Chong Siew Ying: the next Malaysian “grand artiste”?

Published on on April 20, 2000

Chong Siew Ying leads her life in the same way as she paints: with boldness, independence and honesty. She set herself a simple goal as a child: to become a great artist. It is fascinating to observe her getting there.

Chong was born in 1969 in a modest family of Malaysian Chinese farmers. At age seven she received the first prize of art at school, her first present ever. Strongly influenced already by her readings, she developed a romantic idea of Paris as the capital for the arts. “I knew I wanted to become a “grand artiste” [great artist], but didn’t know exactly what it meant,” she says. She just knew that being a painter in Malaysia was not sufficient.

A few years later, she met someone who knew someone who needed a babysitter in … Paris. That was enough for Chong who set off penniless for the French capital. Her confidence paid off as she was offered to stay as a babysitter for a year, during which she took intensive French and drawing classes. In 1991, she entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Versailles, then studied at the school of etching “Atelier 63” for two years and became a teacher there. Her Paris years were very significant for Chong. “I learned about love, friendship, independence,” she says. From her sheltered life with her family, she was thrown into a large city where individualism reigns. “It was like being born again,” she says. She recalls fondly the hours spent talking with other painters around a bottle of wine. In 1996, she started living from her paintings and her exhibitions in France earned her enough to pay for her to come back to Malaysia in 1998 along the silk road.

Her first few months back in Malaysia were miserable, her parents didn’t understand why she wasn’t working. Fortunately, she managed to convince the art collector Valentine Willie to exhibit her work in his gallery, and the exhibition was a success. Even better, she drew the attention of architect Hijas Kasturi and his wife Angela who run an artist residency programme in a haven of peace and greenery near Kuala Lumpur called Rimbun Dahan. “We offered her to come for the residency on the spot,” recalls Angela Hijas. “She was forthright in her views […] and very enthusiastic.” Her one-year residency was concluded in February 2000 with another successful exhibition, at Rimbun Dahan. After another exhibition in October this year at Valentine Willie Fine Art, her next destination will be New York. “I am very excited about it,” says Valentine Willie, “it will have a strong impact on her work.”

Chong’s life helps explain her paintings. She is independent and doesn’t care about conventions. This enables her to experiment with different styles and media in her work. “She does not pander to a market,” says Willie. Indeed, the paintings done upon her return to Malaysia depict melancholic and monochromatic figures while her most recent exhibition features large colourful laughing faces. “A good artist works with passion, for no obvious reason other than the need to create,” says Chong.

At the same time, she is keen to submit herself to all kinds of different influences, though her travelling and readings. Her Chinese readings came out in her “Poem” series presented in 1996 where Chinese text appears on rice paper. Valentine Willie believes her work reveals a lineage with Chinese contemporary art, especially the use of bold faces. Her “Nostalgie” series also in 1996 are a reaction to her readings on psychoanalysis.

Chong Siew Ying has no false modesty about her ambition: “I like to read biographies of people who created immortal things, such as Sartre, Picasso, Mozart,” she explains. “That is what I want to achieve.” With the pragmatism and dedication she has shown so far in reaching that ideal, Chong Siew Ying is a name we will no doubt hear about again.


First Published: 11.06.2002 on Kakiseni

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