Victor Chin, a well-respected artist and heritage activist, dies at 73

Victor Chin's artworks in the 1980s and 1990s drew attention to pre-war shophouses and advocated for a more humane urban environment. Photo: Filepic

Victor Chin, a well-respected artist and printmaker who extended his career in fields of heritage conservation, cultural activism, documentary filmmaking and writing, died in a hospital in Kuala Lumpur early this morning (Nov 14). He was 73.

He had been unwell in the last few months. The news of Chin’s death was confirmed by his son.

Born in Kajang, Selangor in 1949, Chin is regarded as a pioneer in preserving the country’s architectural heritage through art and he had inspired many others to venture into this art and documentary form.

He grew up in a rented room with his family, living with four other families in an old shophouse, a living space that would be a familiar theme in his artworks as he discussed community history and lost landscapes through a wash of watercolours.

In the Malaysian art scene, rarely has such inanimate objects like brick and tile, cement and plaster, arch and window translated into such meaningful and charming symbols of our heritage and various other human values than in the fragments of Chin's famous drawings and paintings.

As a young man with a dream, Chin’s formal art training and journey took shape in Britain between 1969 and 1972, where he attended the Harrow School Of Art (now part of the University of Westminster).

Chin stayed on in England until the mid 1970s, where he produced TV graphics for selected BBC educational shows. When he returned to Kuala Lumpur in 1975, he worked at Universiti Malaya as a designer.

Chin's 'No 9 -11 Jalan Petaling, Kuala Lumpur' (watercolour, 1995). Photo: Victor ChinChin's 'No 9 -11 Jalan Petaling, Kuala Lumpur' (watercolour, 1995). Photo: Victor Chin

A broader canvas awaited Chin who was already known for his painterly skills and being an eloquent writer (in arts and culture, specifically). He was also drawn to the historic, societal, political and architectural elements and expansions of early British Malaya-era towns, and this fascination led to an illustrious career later on where art and heritage were inseparable from his craft.

To survive as an artist in the late 1970s, he founded Rupa Design, where he continued to produce his own art and prints, while also keeping afloat with educational design and commercial graphics projects.

In 1982, Chin opened the Rupa Gallery in KL where he made a living selling prints and other souvenirs created out of his line drawing of building facades and the city's built heritage. The gallery also adopted an open-minded policy, which reflected Chin's varied creative interests. A line-up of diverse exhibitions and events were held there until it closed in 1990.

Beyond the colourful and high-detailed shophouses and buildings he drew through the years, Chin passionately believed that art had many roles to play and he was using it as an educational tool to ask critical questions and to share history in a Malaysian way.

Chin seen at his Rupa Gallery space in the heart of Kuala Lumpur in the mid-1980s, where he developed and grew his historical buildings series, merging art and conservation awareness. Photo: Filepic/The StarChin seen at his Rupa Gallery space in the heart of Kuala Lumpur in the mid-1980s, where he developed and grew his historical buildings series, merging art and conservation awareness. Photo: Filepic/The Star

“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,” said Chin, who spent most of his career championing for heritage conservation, in an interview with The Star in 2017.

“I saw what was happening to our towns and cities and did what I could to draw attention to our heritage. But an artist can only show what is important to him or her through artworks; neither artist nor art can stop the disappearing characteristics of our streets,” he added.

As the 1990s dawned, Chin continued to pound the old streets of Kuala Lumpur, then Melaka, Penang and Singapore to document historical buildings, tying up narratives and everyday stories of these places which had fascinated him since the 1970s.

An image of Chin's building artwork used in a Sahabat Warisan Malaysia pamphlet in the 1980s. Photo: Filepic/The StarAn image of Chin's building artwork used in a Sahabat Warisan Malaysia pamphlet in the 1980s. Photo: Filepic/The Star

He took 15 years to create 64 watercolour paintings depicting the original facades of the shophouses in those four cities, complete with the old trades and activities. He also designed a walking tour for Chinatown in KL, complete with an informative map.

In the early part of the 2000s, Chin found photography as an important medium to highlight issues faced by marginalised communities such as disabled athletes and the Orang Asli. His photo exhibitions such as In The Face Of Disability and Empathy gave a voice and a visual profile to the disabled community. He had been taking pictures of athletes at the Paralympics since 2004, and his exhibitions of that period celebrated human understanding over ignorance.

As a documentary filmmaker, Chin's work focused mainly on Malaysia's forgotten or fading communities. They include co-directing credits for short films Memory As Resistance: Grandma Kong Defending Her Village, a story of an elderly woman fighting to save her village in Mantin, Negri Sembilan from the threat of demolition, and Five Tigers, a story of three former women members of the Malayan Labour Party in the 1960s in Penang.

The National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur has 66 artworks from Chin in its permanent collection.

In a poignant Facebook post last year, Chin wrote: "Thinking, talking, painting, filming, exhibiting and walking about in the older Malaysian streets and communities had kept me alive all these 70 over years ... it is about finding my roots and wanting to remember and to share our common early heritages."

Chin is survived by his wife and son.

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Victor Chin , death , obituary , writing , Malaysia , artist


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