Chua Ek Kay

Singapore Infopedia


Chua Ek Kay (b. 1947, Guangdong, China–d. 8 February 2008, Singapore) was an artist who is known for bridging Eastern and Western art. He was the first Chinese-ink painter to win the United Overseas Bank Painting of the Year Award in 1991.1 Chua trained under Singaporean master brush painter, Fan Chang Tien of the Shanghai School, but later developed a keen interest in Western art. The blend of traditional Chinese art forms and Western art techniques feature prominently in Chua’s paintings.2 He was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 1999.3

Early life
Chua was the eldest of seven children.4 His family came to Singapore from China in the 1950s and lived on Liang Seah Street, where he grew up.5 This experience had a deep influence on his work, as he made street scenes and old shophouses a regular subject of his paintings.6 In fact, his piece titled “My Haunt”, a brush painting of old buildings on Liang Seah Street, won him the United Overseas Bank Painting of the Year Award in 1991, making him the first Chinese-ink painter to win the award. Chua’s fascination for old shophouses lay in the architectural beauty that, according to him, does not fade with time.7

Chinese cultural influences were a large part of Chua’s daily life and art. He wrote Chinese poetry, read Chinese literature and practised calligraphy, which he had learnt from his father.8 Chua’s interest in calligraphy continued into his Catholic High School days.9 Combining his love for classical Chinese poetry and calligraphy, he transformed his own poems into calligraphic script. Excelling in both, Chua had already made a name for himself in the calligraphy and poetry circles by 1975, the year he started learning Chinese brush painting and seal-carving from Fan Chang Tien, the master brush painter of the Shanghai School.10 According to teachings of the Shanghai School, perfection has four elements – calligraphy, classical poetry, drawing and seal-carving – which Chua strove towards in his artistic practice.11

Fulltime artist
In 1985 at the age of 38, after taking on a variety of jobs for 17 years, including running a restaurant, Chua left his last position as a manager of a garment factory to become a fulltime artist.12 He supplemented his income by teaching private students at the National University of Singapore’s Extra-Mural Studies Department.13 Chua departed from the Shanghai School traditions not long after and incorporated aspects of the local environment into his paintings, switching from mountains and lakes to shophouses, and even abstracts inspired by aboriginal cave paintings.14 

Chua was much inspired by the works of Western artists such as Jackson Pollock, Matisse and Picasso, since their “spontaneous” style was deemed similar to the free style of the Shanghai School. His interest in Western art led him to take up related courses at the then Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts in 1990 as well as in Australia.15 But the “Chinese brush” influence never left him as he continued to express his artistic inclinations in both traditional Chinese as well as Western contemporary styles.16

Several of Chua’s paintings have adorned the Prime Minister’s Office at the Istana, and Chua saw this move as a gesture of support for local artists.17 

Chua passed away in 2008 after battling nasal cancer. He was survived by his wife and a son.18

Posthumous developments
In 2010, the Singapore Tyler Print Institute held a tribute exhibition of Chua’s works, showcasing 26 of his artworks featuring themes such as Singapore street scenes and the archipelago.19 Two years later, his donation of 25 artworks to his alma mater, Catholic High School, were exhibited in conjunction with the opening of The Private Museum.20

In 2015, the National Gallery Singapore held an exhibition, Chua Ek Kay: After the Rain, on his three-decade-long artistic career. The exhibition commemorated the significant donation of 38 works by the artist’s family to the National Collection between 2010 and 2011.21

Previously unseen works from the estate of Chua Ek Kay were featured in a group exhibition, Thinking Ink: Improvisations on Cultural Criteria, organised by Gajah Gallery in 2017. The exhibition highlighted ink artists from Singapore and China.22

1947: Born in Guangdong, China
1953: Family moves to Singapore
1975–84: Studies Chinese brush painting under Fan Chang Tien of Shanghai School
1985: Becomes a fulltime artist
1990: Obtains Advanced Diploma in Painting, Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore
1993: Receives National Arts Council scholarship for practising artists
1994: Obtains Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, University of Tasmania, Australia.
1995: Obtains Master of Arts (Hons.) in Visual Arts, University of Western Sydney, Australia23
2000: Appointed as member of the National Arts Council24
2000: Display of paintings at the Prime Minister's Office, Istana25
2002: Participates in the Visiting Artists Programme by Singapore Tyler Print Institute.26
2003: Display of artworks at Clarke Quay MRT station27

Selected solo exhibitions
 First solo exhibition, Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Singapore
Being and Becoming, Singapore Tyler Print Institute

