Artist Victor Chin grew up in a rented room with his family, living with four other families in a shophouse. As an artist, he found himself drawn to the origins of humble migrant settlements, and the buildings of the older parts of the city.
Between 1980 and 1995, he created a collection of 64 watercolour works, showing the design and evolution of the shophouse facades built between 1900-1960, in Melaka, Penang, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
Now, his watercolours of the shophouses of Singapore and Melaka are currently showing in an exhibition called Moved Out at REXK, a former old cinema now turned into a community-based arts space. The art series is being exhibited together with Chin’s short film Moved Out.
Chin’s film is a look at how culture and building heritage is being handled in Melaka and Singapore.
“The film Moved Out is about my artistic and emotional response to urban vernacular streetscape and community under threat due to eviction and demolition,” says Chin, early 70s, who has also done writing, designing, photography and film-making through the years.
“This film was done in 2018, during my residency at the Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Asian Architecture and Urban Heritage in Melaka,” he adds.
The building, a former maternity clinic with 160 years of history, is now a unique resource centre under the department of architecture, National University of Singapore.
As a painter, Chin’s primary subjects include architecture, landscape and abstracts. He was also a newspaper columnist on art and culture for many years, which led him to taking up city and community activism. He has recently taken up documentary film-making, with Moved Out being a timely project.
“Many historical and cultural landscapes had a complete makeover to meet modern standards. Only the facades and the roof lines were kept. The old souls had been moved out and the new tourist industries have moved in.
“But both the conservation areas of Singapore and Melaka have things in common: the death of the traditional and historical community life and the beginning of the, so-called, progressive, cleaner synthetic international lifestyle. This includes the increase of noise, air and environmental pollution, not to mention overcrowding of tourist and over pricing of real estate in these areas,” he elaborates.
Chin’s watercolour series in Moved Out showcase the visual evolution of the design of the vernacular shophouse facades. They were symbols of the people’s hard work, determination and struggle under colonial rule.
“The centuries of violent and exploitative colonial history brought with it a wide range of communities with its own character, colour and culture. It is these early vernacular buildings, built by the pioneers and the unknown craftsmen in these towns, that give it its unique heritage and identity,” he explains.
The artist laments that time is running out and Moved Out, as an art exhibit and film, is small step in highlighting the struggles of keeping building heritage alive.
“These selected watercolours are more than just artworks with the interest in the picturesque. More than that, they also act as visual chronicle to the architectural heritage of the streets. Most of all these images evoke for me, memories of the displaced and lost inhabitants of our traditional cultural life so characteristic of its place, time and beauty,” says Chin.