Chang Fee Ming on how his favourite destinations inspire his paintings

Chang Fee Ming’s ‘The Undying Spirit.’ — Photo courtesy of the artist via TODAY
Chang Fee Ming’s ‘The Undying Spirit.’ — Photo courtesy of the artist via TODAY

SINGAPORE, May 12 — For someone whose captivating watercolour paintings of fishing villages and island life in the region have become an artistic trademark, it seems quite apt that renowned Malaysian artist Chang Fee Ming compares himself to a sea turtle drawn to the same places again and again.

“I am like the sea turtle who, despite numerous dangers, still follows its migratory routes and eventually returns to its natal beach repeatedly,” said the 57-year-old Terengganu native, whose latest exhibition is currently up at One East Asia Gallery.

Titled A Traveller’s Diary, it comprises 40 paintings, sketches and mail art of places he has visited through the years, such as Bali, Yogyakarta, Malacca, Myanmar, the Mekong River, and of course, his hometown.

Chang Fee Ming’s ‘Homegrown.’ — Photo courtesy of the artist via TODAY
Chang Fee Ming’s ‘Homegrown.’ — Photo courtesy of the artist via TODAY

“I repeatedly paint Terengganu because it is my root, the place where I was born and grew up in. It is so embedded in me that I can taste the fishy smell that permeates from the South China Sea. The charming fishing villages, the Malay women gossiping in the market wearing colourful tops with unmatched sarongs that are somehow so suitable with the strong, bright sunlight of the East Coast — these are scenes that I never tire of.”

It seems like travelling and painting are intertwined for you. How do you decide where to go to paint?

I always do some homework to make a general selection of destinations and activities before I start a journey to the places I visit. Normally, I don’t book a hotel or transportation to make things more flexible during my journey. For me, travelling is not only for painting’s sake. Throughout the journey, the things you see, the people you meet, even the air you smell can give you so much enjoyment. I don’t count how many paintings I can do every trip — this way, the travel is full of potential and surprises.

Chang Fee Ming’s ‘The Gamelan of Kraton in the Moonlight.’ — Photo courtesy of the artist via TODAY
Chang Fee Ming’s ‘The Gamelan of Kraton in the Moonlight.’ — Photo courtesy of the artist via TODAY

So how long do you spend in the places you visit?

When I first started my international journeys in the early 1980s — to Nepal, India, Indochina — I would spend about two months on a trip. Nowadays, I’d spend a week to a month on trips. In the 1990s, I used to spend four months a year in Bali (where he has a studio), as I found that the island gave me good “chi” to paint. I would always bring unfinished work from my Terengganu studio to do final touch-ups. But for about 10 years now, I have found Terengganu to be just as conducive to that final part of my painting process. So I only continue to do sketches in Bali nowadays, which I still enjoy tremendously.

Of all the places you’ve visited in the region, which are your favourite ones?

In Peninsular Malaysia, I am most happy being in the East Coast, which stretches from Eastern Johor all the way to the end of Kelantan. I know the region well, and feel strongly connected to its people and culture. So it’s easy for me to paint subjects related to the area. It’s obvious that I enjoy observing fisherfolks’ activities in this region, from mending nets and other tools before they go out to sea, to sorting fish that they’ve caught when they get home, to taking a nap after a long day at sea.

Chang Fee Ming’s ‘September 27th.’ — Photo courtesy of the artist via TODAY
Chang Fee Ming’s ‘September 27th.’ — Photo courtesy of the artist via TODAY

Are there particular places in the region you haven’t featured in your paintings?

I know only a little about the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, but I hope to discover more in the near future. I have a feeling that I will find the hinterlands of Borneo to be quite interesting.

Why did you choose watercolour as your medium for painting?

It all began as a practical choice, really. Non-cumbersome and easy to pack and use, watercolour was a practical art material to bring with me when I started travelling at the beginning of my art career. Also, I used to rent a very small room to paint and the odour of solvent from oil-paint, as well as the mess that oil-painting usually creates, bothered me a lot. Watercolours — odourless and easy to clean — was absolutely perfect in comparison.

But artistically, I was also moved by the works of Malaysian East Coast watercolour painters such as the late Mat Zain and the great Khalil Ibrahim. Their watercolour paintings seem to capture the tones and moods of the region so well, convincing me that it was the medium to use for these subjects.

Chang Fee Ming in Tegalalang, Bali. — Photo courtesy of the artist via TODAY
Chang Fee Ming in Tegalalang, Bali. — Photo courtesy of the artist via TODAY

Your paintings are visual records of the places you visit. These days, travel photos are so common on social media. What are your thoughts on this?

I think that it is great when people can share their travel experiences through their photos on social media. But I do admit that I sometimes wish that people who do so will take a little bit more time to select what they post before uploading... They should ideally make it at least worth their viewer’s Internet data, if you know what I mean.

Are you working on any particular series or looking at a particular place right now?

Indonesia remains a favourite travel destination for me. Despite my many travels there for the past 30 years, there are still many islands in this vast archipelago that I have yet to visit. My dream is to discover each and every province in Indonesia in my lifetime and hopefully have enough time to complete a thematic body of work for an exhibition called Taman Mini Indonesia, to show all my sketches and drawings on envelops as a documentary of this beautiful multi-cultural country. — TODAY

* A Traveller’s Diary runs until May 31, 11am to 7pm, at One East Asia Gallery, #09-03 Thong Teck Building, 15 Scotts Road. Free admission. A book version of the exhibition is also sold at S$35 (RM103) at the venue.

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