2005: Yixi: Recent Paintings of Chua Ek Kay, Shanghai Art Museum, China
2006: Chua Ek Kay @ Art Forum 2006, Art Forum Gallery
2007: Along the River Banks: Chua Ek Kay, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
2007: Solo exhibition, Lotus Pond & Water Village, Cape of Good Hope Art Gallery28
2010: Re-visiting Chua Ek Kay: Tribute to the Ink Master, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
2012: Old Campus Revisited: A Chua Ek Kay collection of the Catholic High School, The Private Museum
2015: Chua Ek Kay: After the Rain, National Gallery Singapore

Group exhibition
Thinking Ink: Improvisations on Cultural Criteria, Gajah Gallery

1991: United Overseas Bank 10th Painting of the Year Award (Grand Prize)
1998: Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards (Juror’s Choice), Singapore29
1999: Cultural Medallion, National Arts Council30


Nureza Ahmad

1. “No Mountains, I Will Paint a Shophouse Here,” Straits Times, 25 September 1999, 3; Deepika Shetty, Icons in Ink,” Straits Times, 6 March 2010, 3; “Chua Ek Kay,” Straits Times, 10 February 2008, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “No Mountains, I Will Paint a Shophouse Here.”
3. Tuminah Sapawi, “Writer, Artist Given Cultural Medallion,” Straits Times, 25 September 1999, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “No Mountains, I Will Paint a Shophouse Here.”
5. Stefanie Yuen, “On the Winner’s Rostrum,” Straits Times, 24 July 1991, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “No Mountains, I Will Paint a Shophouse Here.”
7. Yuen, “On the Winner’s Rostrum”; Shetty, Icons in Ink.”
8. Yuen, “On the Winner’s Rostrum.”
9. Shetty, Icons in Ink.”
10. “No Mountains, I Will Paint a Shophouse Here”; Yuen, “On the Winner’s Rostrum.”
11. “No Mountains, I Will Paint a Shophouse Here”; Yuen, “On the Winner’s Rostrum.”
12. Yuen, “On the Winner’s Rostrum”; Sapawi, “Writer, Artist Given Cultural Medallion.”
13. “No Mountains, I Will Paint a Shophouse Here.”
14. “No Mountains, I Will Paint a Shophouse Here”; Clarissa Oon, “Drawing from the Mist of Time,” Straits Times, 9 July 1998, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Yuen, “On the Winner’s Rostrum”; Sapawi, “Writer, Artist Given Cultural Medallion.”
16. Yuen, “On the Winner’s Rostrum”; Madhvi Subrahmanian, “When East Meets West,” Business Times, 5 March 2010, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Irene Ng, “Local Art Rules These Corridors of Power,” Straits Times, 9 January 2000, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Shetty, Icons in Ink; Eddino Abdul Hadi, “S’pore Ink Artist Chua Ek Kay Dies of Cancer,” Straits Times, 10 February 2008, 2(From NewspaperSG)
19. Chua Ek Kay, Re-Visiting Chua Ek Kay: Tribute to the Ink Master, 5–20 March 2010 (Singapore: Singapore Tyler Print Institute, 2010), 6. (Call no. RSING 759.95957 CHU)
20. D. Teo, “Foreword,” in Chua Ek Kay, Old Campus Revisited: A Chua Ek Kay Collection of the Catholic High School (Singapore: The Private Museum, 2012), 11. (Call no. RSING 759.95957 CHU)
21. “Chua Ek Kay: After the Rain,” National Gallery Singapore, accessed 27 November 2017; Low Sze Wee, ed., Chua Ek Kay: After the Rain (Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, 2015), 5. (Call no. RSING 759.95957 CHU)
22. “Thinking Ink: Improvisations on Cultural Criteria,” Gajah Gallery, accessed 27 November 2017; “Arts,” Straits Times, 28 July 2017, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “No Mountains, I Will Paint a Shophouse Here.”
24. “Four Artists Appointed to NAC,” Straits Times, 21 September 2000, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Ng, “Local Art Rules These Corridors of Power.” 
26. “Chua Ek Kay,” Singapore Tyler Print Institute, accessed 13 December 2016.
27. “A River Runs through It,” Straits Times, 8 June 2003, 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Low, Chua Ek Kay, 5.
29. “No Mountains, I Will Paint a Shophouse Here”; J. Lim, In Memory of Chua Ek Kay – Renowned Ink Artist (1947–2008), 2017. (From National Archives of Singapore website)
30. Sapawi, “Writer, Artist Given Cultural Medallion.”

The information in this article is valid as at 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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