Ninth Edition: Mr. Yong Mun Sen 楊曼生 – Nature as Model and Teacher (Read More)

YMS Poster


It was a late Friday afternoon on the eighth day of the lunar NIU year.  Just before dusk, as office workers were vacating the Malaysia Building, a small party was brewing in the Penthouse with a buzz of excitement. The hosts of the Yong Mun Sen art retrospective, Consul General Yap Wei Sin, Michael Yong and Saniza Othman greeted a coterie of art world movers and shakers as they climbed a flight of wooden stairs. It was as if they were all boarding a time capsule to take them back into a forgotten past.

Admittedly, this is by far my most challenging TTWS. Written posthumously, the spotlight is on a legend who shaped our art world. It required historic archives to be translated, research hunted down and insights from people who were privileged to know him. I could not have found a better time to publish this TTWS. This year marks Yong’s 125th birthday. Nicknamed the “Father of Malaysian Paintings” by Bashir Mohamed (Spink & Son Ltd, London) and chronicler of pioneer artists Dato’ Dr. Tan Chee Khuan, Yong left an enormous legacy as co-founder of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore (NAFA) and the forming of the various art associations. According to Dato’ Dr. Tan, Yong had many firsts. He was the first Malaysian to exhibit paintings internationally alongside Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso and Henri Mattise. Yong was the first Malaysian to exhibit nude paintings and the first to have paintings auctioned outside of Southeast Asia. He was admired in Malaysia and Singapore, he corresponded internationally, and his works were collected by governors and commissioners. Yong’s masterpieces are collected by renowned private collectors and are exhibited in museums around the world such as Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, National Gallery of Singapore, Launceston Gallery (Tasmania), Penang Art Museum and Gallery, National Art Gallery of Malaysia and Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery to name a few.

At the ribbon cutting ceremony, COVID-19 restriction of 20-person rule was imposed. As such, each seat on opening night was precious, requiring a careful construction of the guest list. Amongst the privileged to attend in person were The Honourable Bernard Chan, Chairman of Tai Kwun Culture and Arts and the Hong Kong Palace Museum; Suhanya Raffel, Executive Director of M+ Museum; Alice Mong, Head of Asia Society Hong Kong Centre; President Wei Shyy of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; Dato’ Khai Choon Gan, Chairman of the Malaysian Chamber of Commerce; Lawrence Chia, Chairman of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce; Dato’ Seri Cheah Cheng Hye, Chairman of Value Partners Group; and Consul Generals from Singapore, Canada, Germany, Turkey and Kazhakstan.  The Master of Ceremonies was Ng Woan Chiun Joe. In addition, art movers and shakers Pauline Yao, Lead Curator of M+ Museum; Catherine Kwai, Founder of Kwai Fung Hin Gallery; Daphne King, Director of Alisan Fine Arts; Enid Tsui, Art Editor at the South China Morning Post (SCMP); and Olivier Giles of Tatler attended.

The retrospective was a collaborative effort amongst: MAYCHAM as Organiser, the Michael & Saniza Collection as Sponsors, the Consulate General of Malaysia as Venue Sponsor, Asia Society Hong Kong as Partner, Singapore Chamber of Commerce as Co-host and M+ Museum as curator. A few hundred visitors visited and 20 docent tours were made to art institutions, museum curators, accomplished artists, art lovers, art educators and their students. SCMP reported that “the level of interest garnered for the retrospective were indicative of how eager Asian Institutions are to challenge, expand and diversify art historical narratives.” M+ Museum Executive Director Suhanya Raffel said on opening night, “Yong Mun Sen is one of the lost masters who have been found and introduced to the canon of modernism in this part of the world. These are works that change our basic knowledge of art and culture using languages of our own.”

