is still limited in Singapore. There has been no major show on the Equator Art Society except for an exhibition on art made during the Malayan Emergency held at the Singapore Art Museum in 2007. While artwork and cartoons about the Japanese Occupation of Singapore like Liu Kang’s Chop Suey (1946) are still being remembered for national education purposes through its inclusion in museums and textbooks, a more complex work like Lingering Fear is hardly being discussed as it commemorates not just the Japanese Occupation, but as I have argued, it is about another war between the anti-imperialists and the British in 1950s Singapore. It is an anti-colonial movement that the Singapore government does not emphasize, as there is much debate about whether this movement (led by students, trade unions and artists) was controlled by the communists. This history is still being fought over. 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of Operation Cold Store, the major arrest which led to the decimation of the left wing in Singapore, and 2014 is the 60th anniversary of the aforementioned May 13 event of 1954. Former left wing activists organized commemorative gatherings and published their accounts of the events. It is my hope that this short piece on Yew Kuan and Lingering Fear would lead to more re-examining of those tumultuous times through the artwork of that period.
Lim Cheng Tju is an educator who writes about history and popular culture. His articles have appeared in the Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture and Print Quarterly. He is the country editor (Singapore) for the International Journal of Comic Art and also the co-editor of Liquid City 2, an anthology of Southeast Asian comics published by Image Comics. He is one of the authors of The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity (Amsterdam University Press/National University of Singapore Press).
Lim, Cheng Tju. “Lest We Forget: The Importance of History in Singapore and Malaysia Comics Studies.” Comics Worlds and the World of Comics: Towards Scholarship on a Global Scale (Global Manga Studies, Vol 1). Ed. Berndt, Jaqueline. Kyoto: Kyoto Seika University International Manga Research Center, 2010. 187 – 99.
N.A. “Political Prints in Singapore.” Print Quarterly 21.3 (2004): 266-81.
N.A. “Chop Suey – Cartoons about the Japanese Occupation and National Education in Singapore.” International Journal of Comic Art 6.2 (2004): 415-430
Lim, Yew Kuan. Crossing Visions – Singapore and Xiamen: Lim Hak Tai and Lim Yew Kuan Art Exhibition. 2 vols. Singapore: Xiamen Art Museum, 2011.
Loh, Kah Seng, Edgar Liao, Cheng Tju Lim, and Guo-Quan Seng. The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya Amsterdam: IIAS/Amsterdam University Press, 2012.
Poh, Soo Kai, Kok Fang Tan, and Lysa Hong, eds. The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years. Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2013.
Tan, Jing Quee, Kok Chiang Tan, and Lysa Hong, eds. The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s. Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2011.
Various authors. From Words to Pictures: Art During the Emergency. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2007.
Yeo, Man Thong. Essays on the History of Pre-War Chinese Painting in Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Society of Asian Studies, 1992.