Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chua Mia Tee---a social realist

National Language Class (1950)

Chua Mia Tee's artistic style has been called Social Realism, a school of art responding to the industrial revolution and urbanization, focusing specifically on working class realities. The Singaporean social realists blended anti-colonial sentiment, nationalist aspirations and socialist concerns in various proportions in their work.

Therefore, in order to understand Chua Mia Tee’s painting, the National Language Class, one has to understand the history behind it first. The 1950s signaled the height of the Emergency sparked by the communist revolt in the peninsula after the failure of the Malayan Union proposal to grant equal recognition to all races; it was also the period of Singapore's attainment of self-governing autonomy, through the turbulent years of anti-colonial action organized by socialists in Singapore.

Putting the painting in this context, one would realize the importance of such a classroom setting. By making it the national language in the new nation, Malay would not only bring together all the races but was also the common language of the working classes. Significantly, Chua's painting shows young women and men, the future of the nation, of different linguistic habits and different classes learning Malay from the cikgu: the bespectacled middle-class man of pressed pants and shoes, the working-class man in white cotton shirt tucked out of khaki slacks in loafers, the woman in white Chinese school uniform dress, the smiling nonya woman in capped-sleeve baju Shanghai and so on. Notice that they sit around a round table, a symbol of equality. As they sat facing each other, they are called to consider the deceivingly simple questions written on the black chalk board: Siapa nama kamu? Di-mana awak tinggal? (What is your name? Where do you live?) Therefore, this painting is typical of a social realist painter such as Chua Mia Tee, containing much anti-colonial nationalistic value.

Chua Mia Tee used an academic and realistic approach to portray the classroom scene. Earthly and naturalistic tones and colors were used to define the subject matter, while the traditional chiaroscuro, the use of dramatic lighting, is used to suggest a sense of depth and three-dimensionality of the figures and objects. It also draws much attention to the main figure in the classroom: the be-spectacled man standing up. The artist also made use of diagonals and implied lines to lead the viewers through the painting.

To Chua Mia Tee, such realistic approach to the subject matter is essential for he believes that art must reflect life and be firmly grounded in reality so that there is an easily accessible point of reference for the viewer. Only then will the painting be meaning and impactful as the viewers would be able to understand and relate to it.

Though not as expressive as Van Gogh’s, the brushstrokes in the painting are not fully blended as one is still able to see the individual strokes of paint on the canvas. It is through such semi-expressionistic brushstrokes that Chua Mia Tee is able to distill the essence of the subject matter: a group of students of mixed racial and culture identity attending a Malay class. If he were to accurately portray the scene and blend all the brushstrokes such that the painting would seem like a photograph, then the nationalistic element of the scene would be lost. Only through such brushworks would Chua Mia Tee be able to add to the scene his own artistic touch and present its beauty in a new composition, magnifying the anti-colonial, nationalistic element of the subject.

Workers in a Canteen (1974)

Chua Mia Tee’s painting, Workers in a Canteen, depicts a typical lunch time scene in a worker’s canteen. As one can see, the rows of tables are filled with many workers, busy eating in the foreground or queuing up to receive their food at the stalls in the background. After a long day’s work, all the workers enter to the canteen to get their well-deserved break and food. This scene is set in the canteen in the Jurong Shipyard.

Through the painting of the workers in the Jurong Shipyard, Chua Mia Tee aims to highlight and salute the contributions of the working class to the young nation’s program of rapid industrialization and economical development. Such portrayal of the simple reality of the daily life of a blue-collar worker is the typical subject matter of Chua Mia Tee as a social realist, giving credit and recognition to the working class, in this case, the workers working in the Jurong Shipyard. Therefore, this painting holds much significance and nationalistic value.

This painting was done in a fully naturalistic and representational of academic painting style, with much details being portrayed, from the creases and folds of the workers’ uniforms, to the distinct features of the worker’s face, such as the nose and mouth. Even spills and bits of food can be seen laying on the table in the foreground. In this way, Chua Mia Tee has shown a keen eye for observation, sensitive to minute details in the scene. The traditional use of chiaroscuro, dramatic lighting, is also evident in the painting, where most of the light is being focused on the workers in the foreground. This suggests a sense of depth and together with shadows, add to the three-dimensional quality of the figures and objects in the painting. Colors used in the painting are also naturalistic and representational of reality.

This is typical of Chua Mia Tee’s approach, where concerns for style are secondary to his main objective: to paint in a social realism manner to reflect the conditions of the working class through art. He believes that art must reflect real life and should be firmly grounded in reality. Only so will the art work offer an easily accessible point of reference for the viewer. The painting would be more meaningful and impactful as viewers would be able to better understand and relate to it.

The painting is also dominated by strong diagonal compositions. The benches and the workers having their lunch are arranged diagonally across the canvas, from the bottom right-hand corner to the top left hand corner of the painting. Whereas, the worker with his back facing the viewers in the foreground is aligned diagonally in the opposite direction. A triangle is formed by the three standing and moving workers among the other seated workers. This effectively divides the painting into three parts. The use of implies lines and diagonal lines also serves to lead the viewers’ eyes through the painting.


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  3. Hi there,
    I am Shirley from the Singapore Art Museum Education team. We are currently publishing an educational resource created by teachers for teachers' use and your article was cited as a supplement for learning.

    May I write to you formally to request for permission to use your article? I am contactable at

    Thank you. I look forward to your reply.

    Best regards,

  4. Thank you, i really needed this for my SOVA!