This first major Hong Kong retrospective brings together one of the largest collections of Yong Mun Sen's paintings. It is truly diverse and representative of the artist’s oeuvre, depicting his gift in capturing seascapes, landscapes, cityscapes, village life, human figurines and photorealistic portrait. The collection is a testament of Yong’s skilful mastery of watercolour, oil on canvas and charcoal. “Nanyang art is unique to Straits Chinese who blended both Chinese and Western art, integrating their style to a Southeast Asian context at a unique time in history,” said his grandson Michael Yong (楊焜善). He added, “Yong Mun Sen was born in a world that was dominated by two powerful women, Empress Dowager and Queen Victoria. In his lifetime, he waved the Union Jack, kowtowed to the imperial dragon, saluted the Kuomintang flag, saw Japanese troops rolled in and out, and witnessed the Cultural Revolution in China. In the last phase of his life, Grandpa celebrated Malaysia’s nationhood and independence from her colonial masters. Grandpa’s generation endured too much turmoil. This is history we must not forget. We are blessed to learn about our history through such amazing artworks.” Yong’s last retrospective was at the Penang State Art Gallery in 1999 when this collection began. Keeping a low profile all these years, the collection is now publicly available on the world wide web bearing the name of the artist. This 125th anniversary retrospective fulfils a lifetime aspiration of MAYCHAM’s Founding Sponsors, Michael Yong and Saniza Othman, who have been on a mission to restore the honour that Yong Mun Sen deserves.


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For those not familiar with the artist, Yong Mun Sen was born in 1896 at a coconut plantation in Kuching, Sarawak. His grandfather was one of the earliest Chinese settlers in Kuching, which at the time was ruled by the White Rajah, a dynastic monarchy under the Brooke family of British origin. At the tender age of five, Yong was sent to Dabu in Guangdong province where he received traditional Chinese education including the use of Chinese brush and calligraphy. His inspiration into watercolour was by serendipity. At his family’s plantation, he witnessed a Japanese artist paint with watercolour. A falling out with his uncle led him to leave the family business, and he found the calling of art at a time when the art ecosystem was under developed. A self-taught artist, Yong grew up at a time when he had no access to art schools, museums, nor art galleries. Looking for inspiration, he turned to nature which became both his teacher and model. He adored nature in all her moods. To further his career, Yong left for Singapore where he was exposed to other artists and the art world. After two vibrant years there, he was transferred to Penang where he fell in love with the Pearl of the Orient, as was synonymous with the island. The idyllic tropical island and its natural beauty was an inspiration to many of his works. He lived in Penang until the end of his life in 1962.

An art pioneer, Yong drove the development of fine arts in South East Asia. He was co-founder of various art institutions, including the Penang Chinese Art Club in circa 1935 where he was President, the Singapore Society of Chinese Artists (SOCA) in 1935 where he was Vice President, and the Penang Art Society in 1953 where he was Vice President.

Yong also co-founded Singapore’s NAFA in 1938. Yeo Mang Thong, an art historian and scholar, opined that Yong was the progenitor of NAFA. A fact that is often overlooked. Yong worked in Singapore from 1918 to 1920 and maintained close ties with the art community in Singapore. In 1937, he proposed to his fellow members at the SOCA to form a school that specialised in the teaching of art. This proposal was duly approved by the Executive Committee. On 23rd December 1937, the newspaper Sin Chew Jit Poh published an article announcing that a panel of grassroots members had been formed during SOCA’s twelfth executive meeting to deal with matters pertaining to the founding of an art school. Five members were nominated to the panel including Yong Mun Sen, Li Kuishi, Liu Kang, Zhang Ruqi and Xu Junlian. A month after this, Yong’s friend Lim Hak Tai joined SOCA and became the central figure in carrying out NAFA’s planning and building. NAFA is one of the first dedicated art institutions in the region that continues to incubate many well-known artists. As the ink dries on this paper, NAFA is in the process of merging with LASALLE College of the Arts, originally known as St Patrick’s Arts Centre. The founder of St Patrick’s was Brother Joseph McNally, a scholar on Yong. McNally wrote, “what was astonishing in [Yong’s] watercolours was how he took the most English of media and used it in a way to rival the best English exponents of the art. For watercolouring has always been a most English art form.”

The Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930’s marked a turbulent time for Chinese intellectuals, many who fled to Singapore and Malaya. One of Yong’s close friends was Xu Beihong, Mao Zedong’s favourite artist, who stayed in Penang for a few years. Together, they raised funds to help China fight the war against the Japanese. An admirer of Yong, Xu collected his works, calling his watercolour paintings amongst the best in the world. Xu marvelled at the existence of such a watercolour genius on the remote island of Penang.  Lamenting that Yong’s brilliance was sadly unknown to the rest of the world, Xu said “what is most striking about Yong’s techniques is his use of liberal brushstrokes and luminosity without compromising the precision of form. His superb mastery of the artistic medium is always accompanied by an intuitive grasp of the vitality of his subject matter to attain a state of perfection.” Xu added, “Not only was Yong the greatest watercolourist in Malaysia, but he was also unsurpassed by any artist of western paintings in Asia specialising in tropical scenery.”

