All images courtesy of Yew Chong.
Today we have a conversations with Yew Chong, an accountant by day and a mural artist on weekends.
Yanda: Hello Yew Chong. Tell us something about yourself and how old are you? Is being an accountant your day job?
Yew Chong: I am a true blue Singaporean who grew up in old Chinatown in the 70s with fond memories (born 1969). I studied accountancy and has worked in finance and accounting for over 20 years (still in finance today!) I’m happily married with two children.
Tell us through your day-to-day work life?
I manage a department in a multi-national company providing finance and administration services to internal customers. My day-to-day job involves more of managing my team members and internal customers, more than crunching numbers, contrary to what many people think accountants only do.
Is it tough juggling your mind over the freedom in art with the numbers and accounting?
Actually it is not tough to juggle. When I am at the office, my mind is fully focused on work issues. I like it that my employer has so far empowered me with the freedom to manage. When I am drawing or painting, my mind is also very free and fully focused on creating that piece of art or craft, sometimes even forgetting to rest! When my mind is free from work and art, it wanders, reflects its present surrounding and dreams far, eg. next project, next travel destination. To be able to do all these freely, I must say how thankful I am to my whole family, especially my wife who has empowered me with this freedom!
Provision Shop. Everton Road, Singapore
The money must be good it seems?
The money from finance work is ok lah, mainly due to my accumulated 20 years of experience and seniority. It surely beats the money from art and craft for now as I only started painting for commissions since November 2015.
How did the mural art thing started? Was it a SG50 thing?
My works are totally unrelated to SG50. In fact, I missed the boat as I painted my very first mural only in late August 2015 when the hype was over. I managed to paint murals only after I quit my finance job in June 2015 to take a break and do something different for a while. The idea of mural painting however started way back in 2014 when I bumped onto Ernest Zacharevic’s works in Victoria Street. See my facebook post in 2014: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152117815223610&set=a.10150917894768610.435348.591753609&type=3&theater
How long do you take to finish a mural? Was it a one man thing?
The time needed to complete a mural depends on its size, design complexity, logistics complexity and the weather. The 7 murals I have painted so far ranged from 2 days to 2 weeks of work. My latest two murals in Tiong Bahru were painted in two days each. I think I learnt the tricks, hence getting more efficient. The “Provision Shop” in Spottiswoode Park Road took 2 weeks mainly because it rained everyday in the afternoons, so maybe it was just about 1 week of work. So far, I painted all the murals single handedly, but with lots of moral and logistics support from family, owners, neighbours, friends and even passers-by. In my next few projects, there will be some collaboration with friends.
Are these commissions? Invited by some government agencies?
For the first two murals at Everton Road, I approached the house owner to allow me to paint on his property walls, thus they are not commissioned. They are like my advertisements and I’m glad the house owner didn’t charge me for the space. All subsequent murals were commissioned.
It’s funny, but maybe illustrative street art means legal.
In Singapore, in theory, all kinds of street arts require some form of approvals, regardless of the style. For private properties, which are not gazetted with any conservation or other status, it may simply require the house owner’s approval. For gazetted private properties, HDB or other public buildings, multiple approvals may be required from the owners, URA, HDB, BCA, LTA, Town Councils and Resident Committees. Seeking approvals can be a very time-consuming and cumbersome process, but that ensures I don’t land up in the courts or even jail! I understand the need for the authorities to control street art, however I hope these numerous authorities can come together to make the process more seamless and less bureaucratic in order not to stifle ground-up initiatives.
How would you feel to see them being destroyed by bird shit, stains and whats not one day?
Murals are never meant to be permanent. I always warn all the house owners that the murals will be destroyed by the natural elements over time, no matter how high-tech the paints are against the elements. Those walls that are subject to direct sunlight (intense ultra-violet) and moisture will have the shortest lifespan, say about 3 years. I think some signs of aging, like colour fading, cracking wall and bird shits make the mural look mature and nostalgic. Some owners are also concerned about vandalism, but I think in Singapore, the risk is low. Nevertheless, whatever happens and when the time comes, I leave it to the owners to decide whether to whitewash the wall or restore the mural. If they decide to restore it, we also need to assess if it is even feasible and worth it.
