Malaysian artist's time capsule of the disappearing world of old Penang


Leong's 'Under The Canopy Series, Swee Kong Cafe, Burma Road, Penang' (watercolour on canvas, 2022). Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan

Thoughts of the good old days are often dismissed as rose-tinted nostalgia. But for some, the pining is very real.

It’s especially so for those who grew up around the quaint streets of George Town, Penang, during the 1970s and 1980s when life was much simpler and more carefree.

Penang-based painter Alex Leong is one of them. Born and raised on Malay Street near Komtar, he found his calling immortalising memories of his city so they will not be lost to time.

His watercolour panoramas brim with detail and life. They capture the charms of a bygone era and will speak to most locals of a certain vintage.

“I had a happy childhood and those memories have been fondly etched in my mind since.

“My parents and grandparents often took me for outings around town. At home, our festive celebrations were elaborate and tradition-filled affairs.

‘Some scenes I’ve painted are already gone, like the houses on Perak Road which were recently demolished for development,’ says Leong. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan‘Some scenes I’ve painted are already gone, like the houses on Perak Road which were recently demolished for development,’ says Leong. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan

“But as I got older and my grandparents passed on, such experiences became a thing of the past,” laments the 52-year-old, who now lives in highly-developed Paya Terubong.

With modernity rapidly changing both people’s lifestyles and the country’s urbanscapes, Leong hopes his works will help ensure future generations – like his own 12-year-old daughter – retain some connection to the past.

“Some scenes I’ve painted are already gone, like the houses on Perak Road which were recently demolished for development.

“Festive occasions have also lost a bit of their fervour. While people in Penang are still cultural and observe many traditions, those in bigger cities have lost touch.

“Even simple day-to-day practices like pouring your kopi-O onto the saucer so it cools faster, are hardly seen anymore,” Leong shares while getting exhibits ready for his 7th solo exhibition.

'Campbell Street Market, Penang' (watercolour on paper, 2022). Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan'Campbell Street Market, Penang' (watercolour on paper, 2022). Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan

Titled Watercolour On Canvas, the show is open now at The Art Gallery in Penang and features 26 pieces.

Canvas is typically not the first choice for watercolour painters, because unlike paper, they do not absorb liquid pigments easily. This presents some unique challenges – as the artist will need to apply several layers to build up opacity.

One also needs to skillfully control its flow to avoid excessive run-offs. It also takes much longer to dry, making it impractical for on-site painting.

“It’s about striking the right balance. Too many layers deprive you of the transparency characteristic of watercolour,” Leong points out.

There are also six watercolour on paper works on display, so visitors can see the contrast between both styles. Altogether, the pieces cover 12 different series.

'Public Phone Series, Perak Road, Penang' (watercolour on canvas, 2022), highlights a relic that many have forgotten. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan'Public Phone Series, Perak Road, Penang' (watercolour on canvas, 2022), highlights a relic that many have forgotten. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan

They are categorised as After School, Baba Nyonya, Celebration, Childhood Traditional Games, Harmony Street, Life And Still Life, Love, Dreams and Flowers, Patchwork Quilts For Nature, Public Phone, Rhythm Of HDB, Street Scenes and Under The Canopy.

Many will see younger versions of themselves in Leong’s After School pieces – be it the boy on a trishaw, the one chatting with friends or the one buying snacks from a roadside vendor.

The Childhood Traditional Games which capture joyful moments against a backdrop of Penang’s iconic heritage shophouses, should prove equally relatable.

Gallerist Tan Ee Lene said Leong’s works are particular popular among collectors who have migrated overseas. Even before the show started, half the feature pieces have already been snapped up.

“Many say it reminds them of how life was like in the olden days,” explains Tan, who also asks visitors to look out for little easter eggs hidden in Leong’s paintings.

Leong’s 'Siam Road, Charcoal Char Koay Teow And Jin Cafe, Penang' (watercolour on paper, 2022), which captures George Town as an old world food destination. Photo: The Art GalleryLeong’s 'Siam Road, Charcoal Char Koay Teow And Jin Cafe, Penang' (watercolour on paper, 2022), which captures George Town as an old world food destination. Photo: The Art Gallery

For his city scenes, there is always a little girl in red somewhere. The nature ones will have a small paper plane instead.

Detail is something he loves. From words on signboards to pigeons taking flight or laundry hanging off apartment windows, Leong makes sure to include them so it captures the essence of a place.

“These are the little things that add character. It fleshes out a story and shows the rhythm of life,” he continues.

The muhibbah spirit is palpable in both his Harmony Street and Under The Canopy series which highlight how multi-ethnic Malaysians co-exist in harmony.

His Public Phone pieces came about when he saw a father and son sitting together for a meal but hardly said a word to each other as both were glued to their phones.

“There are still public phone booths around but nobody uses them anymore. I saw them as metaphors for how technology disconnects us from what is near, to keep us linked with things afar,” he adds.

Leong’s new exhibition at The Art Gallery in Penang runs until Nov 20 and is open for viewing from 2pm to 6pm Fridays to Sundays. Free admission. For weekdays, it is by appointment only. More info here.

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