Victor Chin sounds so calm and collected talking about revisiting the past that you are convinced he is indeed one with the shadows and light so evident in his watercolour works.
However, not unlike the rather despondent tales behind these charming and colourful pre-Merdeka shophouses, Chin has a story of his own to tell.
These 64 watercolour prints of old shophouses along the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Melaka and Singapore, presented alongside corresponding photographs, will be showing at Chin’s exhibition, Shophouse Watercolours at The Red Studio in Petaling Jaya, which opens on June 14.
In the past, these works have been exhibited in several stages as a work in progress. The complete series was last exhibited in 1995. They have not been shown to the public in its entirety since then. Perhaps a walk down memory lane is now warranted.
Almost 40 years ago, Chin put paintbrush to paper and embarked on what would end up being a 15-year project (1980-1995) that saw the creation of these watercolour works depicting the original shophouse facades, even as these buildings fell victim to the ravages of modernity.
Over the years, one by one have disappeared or fell by the wayside.
Many have been demolished, while others remain standing, but are now a mere shadow of those glorious days when there was a lively buzz surrounding them and the communities who called these buildings home.
These paintings of shophouses, borne out of a desire to draw attention to the urgent need for a more human urban planning policy and the need for heritage conservation, immortalise not just the architecture of old, but also capture the essence of what binds us to history, culture, and, intrinsically, each other.
“I saw what was happening to our towns and cities and did what I could to draw attention to our heritage,” recalls Chin, 68, an artist, photographer, writer and social activist, who is a familiar face in the heritage conservation scene.
“But an artist can only show what is important to him or her through artworks; neither artist not art can stop the disappearing characteristics of our streets. It is sad and disappointing,” he adds.
Today, he estimates that around 20% to 30% of the shophouses featured in this show have been destroyed, with “almost all their residents evicted or forced out by higher rents”.
“The decay and lack of care for the older buildings by the owners is also an issue that is complex and not easy to understand or solve. It has to do with greed and also lack of a sense of common history and culture,” observes Chin.
Kajang, Selangor-born Chin spent his formative years in Britain, first as an art student then as a designer for film and television with BBC London. Upon his return to Malaysia, he freelanced as a designer, artist and photographer, and in 1982, founded Rupa Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, where it thrived for eight years before he shut it down in 1990.
In this watercolour series showing at The Red Studio, sentimentality shines through in Chin’s meticulous attention to detail.
But as aesthetically appealing as they are, the creation of these paintings are also very much driven by a sense of responsibility.
“I feel strongly for the Malaysian historical and cultural landscape that has shaped us as a nation, and as an artist I would like to do what I can to keep our history and culture alive, and to share it as often as possible,” he says.
A commemorative booklet will be published in conjunction with the exhibition, for the first time in both English and Chinese.
Additionally, Chin points out that these traditional shophouses in the inner heart of the cities showcased the genius of the nameless local craftsmen skilled in masonry, carving and construction.
“Families turned these buildings into their homes, many of them tenants living from hand to mouth in the neighbourhood. Together, these communities gave character, colour and culture to the streets and neighbourhoods where they lived, worked, raised families and celebrated local holidays,” he reminisces.
So this watercolour series of the shophouses offers a short visual history lesson of the early vernacular architecture of Malaya.
This complete set of prints is in the collection of Chin’s friend and collector James Yuen, who sponsored this exhibition.
“It took 15 years to complete, and after that I had to take a break to heal my emotional wounds from seeing the death of our heritage,” says Chin.
After all these years, Chin muses that he has come to terms with his “emotional wounds” and is actively keeping the memories of our historical and cultural landscape alive through conducting public walks, documentation and film (check out Rakan Mantin and Rakan KL on Facebook).
In 2015, Chin, together with filmmaker Chan Seong Foong, put out a 20-minute film titled Memory As Resistance, presented as part of the Freedom Film Festival in Kuala Lumpur. It features 80-year-old Grandma Kong and the other villagers of Kampung Hakka in Mantin, Negri Sembilan, joining forces to fight for their right to stay on their land. The film can be viewed online.
Despite the years, Chin is excited about talking to visitors about the upcoming Shophouse Watercolours show.
“I am glad this exhibition gives an opportunity to relook at what we did and are doing with our inner city heritage and can bring about open conversations and also influence public debate and policy,” he says.
Chin’s shophouse series might be completed, but its influence is relentless, just like the man behind the watercolours.
Spirit of perseverance
“The artworks of the streets still evoke the early Chinese spirit of persistence and perseverance, and it is always good to pay homage to our ancestors who helped build the country and gave us our many identities,” he concludes.
Today, Chin continues to be engaged in art and community activism, and is currently artist-in-residence (2017/18) at the Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Asian Architecture and Urban Heritage, Department of Architecture at the National University of Singapore.
Shophouse Watercolours is on at The Red Studio, Lot 100-013, Level P1, The School, Jaya One, Petaling Jaya, Selangor from June 14-29. The show is organised by Atelier Art Space. There will be an artist talk at the gallery, 4pm on June 18. More info: www.victorchin.com. Call 012-429 6125.