Growing up, what has been your dream job?
Since your question refers to “job”, then I think it is unlikely to be a “dream”. Although I like drawing since young, I knew I never wanted to be an artist as a career because I knew it was hard in those days in Singapore. We also don’t have as many study choices as we have now, so naturally I follow the flock to pursue a professional career. With that, I can still pursue my other dream hobbies freely like travel, video-making and art, without tying them to money and livelihood. That way, my hobbies can be more experiential and progressive. I like what I am doing in finance too, especially the part on creating culture, so in a way, my “job” helps me pursue my “dream”.
Where did you study?
I studied Accountancy at Nanyang Technological University.
Did you take any arts as a subject then?
In kindergarten and primary school, I had “art & craft” lessons, like everyone did. In secondary school, I chose Science stream for O Level but took Art as an elective. I was also the Chairman of the school Art Club. After that, I did not attend any art related subject classes until 2005, when I attended a short-film making course and a computer animation software course. Throughout the 20 years of my work in finance, I only managed to do just a few sketches and paintings mainly to memorialize my travel experiences. As I do not have any professional art qualification, I do feel I lack the depth and professionalism to give a piece of work or an intellectual topic what it deserves. So, I just declare myself as “self-taught” and my “art” is actually a rather crude craft, hoping people will lower their expectation! Some day, I think I should properly study Art.
Kampung. Tanah Merah, Singapore
Now as an accountant, what do you think of artists or illustrator as a job?
Singapore today gives artists and illustrators much better prospects and opportunities than during my time when the focus was overly on technology and science. Youngsters today will and can better follow their hearts than during my time. That is rightly so as Singapore has matured and its people can now move on to higher levels of needs that feed the mind and soul rather than just the stomachs. It’s encouraging to see more courses, schools and career opportunities dedicated to the humanities and arts. The status of artists and illustrators are already rising over the years as mindsets change. With digital technology and global mobility, they are also able to reach out easily to the global stage. The prospect of a creative career in art and illustrations can only get brighter. If I am born later, I will surely consider artist as a career. Having said that, there are still rooms to improve the public’s attitude towards the value of art. Some people still think that there is no value in art and illustrations, or that they could be requested for free as they are already giving the artists or illustrators “an opportunity”. These misconceptions will improve over time as we mature, appreciate and uphold the value of creativity in technology-centric Singapore.
If you could do more public art, what would it be and why?
I currently hold a full-time job, so my ability to do more public art is limited to my weekends. Since my public street art has received unexpectedly good response, I am motivated to do more, and I already have a pipeline of requested projects till the end of the year. I can’t disclose them yet as they are only commitments and things may change to the fairness and privacy of the requestors. Understandably, majority of the requestors requested “heritage themed” murals, so there is not much room to diversify at the moment. However, I plan to evolve my style towards much simpler designs so as not to “overdo”. I feel that public art should not dominate a neighborhood but blend in lightly to enhance the precinct’s original atmosphere.
Coffee Story. A.R.C, Sultan Gate, Singapore
Amah & Barber. Everton Road, Singapore
Now bringing up your two kids, what do you advocate to them?
My son is serving his full-time National Service and my daughter is in a Junior College. I am an easy dad who pretty much let them pursue what they like. I advocate to them to follow their hearts but remain practical. They should, to their ability, pursue a university qualification in any field and later pursue work that they enjoy doing.
And what do your family think of your works.
My family and even extended family like and support my works. However, they thought that after a while, my works get too characteristic, especially too much “heritage theme” and feel less “refreshing”. I too wish to diversify but the requests kinda pigeon-holed me. When I have the right opportunity, I will wish to diversify my style.
Moving forward, what’s in plans?
I plan to continue to do a few more murals this year so that I can be more polished and also let my style evolve a bit. Some day, I will need to scale-down or even stop painting murals and diversify into canvas painting and sketches. I think this is a natural progression to reach higher levels of professional standards. As part of it, I may consider doing some proper study of Art. As indicated earlier, I feel shallow being “self-taught. Nonetheless, I am happy with how this “mural journey” has changed my life and how I can contribute to the community.
Thank you for time. You can find out more of Yew Chong at here.