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No paint, no gain

WONG KIM HOH on 17 Aug 2014

The Sunday Times


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In 1978, Ong Kim Seng was a full-time audio-visual technician nursing big dreams of becoming a famous artist.


“I wanted to be known and recognised so I told myself that I had to do something which was different and exceptional,” he says.


A casual chat with a Nepali friend gave him an idea.


“Come to Nepal,” his friend said. “We have beautiful landscapes. We have mountains more than 8,000ft above sea level, we have flatlands with tigers, rhinoceroses and other animals, we have old houses in beautiful hamlets, we have centuries-old Buddhist and Hindu temples. You will feel as though you are travelling through time.”


A brainwave hit the young artist.


“I told myself I would paint Nepal in the most drastic weather conditions; I would paint in areas above 4,000m above sea level,” he recalls.


After he had slogged and saved for the trip, the novice trekker headed for Nepal. With a couple of porters, he trekked for 16 days and ended up at Gorak Shep, the base camp at Mt Everest, 5,545m above sea level.


It was no walk in the park. He braved sub-zero conditions, moved in areas affected by landslides and grappled with precariously rickety bridges.


“I was not an outdoors kind of guy, it was a first-time experience for me. But because I had a vision and a mission to accomplish, I was forced to do it,” he says.


Along the way, he painted, sometimes in the snow and other hazardous conditions. On the trip, the self-taught artist completed 25 pieces, and upon his return, finished half a dozen more.


The pieces took centrestage at a one-man exhibition Himalayan Pilgrimage by Ong Kim Seng at the now defunct Asia Art Gallery in North Bridge Road. It drew crowds including art luminaries such as Liu Kang and Lim Tze Peng. More than 80 per cent of the works were snapped up, many at more than $2,000, which was a hefty sum to pay for an unknown artist then.


“In those days, the Himalayas seemed so far away, so remote and so exotic. Not many Singaporeans had been there or trekked there. I became known as the guy who painted Nepal and Kathmandu,” says Mr Ong, now 69.


That trip changed his life in more ways than one.


Not only did it launch him as a water colourist of note, it also convinced him that he should listen to his heart and be an artist.


In fact, the Nepal trip is an allegory of his journey into full-time painting – risky, arduous and it could all have turned out disastrous.


But today, he is one of Singapore’s most famous colourists, a Cultural Medallion winner whose pieces are regularly auctioned by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. They are also staples on the walls of big corporations and five-star hotels in Singapore. His collectors include Queen Elizabeth II, former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji and former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan.


But if his late mother had had her way, his life would not have revolved around brushes, easels and colours.


"She was against me pursuing art. To her, painting was temporary and would not put food on the table. You may sell today, but starve tomorrow.


She always said that I would be a frog in a pond. You leap one day but will have to wait and wait before the next leaf comes along. With a steady job, she said, I would have a steady income," he recalls.


He understood her objections, even though they frustrated him.


The family grew up in abject poverty in an attap house in the Tiong Bahru area. His father was a shoemaker, his mother a washerwoman.


Mr Ong had a younger sister but because she did not feed properly as an infant, his paternal grandmother ordered that the baby be given away.


His mother left the baby with two tins of milk powder and a hongbao outside the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus orphanage in Victoria Street.


"Years later, I wrote to the convent, asking if they knew of my sister's whereabouts. They could not trace her. I'm still trying to find her," he says.


He was nine when his father died. "He was tortured by the Japanese for being a China sympathiser and had a lot of internal injuries. My mother was only in her mid-20s when my father died. She never remarried and worked as a washerwoman and an odd-job labourer to raise me," he says.


His artistic side surfaced early.


"I would take charcoal from the charcoal stoves we used in those days to sketch on newspapers characters from Ong Toh's stories," he says, referring to the famous Hokkien storyteller who narrated martial arts and other tales on Rediffusion.


At Radin Mas Primary and Pasir Panjang Secondary, he won numerous prizes for art. He was so good that a couple of his friends were willing to finance his studies at an arts college after he completed his O levels.


"But my mother said no. She wanted me to work in an office and be a clerk. I had to hide and paint," he recalls.


Once, his mother used some of his paintings - oils on masonite boards - to patch holes in the thatched roof of their home.