In addition to watercolour, Yong produced some highly accomplished oil paintings. He was influenced by his contemporary European masters such as Paul Gaugin, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Claude Monet. And at the same time, Yong’s techniques were clearly grounded on Chinese brushstrokes and calligraphy teachings. Inspired by local life and sceneries, Yong was a pioneer in what is now recognised as the Nanyang school of art.

Yong painted in a tumultuous time in history. Collecting art was not a priority for new migrants who were struggling to earn a living. To sustain his livelihood, Yong set up his own photography studio in 1922 called Tai Koon Art Studio on Chulia Street. In 1930, he moved his studio to 166 Penang Road, renaming it Mun Sen Studio. His portrait photography studio was successful. And at its height, Yong expanded to three locations, including the corner shop of Leith Street and Chulia Street, and an old mansion at 58 Northam Road. These locations are some of the earliest streets in Penang.  The retrospective featured a collection of portraits taken by Yong. According to Dr. Simon Soon, Senior Lecturer at the University of Malaya, “these photographs reflected the modern art sensibility that Yong captured through the camera. He treated each hand-tinted photograph with care and showed them in an artful manner, paring down fussy adornments and props. The portraits, with its clean lines and sharp profiles, came to embody a new age and quality of the art deco movement. These works spoke to a new sense of self that was both sophisticated and confident.”

From taking studio portraits, a natural progression for Yong was to paint photorealistic portraits in the medium of charcoal. One such work at the retrospective was a portrait of a Nonya painted in the 1930s using charcoal as the medium with flecks of gold paint. This style of hand painted portraits were quite popular in Southern China at the turn of the century where artists would try to reproduce the look of a photograph with charcoal. The process involved smoothly smearing charcoal onto paper, working on gradation of tonal values and lines. This uniquely Chinese technique resulted in an image that looks fairly flat and two dimensional. Yong’s photography created a symbiotic relationship with his paintings. His paintings were often framed like an image through a camera lens. The use of horizonal and diagonal lines such as trees, street lamps and the environs created a contrast between the foreground and background to capture a depth of field that is essential in photography. According to Dr. Seng Yu Jin, an art historian and curator at the National Gallery of Singapore, the connection between photography and painting was not uncommon amongst the Nanyang artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee and Liu Kang, to name a few. They were all photography enthusiasts. They often used photography akin to sketches to help compose their paintings of landscapes and figures.

Like many great artists, Yong had his share of ebbs and flows. The Japanese occupation of Malaya from 1941 to 1945 was one of the lowest points of his life. Refusing to paint propaganda artwork for the Japanese, he was not able to create art freely and resorted to a life of a farmer. The end of the war saw Yong bouncing back with zest and vigour. The ensuing decade marked Yong’s most prolific years. COVID-19 has impacted many of us in terms of productivity and mobility. If Yong’s life is of any guide, we should find inspiration in knowing that the best is yet to come.

By 1949, Yong had eleven children from two marriages. His first wife Lam Sek Foong died before the war. Yong remarried and his second wife was the beautiful Yao Chew Mooi, a descendant of Kapitan China Yap Ah Loy.

Loh Cheng Chuan co-founded the Penang Art Society together with Yong. Loh’s son Lok Tok was the godson cum student of Xu Beihong. Lok wrote, “Yong’s paintings are distinguished by his dynamic and well-honed skills. He is more concerned about capturing the essence, rather than the resemblance, of movements and expressions to go beyond verisimilitude. As a dedicated artist who spent decades perfecting his works, his mastery of the artistic medium is well reflected in the simplicity of brushwork, richness of colour, and bold and unrestrained lines. His portrayal of the tropical landscape is especially commendable for its unique composition and technical finesse. It is little wonder that Yong has earned the reputation of a grandmaster. I think his paintings are the crystallisation of his lifelong dedication to the art of painting and personal experience. He is an artist who sees nature as his teacher and model. Today, we see him as an artist of great accomplishment, but let us not forget that his success is the result of decades of hard work and perseverance, an epic journey of insurmountable hardships and challenges. Yong believes that learning is a lifelong process regardless of the marks of success.  But although art is an endless journey, I believe Yong has already written a glorious page in the art history of Nanyang!”

