Landmarks Of Malaysia: Chin Kon Yit's 25-year watercolour journey

Goldsmith Street, Melaka by Chin Kot Yin. Image: Editions Didier Millet

Chin Kon Yit no longer feels safe to sketch outdoors ever since he was mugged in broad daylight while sketching Pudu Prison in Kuala Lumpur a few years ago. The thieves took his watch and money. Thankfully, they left him unhurt.

“That time, thieves will just ask for your wallet. But nowadays, they don’t only rob you, they also hit you,” he laments, 65, in an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

After a second mugging – in a back alley in Penang – the Klang, Selangor-born Chin has decided it would be safer to photograph the sscenes  and draws and paints them in the safety of his home.

So imagine how long it would have taken the full-time artist to complete his Landmarks Of Malaysia: 360 Paintings by Chin Kon Yit book, an impressive collection of 360 landmarks from every state in the country.

The project began in 2011 and was only completed last November.

“There were nearly 600 pictures. After discarding many of them, we settled for 360 pictures,” the former Chinese newspaper cartoonist points out.

The colourful 356-page book is truly a testament to the many architectural wonders of Malaysia, from colonial buildings to places of worship and stunning natural landscapes. Each picture carries with it an informative caption.

Thirty paintings from the selection are now on display at Kuala Lumpur City Gallery, Dataran Merdeka, until June 30.

Mahmoodiah Royal Mausoleum, Johor Bahru. Photo: EDITIONS DIDIER MILLET
Mahmoodiah Royal Mausoleum, Johor Bahru by Chin Kon Yit. Image: Editions Didier Millet

Chin has done several books documenting Malaysia over the years. In 1998, he did the Kuala Lumpur Sketchbook, followed by Penang Sketchbook (2001), Landmarks Of Selangor (2003) and Landmarks Of Perak (2006). In fact, many of these previous paintings made it into Landmarks Of Malaysia.

To date, the artist, regarded as the Watercolour Maestro of Asia, has had 12 solo exhibitions. The last one being Postcard Stories in 2010 at The Art Room, G Hotel, Penang by Shalini Ganendra Fine Art.

Talking about his road trips around the peninsula for this project, Chin, the recipient of the 2009 Asia-Pacific Prominent Cultural Person Honourable Award, says he had to take on the role of a tourist. “It was an honour to rediscover my country and its beautiful buildings.”

Flipping through the pages of the book and recounting one story after another, the Petaling Jaya-based artist shares that the best part of the journey, however, didn't have anything to do with buildings. Rather, it's an even more ubiquitous Malaysian pastime.

“I like to stop along the way and have a cup of coffee and enjoy some noodles. That’s the best part.”

Sultan Petra Silver Jubilee Mosque, Rantau Panjang, Kelantan. Photo: EDITIONS DIDIER MILLET
Sultan Petra Silver Jubilee Mosque, Rantau Panjang, Kelantan by Chin Kon Yit. Image: Editions Didier Millet


Chin has been drawing and painting landmarks for more than 25 years now.

“For me, the shop house I stayed in as a young boy is a personal landmark. So is my high school,” says Chin. It is any place or building, he explains, that has a personal and sentimental value to a person or community. For instance, a wet market is common sight to many of us urbanites, but for the people in Perlis, the Wang Kelian town, famous for its food and Sunday markets, is a landmark.

One that Chin particularly remembers from his youth days is a bridge in Port Klang where he used to bring his then girlfriend for dates. “Her family didn’t like me because of my long hair. So, it didn’t work out!” he says with a laugh.

For Chin, his favourite among 360 paintings is the one that depicts the co-existence of an Indian temple, a mosque and a Chinese temple along Melaka’s Jalan Tukang Emas (Goldsmith Street, Malacca).

Playing with perspectives, white space and colour contrast, the artist gave prominence to the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple, with its vibrant mix of blue, green, red and gold.

The pagoda-like minaret of Kampung Kling Mosque contrasts the modest temple, which has since been repainted in white and yellow. The diagonal-perspective painting calmly progresses to a lighter and white shade, giving one the experience of standing at the edge of a street.

Calling it the Street of Harmony, Chin admires the peaceful neighbourliness of these three religious sanctuaries, saying, “this is how we should be but the situation is not like that.”

He tells of a dim sum shop in front of the mosque, which has been operating without any opposition. The eatery closes every Friday to respect the religious duties of the Muslims.

“No one needs to give them a warning. They automatically know they have to do it,” says Chin.

Goldsmith Street, Malacca.
Goldsmith Street, Melaka by Chin Kon Yit. Image: Editions Didier Millet

His entry into the art scene was not as colourful as his paintings. Even as a teenager aspiring to be an artist, Chin already hit a wall in the form of his father.

Having worked in a pawnshop for three years, the young Chin was growing bored and tired. He had always enjoyed sketching and painting. He decided to quit his job and become an artist.

“My father was upset and said he won’t support me financially. I told him that I don’t care!” Chin tells, sniggering, like the rebellious teenager he was, after a moment of silence.

Chin says without the foundation his high school art teacher taught him, he will not be where he is today. “It was like a father and son relationship,” he asserts.

It’s true the artist enrolled himself at the Malaysian Institute of Art in 1968 but his schooling only lasted a year.

Unable to continue his studies as a result of financial constraints, the artist had to teach himself for another year, thanks to the foundation already set by his art teacher, before he joined Union Advertising as a training artist.

He remained in the advertising industry for 15 years, eventually taking on the role of art director.

Happily married now with one daughter, Chin is saddened by the fact that the landmarks in the country are slowly disappearing.

His serene and light-toned rendering of Tasik Chini (in Pahang) shows the lake teeming with lotuses. He remembers the beautiful sight from his younger days.

“If you go there today, all of this is gone because of water pollution from a nearby development. This is what I think is sad lah,” says Chin with a sigh.

Chin says he had to take on the role of a tourist for this project and was delighted to rediscover Malaysia. Photo: RAJA FAISAL HISHAN/ The Star
Chin Kon Yit, on painting Malaysia's landmarks: “It was an honour to rediscover my country and its beautiful buildings.” Photo: The Star/Raja Faisal Hishan

Landmarks Of Malaysia: 360 Paintings by Chin Kon Yit is available at all major bookstores. Selected paintings from the book will be exhibited at the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery (No. 27, Jalan Raja, Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur) until June 30. Opening hours are 10am to 6.30pm. Entry is RM5.

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