In Chankerk’s "Horizons of Change" series, the artist lucidly expresses his ambivalence and sense of dislocation to Chinatown’s development and commercialization.
His earlier series of Chinatown urbanscapes nestled the heritage town in front of looming new buildings behind, both brushed impressionistically. But he ended this series strikingly. The final picture assembled a multitude of compositional planes: Old Chinatown from a bird’s eye view frontally below, whilst ascending the canvas, from worm’s eye view, mountainous state of the art structures (symbolically, e.g. Millenium Wheel, the Esplanade) loom at different angles. Such shifting perspective he draws from formal painting in Chinese landscapes to exaggerate the monumental. His emboldened approach portended series 2.
Now he juxtaposes Chinatown’s old and new with contrasting perspectives and brush techniques, focussing on pertinent symbols of iconic modern development to speak louder his message.
Chinatown’s Pagoda Street (Horizons of Change no. 25) has an imaginary highway, brushed vigorously expressing the rush of progress. The latter’s drab grey and forceful streaks of brushwork contrasts with the warm, impressionistic old roofs. More jarring in harsh bloody streaks, he supplants with the Temple of the Buddha’s Tooth Relic, its alien architecture and practice (plucked out from the arid, central plains of 7th century Tang Dynasty, the new shrine is a modern day movement in highly commercial, evangelical Buddhism, Mandarin-sermonizing) compared to the neighbourhood’s dialect temples and ubiquitous shophouses and clan houses, where architecture evolved 150 years, by assimilating immigrant southern construction into the colonial townscape, throughout adapting to Singapore’s geographical and social climate. The temple is as indigenous to Singapore’s Chinatown as the prolific ground-floor tourist shops selling China-made ware masquerading as Singapore souvenirs; this is Chankerk’s comment on all things commercial and alien in the name of progress.
Bukit Pasoh junction (Horizons of Change no. 17) is a crossroad of old and new. How ironic the hotspot of Singapore’s glitterati, the stylish boutique Majestic Hotel now reduced to a construction pile of sooty disfigured, rough brushstrokes, versus the carefully laboured Ee Hoe Hean Club and the clan houses up the hill, basking in impressionistic light, roofs aglow in warm terracotta. Reality in reverse, as the hotel is the sparkling doyenne of design and fashion magazines, whilst the clubs and clans have faded from their pre-war eminence as political nerve centres of the Chinese communities. Physical dislocation and confusion reigns in the heart and mind.
The unknown fate of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station (Horizons of Change no. 24), possible demolition, Chankerk conjures a nightmarish deconstruction of the building’s front and side elevations engulfed by monstrous scaffolds behind. Ominously a station clock ticks as passers-by age from youth to old.
To dislocation, the lecture suggested ways to reconnect with Chinatown’s roots. The area’s multiracial, multi-religious inhabitants were shown in museum and archival images. Establishments in indigenous craft, home grown publishing, politicized clans and labour unions, show a Chinatown buzzing in creative energy. Not spared were images of destitution, vice and slavery; the horror of Japanese Occupation, all part of Singapore’s heritage. These perspectives are more inclusive and reflective of Singapore’s diversity, more unorthodox than the “Chinese” Chinatown currently touted to tourists.
Summary of "Chankerk's Chinatown", a lecture presented by Andrew YG Tan on January 28th, 2011 at Chan Hampe Galleries @ Tanjong Pagar.
Supported by: National Heritage Board's Heritage Industry Incentive Programme (Hi2P)
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