The art community is a wonderful web of connections. Two important advisors of the collection were Dick Chen and Xie Xiaoze. Chen is a close family friend of Lok. Chen is an accomplished artist from the famous Lingnan school of painting, in which his late grandfather Chen Shuren was a founder. He said, “Yong’s Nanyang style is defined as simplicity, very few brushstrokes, the images are broken down into simple shapes. What symbolises the Nanyang style is a carefree style. The brushworks are so graceful and poetic, forceful when strength is needed. His compositions are so naturally faultless. He was really one of a kind. A rare, talented and gifted art giant.”

Xie, the Paul L. & Phyllis Wattis Professor of Art at Stanford University, said, “Yong’s work is deeply rooted in the daily life of ordinary people in Malaya and is marked with a distinctive locality. His masterful watercolours are remarkably fresh, lyrical and powerful. Looking at these paintings, done with dynamic strokes that seem so spontaneous and effortless, one could vividly feel the bright sunlight, the sound of waves, the scents of tropical plants, and one could almost hear the murmurs and laughter of islanders, labouring or at rest.”

Xie arranged an important meeting in California between Xu Fangfang, daughter of Xu Beihong, and Michael Yong. There is nothing more touching than to see decendants becoming friends through the admiration their forefathers had for each other. Xu Fangfang’s favourite work at the retrospective was Washer Women by the Stream (1947). Xu said, “the way the watercolour captures the light and atmosphere is simple, yet striking, similar to the approach used in Chinese ink brush painting, for example, Spring Rain on the Li River (1937) by Xu Beihong. The brush strokes depicting the people washing by the water is similar to those applied to the shadowy palm trees, portraying a lively atmosphere on a sunny day.”

The renowned Malaysian poet and Yong’s contemporary, Guan Zhenmin (管震民, 1880-1964) was so inspired by Yong’s attitude towards life and nature that he dedicated poetry to him. Having commissioned translation works to English, I have extracted some of these poetry for readers enjoyment:



A keen traveller on this southern island, he knows by heart the infinite possibilities of the local scenery  

His painter’s hand takes in every stream and mountain, as if one was passing through a hermit’s sanctuary


寫生妙趣在傳神, 始信工深意更新;點綴煙雲敷遠景,毫端常現四時春。

The magic of sketching lies in capturing the essence of the moment, a steadfast commitment in artistic sophistication and intuitive novelty

Distant views layered with mist and clouds, the beauty of the four seasons is revealed in every touch of the brush



Chinese art and thinking diverges from the West, one attuned to abstraction and the other the real

In a state of true enlightenment, the abstract and the real are free from such confines in your mind



The boundless sea and land, coconut and banana trees standing next to palm leaf homes (attap houses)

Here, the world of dust will fade into oblivion, as slanting sails are silhouetted against the setting sun


By 1949, Yong was enjoying international acclaim as his works were sought after not only in Malaya and Singapore but also in Britain, U.S.A. and Australia. However, he had a big family to feed and struggled financially in the last phase of his life. Tragedy struck in 1956 when he suffered a stroke, paralysing the right side of his body. Although he relearnt to paint with his left hand, it was futile and he died several years later.  

Reflecting on Professor Wang Gungwu’s chronicles of the 2000-year history of the Chinese overseas in words and books, I believe the narrative and artworks of Yong Mun Sen are a living testament of how a particular sojourner found the calling of art and assimilated his practice to a new cultural setting of an adopted home. And with a paint brush, he had brought to life the beauty of the ordinary, an appreciation of hard labour and above all, the wonders of our natural environment. Through his art, we take a moment to cherish nature and to love our fellow humankind.  

To all our lovely readers, please stay tuned for my next column. Sehingga kita jumpa lagi over a cup of Teh Tarik!


                                                                        Saniza Othman-Yong

Late Spring 2021