"If those paintings had survived, they would be worth a lot of money today," he laments.


After leaving school in 1962, he found a job in an advertising company which specialised in painting signboards.


"I earned only $60 a month, did not learn much and even had to double as the company's bill collector. It was awful because I would get abused so often," he says.


Four years later, he left for another company which paid $20 more a month. Conditions, however, were no better.


The boss was often so strapped for cash that he could only pay his employees every three months.


Mr Ong next joined the British naval force in Woodlands as a police constable. "I was with them for four years. During my course of duty, I never arrested anyone," he says with a laugh.


When the British forces left Singapore, he became a welder. "I was doing pipe-joining at great heights at a refinery in Bukom. I could earn $10 a day, which was pretty good money in those days."


All this while, he pursued his love for painting without his mother's knowledge.


For a brief period, he joined the Equator Art Society for its free art classes. But the society, which promoted the social realist art style, was also controversial for its leftist leanings and was eventually de-registered in 1972.


On weekends, he would often go to popular spots all over the island to paint. He soon became a regular of The Sunday Group led by famed water colourist Lim Cheng Hoe. The luminaries in this group included Ong Chye Cho, Chew Yew Seng and Chia Wai Hon.


"Our meeting place every Sunday was the Red House Bakery in Bras Basah Road. At that time, I used very bad brushes and very cheap paints. I looked at the works of these people and they were so nice. They were very friendly and taught me a lot. Ong Chye Cho, for instance, taught me what brushes and paints to use," he recalls fondly.


At 25, he married a seamstress and they moved into a one-room flat in Bukit Merah with his mother. He joined National Semi-conductor as a technician before becoming a supervisor and audio-visual specialist.


After a few years, he landed a similar position at a training college run by the Colombo Plan, a regional organisation overseeing economic and social development of member countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines. He was sent for a diploma course in animation in Japan.


By then, he had started selling some of his art pieces through the Sun Craft Art Gallery.


It was at Colombo Plan that he met the Nepali who inspired him to go on his Kathmandu sojourn.


"That first trek was like a drug. After that, I wanted to go again and again," says Mr Ong, who has gone back to Nepal nine times to paint there.


In 1983, he submitted his first work - a Nepal scene - to the American Watercolor Society (AWS) and it won an award, making him the first Singaporean artist to be honoured.


"The American Watercolor Society attracted more than 2,000 entries that year from which they selected 120.Mine won the fifth or sixth prize," says Mr Ong, who went on to win six more awards from the society.


In 1986, after the Colombo Plan moved its base to the Philippines, he finally took the leap into full-time painting. It was not an easy decision, since he had a wife, three children and an elderly mother depending on him.


"I was 41 years old. I told my wife, 'If we have $10,000 in our bank account, we can start.' We did and I started. My mother did not approve, but since I had my wife's support, she could not say anything."


He did most of his painting in the kitchen of their one-room flat.


"As an artist, I had to be very careful because there would always be lean months. I had to make sure that the good months supported the lean ones," he says.


His perseverance paid off. His Cultural Medallion award in 1990 boosted his career, earning him commissions from corporations and hotels.


In 1993, his work - Bhaktaphur - was the first Singapore watercolour painting to be auctioned by Sotheby's in Hong Kong, fetching about $25,000. The following year, another piece, Bali, was auctioned by Christie's in Singapore.


His earnings enabled him to put his two daughters through university in Australia and his son through film school in Chicago and pay the medical bills for his mother who, felled by a stroke, was bedridden for more than 10 years before she died in 2003.


Life as an artist, he says, is never plain sailing.


"You have to know what the trends are, what others are doing, but you also must have your own style," he says, adding that his own style has evolved over the years and is still evolving.


Now living in a five-room flat in Hougang, he still paints every day at home.


"I start at 10 in the morning, stop at lunch, meet gallery owners and clients in the afternoon, and paint again in the evening," he says. He has an exhibition of new works coming up at Ode to Art gallery in November.


Modest about his achievements, he says: "I'm not the frog waiting to leap, as my mother said I would be. I don't have an ocean liner but I have a sampan which takes me where I want to go in my pond."


Source: The Sunday Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.