My Friendship With Singapore's Greatest Painter
Ch'ng Poh Tiong
Singapore: Zhuang Productions, 2015
My Friendship with Singapore's Greatest Painter is the first English biography of Tan Swie Hian, who holds the record (at US$3.3 million) for the highest price for a painting by a living South-East Asian artist. Chinese art cognoscenti regard the Singaporean in the great tradition of scholar literati such as Tang Dynasty Wang Wei, Song Dynasty Su Shi and Yuan Dynasty Zhao Mengfu, men steeped in philosophy and incredibly talented in painting, calligraphy and poetry. Works by Su and Zhao from the collection of Taiwan’s Palace Museum are vividly reproduced.
The biography also reveals how Tan Chan Pok, the artist's father and the wealthiest man in Bagansiapiapi, Sumatra, escaped an assassination attempt. Drawings by the painter's beloved mother, Madam Lie Soie, are also published for the first time. So too the latest calligraphy by Tan Swie Hian, his only self-portrait, early works from the 1970s, and an extensive portfolio that includes "A Couple", a painting of Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his wife Kwa Geok Choo when they were students at Cambridge University.
In January 2013, a fire broke out in Tan's studio. The first thing he saved were not his paintings (conservatively estimated to be worth US$10 million) but a stray cat. When asked why he did not salvage the artworks first, the great humanist replied "I chose life".