Singapore should have more people like Chong Fah Cheong.
By Belmont Lay
This guy is Chong Fah Cheong. He is 67 years old, a sculptor and one of Singapore’s most prolific artists in the last 30 years.
And he got featured in Life! on April 8, 2013 because he is so famous and unfamous at the same time.
This sculpture of children jumping into the river outside Fullerton Hotel is one of his creations. You’d have seen it before and thought: “How clever and gravity-defying.”
But you’d most likely not have known — until now– that it was Chong Fah Cheong who made it.
So why is Chong Fah Cheong so cool?
I had the privilege of working with him for a few days in early 2008 when he was commissioned by NUS to produce some marble sculptures with students from various faculties.
And he taught me plenty of life lessons in those few hours I met him that four years of formal education in NUS failed to impart.
1. Work with your hands
I learnt two very basic lessons working with Chong Fah Cheong.
Firstly, the ability to use your hands to make or fix broken stuff, or fashion something out of nothing, is a form of intelligence that will accord you a clear advantage, even in this day and age of the knowledge economy.
Look at the final marble sculptures that were completed by students from Med School (left) and students from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (right).
It’s obvious, isn’t it?
Med School students training to be doctors are in a hands-on profession. They meet patients and prod them with instruments.
So, they were actually dexterous enough to be able to carve a serpent from a rectangular marble block!
Arts and Social Sciences students, on the other hand, who are training to use mainly their brains in a knowledge-based economy, could barely use their hands to break the shape of the marble slab.
So they carved a totem.
Look, I was from the Arts and Social Sciences. All the while I was cutting the marble slab with a power tool, I was trying very hard focusing on not slicing my fingers off.
Needless to say, about 99 percent of the time I didn’t know what I was doing.
But Chong Fah Cheong just told me to follow my heart.
Therefore, secondly, the other lesson I learnt is: When push comes to shove, everyone can and should work with their hands.
Learn to paint, play an instrument, cook or assemble Ikea furniture. Whatever it is, use your hands.
I promise, you’d lead a more fulfilling life.
2. He is an outlier
You know how we all like to bitch and whine about how Singapore is filled with conventional people doing conventional things?
People who work in the office and lead cookie cutter lives?
Well, here is a Singaporean, who didn’t bother with what other people were doing and went ahead and did art and made a living out of it.
How cool is that?
I remember Chong Fah Cheong telling me that he tried being a teacher when he was much younger, but it didn’t work out.
So that was the last time he held a full time job and he never looked back.
And that was probably like 40 years ago.
The best part is that he is totally Zen.
He talks about Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Marx and the materials used in sculpting like how people these days would talk about food, Xiaxue and her baby in the same breath.
Plus, note to self: Prices of his commissions are in the five- to six-figure range.
This is proof that you can be well-read, pursue your passion and make money at the same time.
Is this inspiring or what?