Remembering the once quiet streets of Melaka


One of Lee’s new paintings, 'Blue Night' (watercolour on paper, 2024), is featured in his exhibition 'Overture' at Awegallery in Petaling Jaya. Photo: Lee Wee Xian

For many, the historical city of Melaka is an ideal spot for a quick weekend getaway. However, for Lee Wee Xian, who spent his formative years in the heart of the city, Melaka is more than just a tourist destination – it’s home.

Despite having lived and worked in Kuala Lumpur for nearly 15 years, he feels a constant yearning when away and a deep sense of belonging whenever he returns to his hometown.

“My family ran a shop on Jalan Tokong near Jonker Street, selling things used for prayer, like joss sticks. It was the family business for three generations,” says Lee during a recent interview in Petaling Jaya.

“Sadly, it closed down two years ago, and that was one of the things that motivated me to paint my neighbourhood and other places that hold a lot of memories for me,” he adds.

Lee’s 'Morning Ride (Jalan Hang Kasturi)', a glimpse of Melaka without the weekend tour buses. Photo: Lee Wee XianLee’s 'Morning Ride (Jalan Hang Kasturi)', a glimpse of Melaka without the weekend tour buses. Photo: Lee Wee Xian

Lee, 34, works as a lecturer in biomedical science for a local college by day, but at night, he lets his creative side loose through watercolour paintings, his medium of choice.

“Of course, oil and acrylic also have their own beauty, but personally, I prefer watercolour – especially the ability to play with light and shadow by combining water and pigments.

“If you make a mistake, you can’t correct it. But sometimes the mistake can be an unexpected surprise, adding value to the painting,” he shares.

Five years ago, Lee decided to sign up for a watercolour workshop by Brian Tai, a self-taught artist known for his watercolour paintings of landscapes and cityscapes.

‘I don’t paint those famous or iconic scenes of Melaka that usually come to mind,’ says Lee. Photo: Samuel Ong/The Star‘I don’t paint those famous or iconic scenes of Melaka that usually come to mind,’ says Lee. Photo: Samuel Ong/The Star

“Before then, I had been dabbling in watercolour, but what he taught us in that workshop was an eye-opener for me. It was my first time being exposed to fine art, and after that, I called him up and said I wanted to learn watercolour from him,” says Lee.

What started as weekly classes with Tai led to several group shows and joining the Malaysian Watercolour Society.

Now, Lee is finally unveiling his solo debut, Overture, taking place at Awegallery, Petaling Jaya until the end of this month.

From day and to night

The show features 25 pieces that capture nostalgic scenes of Melaka – a mix of present day Melaka and the Melaka of Lee’s memories when he was growing up.

“My memories of Melaka have always been a source of inspiration in my art. I knew from early on that if I were to ever do a solo show, I wanted it to be about Melaka.

'With Quiet Steps' (watercolour on paper, 2024). Photo: Lee Wee Xian'With Quiet Steps' (watercolour on paper, 2024). Photo: Lee Wee Xian

“I don’t paint those famous or iconic scenes of Melaka that usually come to mind. What I paint here is basically my perspective, my vision of Melaka from 15 years back, before I moved away. The city itself has changed so much over the years, so through my paintings, I’m able to keep those memories alive,” he adds.

The Melaka town postcards of the past bear little resemblance to the modern city today.

Like an urban sketcher, Lee approaches this old city, designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008, with a contemporary painter’s perspective rooted in local insight.

Each time Lee returns home, he acknowledges that the city’s landscape is evolving rapidly, for better or for worse.

In addition to old shophouses being repurposed for modern businesses, heritage preservation continues to be a contentious issue in Melaka. This is underscored by recent developments like the installation of “giant fans” in the historic Dutch Square.

In 'Watching People' (watercolor on paper, 2024), Lee captures a rare, leisurely scene in the touristic town centre of Melaka. Photo: Lee Wee XianIn 'Watching People' (watercolor on paper, 2024), Lee captures a rare, leisurely scene in the touristic town centre of Melaka. Photo: Lee Wee Xian

In his paintings, he opts to depict the bustling Jonker Walk devoid of crowds.

For example, in Blue Night, one of the pieces featured in the exhibition, Lee paints Jalan Hang Lekiu on a quiet week day evening, without the Jonker night market that you’d normally encounter on the weekends. The scene is painted in a yellow-orange hue to capture the the soft glow of the warm streetlights.

“Jalan Hang Lekiu is lined by shophouses that used to house long-established businesses, some of which have since closed. One of them is the cafe where me and my brother used to have breakfast in the morning with my late grandfather. Painting these scenes allows me to preserve those precious memories and the serene beauty of the nights I cherish,” he shares.

With a full-time job as an educator on his plate, Lee has to put a concerted effort into his art practice.

There is no shortage of independent cafes in Melaka, and Lee rolls out a lazy day scene in 'A Place For Espresso' (watercolour on paper, 2024). Photo: Lee Wee XianThere is no shortage of independent cafes in Melaka, and Lee rolls out a lazy day scene in 'A Place For Espresso' (watercolour on paper, 2024). Photo: Lee Wee Xian

“During the daytime, I give my all to teaching – it’s very tiring, but at the same time, it’s also very rewarding. But the nighttime is dedicated to my art practice. I make it a point to finish at least one painting a week, though usually I’m able to complete more than that,” says Lee, who has been teaching since he was 23.

Overture is divided into two themes: day and night.

“The paintings are arranged so that it starts off with lively day scenes and progresses into more relaxed, contemplative night scenes; almost like a metaphor for my own daily life,” says Lee.

Whenever he’s home, he enjoys leisurely strolling around his neighborhood, capturing photos on his smartphone for future inspiration.

“I also like having a focal point or a ‘main character’ in my paintings, because I feel that it helps tell a story, which has more impact,” says Lee, adding that painting watercolours has taught him to live in the moment.

'A Scene From Geographer Cafe' (watercolour on paper, 2024). Photo: Lee Wee Xian'A Scene From Geographer Cafe' (watercolour on paper, 2024). Photo: Lee Wee Xian

“Let’s say today I wanted to start a painting. I will make sure to finish it in one go. You can’t leave it and come back to it days later, because it dries up very quickly, and once it does, it’s hard to maintain homogeneity of the colour in your piece.

“So for me, it ties back to how time keeps marching forward and changes will come, whether we like it or not, so we should capture the moments that matter to us and honour them, but we also need to continue moving forward.”

“I chose to name my debut solo exhibition Overture because in music, an overture is a musical introduction to an opera or play, so I felt that it fits perfectly, as this show marks the official beginning of my artistic journey, featuring places from Melaka, where it all started,” he concludes.

Overture is showing at Awegallery, Petaling Jaya until June 30.

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!
   

Next In Culture

Discover the wonders of nature at KL's Forest Learning Centre
What we know about the Paris Olympics opening ceremony
Have you spotted these 'matchboxes' while driving around Kuala Lumpur?
A broken and beautiful world of shards, symbols and memories
Almodovar’s love affair with Spain’s capital city explored in new exhibition
Hermes v Hermes: Turkey bookshop marks win in copyright fight
Weekend for the arts: 'Twisted' fairy tales at KLPac, poetics of translation
'We are crying,': 8yo 'Goldsmith' mural in KL erased, street artist asks, 'Why?'
Strasbourg, with its literary history, shines as Unesco's World Book Capital 2024
Art is cool, museum tells sweltering Muscovites

Others Also Read