At 98, Singapore's oldest living artist continues to be obsessed with art
At the ripe old age of 98, Singapore’s oldest living artist just can’t stop thinking about art. As we settled down for a chat at his home in Telok Kurau, Lim Tze Peng confessed that he hadn't gotten a good night’s sleep.
“I woke up at 4am thinking about how to paint better,” he shared in Mandarin, with a gentle chuckle.
Lim Tze Peng is still creating art at the age of 98. (Photo: Ode To Art Gallery)
“When I think too much about painting or writing calligraphy, I can’t sleep well. Even when I’m sitting here, I’m thinking of it. When I lie down on my bed, I’m thinking of it!”
Talk about dedication. After decades of creating some of the most familiar and iconic Chinese ink paintings of the Singapore River and Chinatown (and breaking auction records and snagging a Cultural Medallion award along the way), we half-expected to find Mr Lim just chilling out at home with his grandchildren, resting on his laurels during his twilight years.
SINGAPORE’S VERY IMPORTANT CHINESE INK ARTIST
But amazingly, he’s still at it. One of the coolest senior artists we’ve ever met, Mr Lim may have stopped painting full-time, but he still does a bit of calligraphy as a form of exercise at his second-floor artist studio, which is crammed with old paintings and scrolls.
And while he mostly just stays at home these days, he’ll soon be stepping out for his latest solo exhibition in two years.
Later this month, Ode To Art Gallery is presenting Portrait Of The Heart, a retrospective of Mr Lim’s artworks through the years. It will comprise over 80 pieces that span his entire practice, from his Singapore River and street scenes to his Tree series and even experimental calligraphy works. And they’re not all old pieces – he’s even throwing in a few recent ones, too.
While Mr Lim admits to feeling “a bit of pressure” with the exhibition, he’s also looking forward to it.
“I feel delighted that someone is organising the show, and people want to come and enjoy my work,” he said.
For gallery owner Jazz Chong, holding the exhibition was a no-brainer. “He’s a very important Chinese ink artist in Singapore; the oldest and probably the most prominent Singaporean artist alive. Because he has had so many years of practice, you see the evolution of his works.”
FROM PASIR RIS KAMPONGS TO THE SINGAPORE RIVER
And, in a way, of Singapore, too. Born in 1921 to parents who were pig and chicken farmers in Pasir Ris, the eldest of seven children recalled learning how to paint in his twenties, with the local villages in the area one of his favourite subjects.
Lim Tze Peng's Bustling Streets Of Chinatown. (Photo: Ode To Art Gallery)
“Near our place – we lived in an attap house – there were a lot of Malay kampongs and I used to go there to do drawings. I did a few hundred pieces,” he said.
But Mr Lim didn’t become a full-time artist until much later – he spent the first half of his life as a primary school teacher, while occasionally joining other artists, such as the seminal Ten Men Group, in trips to other places in the region.
Upon his retirement in the late 1970s, Mr Lim switched gears. Around this time, Pasir Ris had also started to lose its kampong vibe thanks to development, and he shifted his attention to the subject matter he would really become famous for – the Singapore River and Chinatown.
“I have a lot of good memories of the Singapore River – it was a unique part of Singapore at that point in time,” Mr Lim recalled.
“And it wasn’t just me who painted there. There would be hundreds of artists, there would be tourists taking photos, the big bumboats. There was so much activity. It wasn’t so clean as it is now, but it wasn’t very smelly because of the low and high tides,” he quipped.
Mr Lim also has vivid memories of the street scenes in Chinatown. “The clothes hanging outside the shophouses were like flags - a lot of colours and very beautiful. On the streets, you’d see hawkers on one end selling fish, duck and fruit. On the other, you’d see the Samsui women, bent over as they were walking or working. It was the perfect subject matter.”
‘I SEE, I PAINT. I THINK, I PAINT.’
While these artworks had made Mr Lim famous, he went on to do others – experimenting with calligraphy in the 1990s and 2000s. “I always felt the need to come up with new expressions, new things,” he explained. “When I was younger, I used to go out – I see, I paint. As I've become older and can't go out anymore, I think, then I paint.”
Lim Tze Peng working on one of his big artworks. (Photo: Ode To Art Gallery)
His personal drive to innovate would eventually reap even bigger rewards. In 2003, he received the prestigious Cultural Medallion, the highest accolade for any artist in Singapore. A few years ago, he also received the Meritorious Service Award.
Mr Lim’s artworks have also been a hit in the art market. In 2012, one of his Chinese ink paintings of a Singapore River scene sold for S$101,800 at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong – a record then for a living Singaporean artist.
And while you might think Mr Lim’s works aren’t quite popular among younger art lovers weaned on cool contemporary art, you’d be surprised to find out that his works continue to resonate with a new generation.
Lim Tze Peng's Old Singapore Scene. (Photo: Ode To Art Gallery)
“A lot of those who collect him are actually quite young,” said Ode To Art’s Ms Chong, who says that prices for Mr Lim’s works range between S$10,000 to half a million for his big pieces.
“There are those in their early 30s, who’re looking for something for their new homes, who are starting to say they want to be more connected to their roots, and they feel they can relate to his art, whether it’s calligraphy or old Singapore scenes; the aesthetic side or the nostalgic side,” she said.
At just two years short of the century mark, and having made so many innovations in his practice and being lauded for it, most people would probably think it’s time for Mr Lim to take a step back and just enjoy the moment.
But Singapore’s oldest living artist has other plans. Mr Lim shared that he recently did a seal carving, which said, in Chinese, “treasure your remaining years”.
“Although I’m close to 100 years old, I want to make the best use of my time. I want to think more and innovate more,” he said.
Hopefully, not at the expense of a good night’s sleep.