His pictures are worth millions – and a single calligraphy word, tens of thousands. Yet, when he learnt that a collector had acquired an occasional piece he did for an acquaintance’s birthday, he offered to exchange it with a painting of higher value potential – only to tear up the returned piece. And, when fire broke out at Telok Kurau Studios in January 2013, the first thing he did was to save a stray cat, only then returning to retrieve just six paintings, leaving the rest of his work to the mercy of fate.
For somebody reputed to be Singapore’s, or even South-east Asia’s, most expensive living artist – his ink work Portrait Of Bada Shanren sold for 20.7 million yuan (S$4.4 million) at the Poly Auction in Beijing last November – Tan Swie Hian doesn’t seem too precious about his output. Yet, at the same time, he is fiercely particular about who collects his works. He entertains only those who display a respect for both him and his work, and “grooms” them before he lets them make a purchase.
Indeed, the 72-year-old seems to be a man of many contradictions. The 1987 Cultural Medallion recipient dresses plainly, perpetually clad in a “uniform” of a loose-fitting shirt, worn-in bermudas and slippers. He has lived in the same two-storey shophouse over the years “in the heart of the red light district” – the only possession left of his father’s empire which crumbled in the mid ’60s. “The house is falling apart but I will only repair – rather than change – it, in honour of my parents,” he says. Yet, his ride is a Mercedes SLK.
The devout Buddhist, who begins each day by meditating for four hours, has dedicated his work to perpetuating the profound wisdom of the religion. His compassion for all sentient beings makes him put everything on hold – just to save a fly that has got itself stuck in his paints. But provoke him and you will be in for a fight.
The boy who grew up in the gang-mired streets of Geylang during the 1950s did not earn his street cred by being weak and meek. He gleefully recalls knocking a smoking pipe out of a gangster’s mouth when he was threatened as a youngster. That fighter in him does not take things lying down, even today. Finding a letter which Singapore novelist Yeng Pway Ngon had sent to The Straits Times and National Arts Council in 2005 libellous, Tan took Yeng to court. He would go on to win the case in 2012.
It is easy to judge a person, especially when his actions seem conflicting. But Tan is a complex person with as many hidden layers as his work – such as a new series of anamorphic paintings where he masks written text by transforming the characters into geometric shapes. Even in his contradictions, there is consistency. Conflict and a zen state of mind are not opposites of each other in the Buddhist universe, and the incongruously flashy two-seat roadster can be explained: Tan simply wanted a small car with beautiful lines.
“Only the educated are free.”
There is nothing lavish about his work space, as one might expect of a decorated multi-disciplinary artist. At all of 646 sq ft, his corner unit at the Telok Kurau Studios, where we meet, is sparse. Both completed pieces and works in progress line walls whose grey paint has seen better days. Books, journals and various clippings are strewn across a long wooden table – an organised chaos that only its creator can figure out.
The humid heat of the afternoon is eased only by fans. There is no air-conditioning, nor any standard tools of the craft that I can see. Sensing what I am looking for, Tan says with a chuckle: “I don’t use an easel and palette. I just sit on the floor (to work).”
Then, he starts speaking – and the vastness of his knowledge is immediately clear. He peppers his conversations with references to not just artists from all ages – Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer, Pablo Picasso, even Charles Schultz – but also Greek philosophers, European literary giants, contemporary Chinese scholars and prominent politicians. In his book To Paint a Smile, Tan’s friend Woon Tai Ho writes of him as a man informed by history and intrigued by current affairs. Epictetus said that only the educated are free – by that, Tan most certainly is.
A Time magazine article in 2003 called him a “Renaissance man”. He notes that these are “the geniuses – such as da Vinci and Michelangelo – who crossed various disciplines with ease of a free mind, showing a balanced use of the two hemispheres of their brains”. He adds: “Wang Wei of the Tang dynasty, who practised meditation, wrote poetry and theory, played the zither, painted and invented the ink-painting style, is a Renaissance man. And so are Su Shi of the Song dynasty and Rabindranath Tagore of 20th-century India.”
Tan too possesses that ability to transcend formats with his artistic expression. His mind was developed early, when a history teacher at The Chinese High School introduced him to Prince Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism. “I was shocked by the historical account,” he says, referring to the man who abandoned everything to contemplate the meaning of existence in a forest.
Tan researched further and “found Buddhism to be the most profound philosophical system in humankind”. He experienced a spiritual awakening in 1973 and, since then, has dedicated his life to the religion. He says: My art is just a drop in the ocean of wisdom expounded by Prince Siddhartha.”
Growing his intellect
To date, Tan has published some 58 books – from prose and fables to stories and criticisms. Later this year, a deluxe 350-page monograph entitled Zhen Yun Lou Collection: Tan Swie Hian’s Works will be published, followed by two anthologies: Tan Swie Hian’s Poems and Short Lines, a bilingual collection of his poetry and aphorisms, and Tan Swie Hian Speaks 2, a bilingual collection of talks and interviews given by him.
His first ground-breaking work, a collection of modern poetry titled The Giant, was published in 1968, the same year he graduated from Nanyang University with a bachelor’s in Modern Languages and Literature. The collection is widely credited as the culmination of the Chinese modernist literary movement here and in Malaysia.
He would go on to add the French language to his knowledge base. What he began studying in university – he was proficient enough to clinch the position of press attache for the French Embassy in Singapore – he improved on in later years by immersing himself in the culture. In his 24 years at the embassy, Tan became the first person to translate the works of such literary giants as Aldous Huxley, Henri Michaux and Marin Sorescu into Chinese. In 1978, he was conferred Chavalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France and, in 1998, he won the Marin Sorescu International Poetry Prize from Romania.
