Three decades after his untimely death, pioneer Malaysian artist Chia Yu Chian still speaks to people through his art.

At Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives, a solo exhibition with almost 200 works mostly from the family collection, offers visitors a glimpse into the “slice of the everyday” works of this prolific artist.

On this fine Saturday afternoon at the gallery, the late artist finds a new fan in a woman who professes an infatuation with “sad paintings” and declared her love for his hospital series.

Yu Chian, no stranger to hospital visits in the later years of his life, captures in these works the melancholy hanging in the air, and all the words left unspoken.

“It is so depressive, I love it,” this woman declared. “All the art I own speaks to me this way.”

One wonders if the artist, should he be alive today, would be amused to hear this enthusiastic proclamation.

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In the late 1970s, early 1080s, Chia made several trips to the hospital due to ill health. His hospital series – at Universiti Hospital (now known as Universiti Malaya Medical Centre) – depicts the grim drama of hospital life. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani

At any rate, it is difficult to imagine that it would take him by surprise. His astute, yet empathetic, observations of daily life that he presents in his paintings seem to suggest an intuitive flair and a grounded connection with the people and the pulse of the city.

Indeed, he is quoted in an interview as saying that it is not enough to simply draw a portrait of your character. “An artist must tell a story, delve deep into the character’s life and spirit,” he said.

“To achieve this, an artist needs to experience the authenticity of life and touch upon its many layers, thoughts and emotions. The act of creating should never be out of touch with reality. It reflects the passage of time and current affairs, including the environment, people and places. Only then, the true meaning of life is not lost.”

Born in Kota Tinggi, Johor in 1936, Yu Chian was the first artist from Malaya to be awarded a French government scholarship to study painting at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1959.

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A young Chia is all smiles at his art exhibition in KL that was officiated by then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1958. Photo: Chia Yu Chian Family Collection

He returned to Malaya in 1962 and opened an art gallery in Penang, before moving to KL a year later, in 1963.

A few years later, he moved with his family into a one-room apartment in the nine-storey Selangor Mansion, which doubled as his atelier, where he painted and taught art.

Yu Chian lived there for over 20 years until his death in 1990.

At the Private Lives exhibition, don’t miss the 15-minute commissioned documentary called Nine Storeys by Mahen Bala. It uses a multi-channel vertical format to explore life in and around Selangor Mansion, memories of old Kuala Lumpur, as well as personal insights into the life of the artist.

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Chia’s Hup Seng Kedai Kopi (oil on canvas, 1979). It was the artist’s favourite cafe in Alor Setar, Kedah.

“We grew up in a home filled with my father’s paintings and he would always be working simultaneously on many paintings at a time because oil takes a while to dry. There was no separation between art, life and home when I was growing up.

“This was my home where I stayed with my family, but it was also the atelier where my father painted and taught art to both children and adults. He was a disciplined man when it came to work, he rarely took holidays and he painted every day,” says Yu Chian’s daughter, Chia Meow Lin.

The exhibition offers a map of Yu Chian’s favourite haunts in KL, including the trader bustle in the Central Market area, old days Ampang town, the beautiful Lake Gardens and parts of suburban Petaling Jaya. He did document his trips to places like Bidor, Kampar, Alor Setar and Penang, all seen through vividly painted works in this exhibition.

But Yu Chian was clearly not all work and no play, and she recalls many happy hours spent devising games from things found around the house.

“He showed us how sunlight bouncing off those pencil sharpeners with mirrors, onto the wall by the window, could be kung fu masters wielding swords. My brother and I would fight with our ‘swords’ on the wall.

“We also shut ourselves in the dark and created our very own cinema with comic strips wound around rods stuck into empty shoe boxes. These were simple things that left such a profound impact on me, I still remember them clearly. My dad was a typical Chinese father in many ways, but he was a lot of fun and he taught me how to imagine many fantastic worlds,” she says.

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Chia’s Playing The Slot Machine (oil on canvas, 1981).

Private Lives, curated by Rahel Joseph and Simon Soon, focuses on the last decades of Yu Chian’s practice, with works dating back to the late 1960s. It brings together works depicting the grit and grouses of daily living, in a city where the fringes of society coalesce in the everyday mundane.

“Yu Chian is well known for his Parisian cityscapes and more romantic Malayan landscapes, but this exhibition presents a lot of the lesser known ones – the more gritty portraits and paintings that he completed after he moved to KL in the 1960s. He painted a lot of his neighbours in Selangor Mansion, which was one of the earliest high-rise apartment buildings in the city, on Jalan Masjid India, and many working class, ordinary people. We have tried to frame the show around Selangor Mansion, which is the nucleus from which he lived and painted from, as well as the city around him,” says Rahel.

She comments that the 1980s in particular was a time of great change in KL, but Yu Chian showed another side; the widening gap between the haves and the have nots.

“His paintings reflect the ordinary people who were simply getting by, or who had fallen by the wayside. What is distinctive about his work is that it really captures everyday urban living, and in his portraits, the essence of his subjects. They are really psychological studies of people living in urban spaces.

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Chia’s sketches offer visitors a glimpse of his creative process and planning. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani

“They draw you in, they make you wonder who they are, what they are thinking and what makes them tick. He had the ability to take the most common and unremarkable of spaces – the pawnshop, the hospital, the factory and the streets – and elevate it to important landmarks in the artist’s retelling of the history of KL,” she observes.

What they are attempting to do with Private Lives, says Soon, is offer a different side of the Yu Chian story by looking at the huge amounts of works that remained with the family.

“For us, this story situates him in his environment and explores how he learns from the people he encounters on the street. It is a story about the compulsion to paint. It is about painting that does not see its final destination in an exhibition. He painted because it gave him immense satisfaction,” says Soon.

Soon shares that Yu Chian’s paintings capture his commitment to endure, to stay – even after the May riots of 1969 which saw many leaving the country in disappointment, and even after Selangor Mansion got increasingly dilapidated.

“He stayed to see and to record all that he finds so infinitely fascinating living among loved ones, friends and strangers. We are careful not to mythologise the artist, but we do want to convey a more nuanced portrait of who Yu Chian really is and what he believes in. If there is a takeaway from us from this experience as curators, it is that our Malaysian art narrative needs more curiosity, wonder and empathy,” he adds.

Yu Chian was 15 when he first showed his works in group shows organised by the YMCA Art Group and the Singapore Art Society Annual Exhibition in 1951.

Since his death in 1990, there has been a few exhibitions of his works but never one as big as Private Lives at Ilham Gallery.

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The Instagram wall – filled with portrait works from the 1970s – at the Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives exhibition. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani

“It is also interesting to show visitors how adventurous my father was with the variety of subjects and topics he painted, despite very likely being aware that some might not hold much appeal to most buyers,” muses Meow Lin.

But there is always the exception to the rule, as we see with the woman who loves sad paintings.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, is a contemplative young man at Ilham Gallery who finds himself drawn to the clothes donned by some of the people in the paintings.

“The artist paints women wearing the same clothes I see my mother wear when I return to my hometown for Hari Raya. His works are nostalgic to me because it reminds me of my childhood, it reminds me of home and happy memories,” he shares.

Yu Chian’s cityscapes of the past might not always be recognisable today in a city modernised, but the spirit of its people live on in the everyman now, just as it has then.


Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives is on at Ilham Gallery, Jalan Binjai in Kuala Lumpur, till June 23. Opening hours: 11am-7pm daily. Sunday 11am-5pm. Closed on Monday and public holidays. Call 03-2181 3003 or visit www.ilhamgallery.com. FB: Ilham Gallery