Gallery of lost ‘treasures’


The ‘Hidden Gems’ art show encompasses Chong’s career from the 1960s to 1990s.

FOR years, the paintings of the late Sarawakian artist Chong Liew Syn lay untouched in the family’s collection.

Her son Ken Loh had long dreamed about showing his mother’s work, but he lacked the time or expertise to sort out the pieces.

“The paintings were stored at our shoplots for many years because I was continuing my father’s business of distributing Chinese medicine across Sarawak.

“Day in and day out it was just work. I didn’t know how to tidy up the collection, how to kickstart an art show,” he said.

This oil painting titled ‘A Morning Walk’ was painted in 1989.This oil painting titled ‘A Morning Walk’ was painted in 1989.

This all changed when future gallery owner Hoan Kee Huang approached Loh about 10 years ago and offered to help out with the pieces, which he thankfully accepted.

“We started with the idea of a solo exhibition, but at that time the gallery didn’t exist. It was only in 2021 that Hoan Gallery was established.

“Everything came together recently for us to hold the exhibition now,” he said.

“Hidden Gems: The Life Works of Chong Liew Syn” opened at Hoan Gallery in Promenade Mall in Kota Samarahan on Jan 19 and will run for eight weeks.

Loh: ‘Art is like us, it ages. If I keep them there and do nothing, I will feel very guilty. So this is a dream come true.’Loh: ‘Art is like us, it ages. If I keep them there and do nothing, I will feel very guilty. So this is a dream come true.’It features about 100 of Chong’s nearly 300 paintings, many of which are being shown for the first time.

Loh said the exhibition was the fulfilment of a dream.

“This is what my father and mother left me. At first it was a burden. What was I supposed to do with all this art? Was I just to leave them there to get dusty?

“Art is like us, it ages. If I keep them there and do nothing, I will feel very guilty. So this is a dream come true.”

Chong, who died aged 50 in 1999, founded the Sarawak Fine Arts School in 1975, the first government-accredited private art institution in the state.

Her school produced many Sarawakian artists, while other students went on to forge careers in industry, politics and research.

A visitor admiring Chong’s watercolour painting titled ‘Rising Sun’ at the exhibition.A visitor admiring Chong’s watercolour painting titled ‘Rising Sun’ at the exhibition.

Gallery owner Hoan said the show spanned Chong’s entire career from the 1960s to 1990s, with different mediums, from watercolour to oil and acrylic.

He said her still life paintings and landscapes were particularly beautiful.

Her final piece, painted in 1998, is an oil painting of white blossoms on canvas, which was likely done in a single session.

“Chong’s art pieces, like herself, are full of warmth, honesty and beauty. She’s a master of shading and light.

Hoan (left) giving Sim (in yellow shirt) a tour of the exhibition. — Photos by ZULAZHAR SHEBLEE/The StarHoan (left) giving Sim (in yellow shirt) a tour of the exhibition. — Photos by ZULAZHAR SHEBLEE/The Star

“She painted some beautiful sunsets of long-gone riverine scenes and lovingly captured still lifes of humble market produce,” he said.

Loh said it is easy to recognise the locations in some of Chong’s paintings, including the Satok bridge, Matang and Santubong in Kuching.

He said about 60% of the pieces on show are available for sale while the rest will remain in the family’s collection.

In future, he hopes to put on an exhibition displaying the works of Chong and her former students together.

“One of the former students who helped to pick the art for this show is now a lab researcher in Boston.

Sarawak Deputy Premier Datuk Amar Dr Sim Kui Hian (left) and gallery owner Hoan Kee Huang looking at Chong's final painting titled

“So we have different people still in the art realm. Hopefully one day they will come back for a combined exhibition,” he said.

For Loh, “Hidden Gems” marks the realisation of a cherished dream, ensuring that his mother’s legacy lives on in the hearts of art enthusiasts for generations to come.

Sarawak Deputy Premier Datuk Amar Dr Sim Kui Hian, who opened the show, recalled taking art lessons from Chong in his school days.

“I remember her as a very kind, gentle and soft spoken person who led by example.

“Many of her students have followed in her footsteps to become artists or continue painting as a hobby,” he said, adding that it is important to preserve her legacy.

“Hidden Gems” is the opening show of Hoan Gallery’s 2024 season. It will be followed by an abstract art show and a showcase by artists David Chew and Joanne Lau respectively.

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