Tan didn’t dedicate himself to art full time, until he retired from the service at age 49. He did, however, create enough by 1973 to hold his first art exhibition at the National Library. “I also had my first spiritual illumination that year and I gave up literature and art entirely to devote myself to meditation for four years – until cultural attache Michel Deverge threatened to terminate our friendship, unless I picked up painting again,” he recalls.
Quoting Picasso, he says: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
Tan drew when he was a child, painting images of the God of Earth (Tua Pek Kong) and folk heroes for neighbours and friends. But the need to be financially independent prevented him from pursuing his passion. “I had no illusions of an artist’s life, so I started making art full time only when I had the means to get by,” says Tan. He insists that it’s not for the money. “To date, I have only about 400 works, when any China ‘master’ can produce 400 in a year.”
This is why Tan can bear to tear up his work – he wants only the best for posterity. He creates to express himself, not to indulge others. He once painted a mouse to illustrate a saying by Reverend Hong Yi: To keep mice at bay, feed them with rice for cats. He says: “I caught a mouse and made a large number of sketches based on it. Then I released it thankfully and made a painting. A collector was so impressed by it that he requested a painting with the mouse motif. I said, ‘Sorry, I can’t give birth to mice now.’”
He was delighted when a friend commented that his art is not recognisable, for he adopts different styles to suit the requirements of the subject, theme and approach. “No two works by me are alike,” he says. “Picasso said, ‘God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style. He just goes on trying things.’”
But Tan is not God, and it is no mean feat to excel in different mediums. Even more challenging is to find new mediums that add meaning to his work. He illustrates this with series of portraits in ink, painted on pages of The International Herald Tribune. What seem like common practice drafts on waste paper are given depth, not just through the casual juxtaposition of drawing and newsprint. With clever captions and quotes that link a drawn portrait to the paper’s content, Tan displays his intimate knowledge of historical icons and his understanding of the world today. Thus, while these discoveries may seem to come by chance, they are the product of his erudition, crystallised in a moment by a spark of inspiration.
For freedom and honour
It’s clear that Tan has a phenomenal intellect, but he wasn’t exactly a model student in school.
He was born in Pulau Halang, Indonesia, to Chinese parents who had migrated from Fujian, China. His father, Tan Chan Pok, was a self-made businessman who went from being a humble fisherman to the wealthiest person in the town of Bagansiapiapi, owning a fleet of barges among other operations. Tan senior was also an influential elder and clan leader who earned the townsfolk’s respect not just through making his own fortune, but for being a righteous person who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and stand up for the meek. “My father was big on philanthropy – he would pay off debts on behalf of people and, at the same time, regulate interest charged by creditors. The huaqiao zonghui (Chinese association) he formed had its own police force and he maintained the peace of the town,” says Tan. “He was a brave man and didn’t succumb to fear – I take after him in that respect.”
Having great expectations of his son, Tan senior sent him to Malacca to study English when he was 10 years old, and then to Singapore, where he would enroll in The Chinese High School. The rebel in the adolescent emerged during those days. “I was a good student and was always in the best class. But, when I was in Secondary 3, I was upset and lost interest in studies, going from the best class to the last, with all the gangsters,” he says.
Apart from the pain of being separated from his parents, Tan was ostracised for being geeky. In retaliation, he got into fights and defied authority. Tan regales The Peak with stories of how he would bring cheat sheets into examinations and be thrown out of the examination hall when caught.
With such results, Tan senior wanted to recall his son to help in the family business, but Tan knew even as a teenager that he wasn’t suitable for business. His decision to repeat a year marked a turning point in his education. He says: “My English teacher, Chen Shaoyi, and my Chinese teacher, Wang Zhen Nan, discovered my talent for language. They never gave up on me, and I would top the subjects they taught.”
When inspiration struck in Chinese composition class, he would refuse to put down his pen, even when class was over. His teacher, meanwhile, would forgo his lunch break to wait for him. Little did the teachers know that they were nurturing not just a linguist, poet and author – but a student who would one day become a giant on the arts scene. Tan describes the episode early in his life poetically: “In a nutshell, it was a period in my life when I was separated from my beloved parents, wandering and groping extensively – and eventually riding on the rainbow.” And ride the rainbow he did.
While the art world is currently obsessing over his inspired paintings – Portrait Of Bada Shanren was completed in about 60 seconds, after Tan had a vision of the monk from the Ming dynasty while meditating – a visit to the Tan Swie Hian Museum in Sims Avenue reveals the versatility of the man beyond his reputation as a painter. Spread over four levels are murals, paintings, photographs, books and sculptures – every piece, big and small, a physical manifestation of his brilliant mind.
The French artistic community was the first to recognise Tan’s talent. In 1987, at age 44, Tan was elected as a member-correspondent to the Academy of Fine Arts of the Institute of France. “Apart from being the youngest member, since its founding over 366 years ago, I am also the first and only artist from South-east Asia to be admitted to this prestigious art institution… to be in the league of Ingres, Moreau, Delacroix, Dali, Moore and other great masters,” says Tan of the honour. To date, he has won countless awards and accolades, among them the World Economic Forum Crystal Award and the Meritorious Service Medal – Singapore’s highest honour accorded to cultural personalities. He is also the most awarded artist in the Republic.
Tan sees the honour as encouragement. He says: “The first award I got in Singapore was from the Malay community. Compared to the crystal award I received in Davos, it’s a rustic, bucolic thing, but it is still heart-warming.
“There is a sense of responsibility – you are chosen so you have to work hard. Whether it is a plate or plaque, it is a demonstration of people’s love. Sometimes, hawkers will bow to me and I am very touched by that. The extra fishball in my noodles is my chevalier.