Chatting with Chong Fahcheong, an Esteemed 'Someone who Creates Art'

When NUS Museum kindly informed me that artist Chong Fahcheong would be exhibiting with them, I was disappointed. After all, I would be on exchange by then and wouldn’t be able to view his works.

When the museum then arranged for an interview with Chong, I was delighted. After all, Chong sculpted ‘First Generation’, the public art depicting kampong boys throwing themselves into the Singapore River. It would be exciting to speak to the creator of a landmark Singapore sculpture.

First Generation. Source credit: Google
My friend and I sat down with Chong in the museum’s coffee corner. It was clear, right from the start, that this interview with Chong wouldn’t proceed along conventional lines.

“Sir, I notice that you’ve quite a variety of artworks. Some sculptures are representative – we can recognize children or coolies. Some are abstract forms. Is this a direction that your art is going?” I looked at my list of prepared questions and began asking.

“Well, art is unlike studying. I’ve varied interests and I explore them at different times. What are you studying?”

“Chemistry,” I answered.

“Just because you studied Science doesn’t mean that you’ve to do Science all the time. This is not about doing art. It is about how you view things. Our society often tells us to behave in a certain way. We must be like this, we must be like that.

Being creative is a solution to these expectations and being creative is a choice. If you choose not to be creative, to restrict yourself by labels, you’ll just be what the society tells you to be. We must be interested in a wider view. My works are all the things that I’m interested in. Realistic or abstract, all these are simply labels.”

“How is it like, trying to be an artist?” I tried to ask another prepared question.

“Hmm, I would prefer that you call me ‘someone who makes art’, instead of an ‘artist’. All these terms are labels. They’re restrictive.” Chong then challenged me to question the way I thought, to cease thinking in broad generalizations.

I tried to refine my question. “I mean, you were doing art since you were young. Back then, weren’t there social pressures for you to not be an artist?”

“Art is something I do well enough. It is all I can do and want to do.”

“Then why did you do Philosophy and Political Science in university?”

“These subjects are about questioning, enquiring, asking even though there may be no answers. Seek to be reflexive. Ask questions. Being creative is about dealing with life. Now, that’s a big question, with an answer that we don’t even know where to find.”

“Hmm, any advice for aspiring artists?”

“Concentrate on what you want to do,” he said sagely, “but that’s the big question, isn’t it? No one really knows what they want to do. After graduating, I was in an advertising job for a mere 24-hours period. I quit after realizing that the job wasn’t for me. I then joined the Ministry of Defence, buying bullets for 1 month. After leaving that job, I worked with General Electric, in the assembly lines for 6 months. It’s really okay to explore different paths in life.

To be an artist, firstly, find yourself. Most people are followers only. That’s why the entertainment business is so successful. Everyone is learning to follow.

Come to terms with yourself. This is me, this is real. I don’t want to be anyone else. Accept yourself. Accept the reality. From that reality, become sincere. Your honesty is important, no matter what.

And having an excitement to be alive, that’s important for an artist. To be excited by the beauty of life.”

Throughout the interview, we chatted about the meaning of life, Singapore’s socio-political systems, the value of art and why Chong decided to move to Canada.

As the interview was concluding, I told Chong that most people know ‘First Generation’, his artwork depicting kampong boys joyfully throwing themselves into the Singapore River. Fewer people know that he sculpted it. Does this irk him?

“Art should speak for itself. I like it that my art is able to communicate ideas that resonate with everyone and exist independently.”

“But that’s so sad!” I had exclaimed. “It’s like listening to music by Beethoven and not knowing that Beethoven wrote the music.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Chong asked quickly. I became silent and started to examine the way I think.

This conversation with Chong was, at times, frustrating. He appeared to be psychoanalysing me even as we spoke. The frustration, however, did not diminish my pleasure of being able to speak to him, Mr Chong Fahcheong, ‘someone who makes art’. It was an inspiring encounter.

Halfway through the interview, my friend and I observed a drawing on the back of Chong’s hand. It turned out to be his signature, tattooed in black ink. Through his tattoo, Chong was reminding himself that he is the product, the artwork of his accumulated experiences. He was also reminding himself that his journey – as an artist, as a person – is always unfolding, always ongoing.

Esteemed artist Chong Fahcheong had posed somewhat
reluctantly next to his sculpture.
Here’s a collection of bronze buns. Chong told me that these buns
may look similar but, upon closer inspection, are very different.
We’re like the buns. We look similar but are actually
unique individuals.
Textures, Tones & Timbres: Art of Chong Fahcheong is currently exhibiting at the NUS Museum. This exhibition would end at 28 April 2013. Do visit it!

This article is concurrently posted at The Kent Ridge Common.