Essays, Sketches of Pulo Pinang


I had the privilege of getting to know Kiah Kiean when I curated his art exhibition at Alpha Utara Gallery in 2005. Since then, we developed a friendship which has been greatly augmented by our service as members of the Penang State Art Gallery and our participation in publishing four art books, him as the designer and I as part of the editorial team.

Though I know him only for five short years, I felt as if I have known him all my life, or rather, all his life, since I am the older one. Kiah Kiean had started drawing early in his life. I have seen his drawings from age five, through his primary, secondary and tertiary schooling years, to the present. His drawings show that he possesses a God gifted talent and I am impressed with how he made use of that talent, with hard work and persistence, maturing into the artist he is today.

I admired Kiah Kiean’s works since I first laid eyes on them. Kiah Kiean has a keen eye for the essential details and essence of things, fortified by his architectural training at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang and his flair in graphic design. He is able to distill a chaotic street scene and reduce it to his now distinctive streetscape. Though his subject matter may be rustic buildings, his drawings exude an obvious elegance and stylishness which are most pleasant to the eyes. All his sketches in this book were done plein-air i.e. on the spot, in the open air. None of them is drawn from photographic images. Artistically, Kiah Kiean has developed a visual language of his own, elegantly distorting his subject matter, ruling out the use of a ruler, and demonstrating clearly that he is not reproducing photographic images. However, Kiah Kiean has the habit of taking photographic record of his subject matter. On hindsight, this habit has become an invaluable historic record as a number of the buildings and places found in this book are no more to be found (as at November 2009, the buildings at pages 18, 19, 24, 25, 28, 29, 88, 105, 127, 133, 144, 145, 156, 157, 158, 159, 161 have since been demolished).

I am glad Tan Lye Hoe, Kiah Kiean’s art tutor and three of Kiah Kiean’s comrade in arms lent their support to this book by writing an article each. Tan Yeow Wooi is an acclaimed restorer of historic buildings, whose projects include the UNESCO award winning Han Chiang Temple. Khoo Cheang Jin, the president of the Penang Water Colour Society, is a practicing architect and artist who, like Kiah Kiean, has combined his passion in both disciplines to produce well sought after Penang streetscapes. Ambiga Devy is a fellow State Art Gallery Committee Member and a fervent activist for the arts. I also thank Tan Yau Chong for his editorial contribution.

It has been a great pleasure editing this book. This collection of Kiah Kiean’s sketches lent to itself without much effort on my part. It depicts the Penang we seem so familiar with yet in a very fresh manner. It showcases the Penang we love and preserves the face of Penang which is fast disappearing. This is a book for every Penang lover.

Lee Khai • Penang

The Power of Ch’ng Kiah Kiean’s Dreams

What makes Ch’ng Kiah Kiean he is today is his aspiration and passion for art. This double-degree holder – one in Housing, Building & Planning; the other in Architecture – departs from his professional training to become a successful artist and graphic designer, all because he believes in the power of dreams.

No teacher could be more proud than to have an illustrious student who wants to go where he wants to and be what he wants to be. He wants to be an artist so much so that at one stage when Kiah Kiean was under my tutelage in art did he declare that his first love was art.

As his tutor and mentor, I have never in any way doubted his intention as he has shown his talent, potential and love for this creative subject. Quiet and shy though he may be, he has on the contrary, displayed a sense of individuality and persistence to express his ideas in his own personal style although when he was in my class, he was always prepared to go though the mills, meticulously doing academic exercises, not leaving out any details in his studies of still-life.

Today, he has freed himself from all the academic inhibitions to take his own route to produce thought-provoking sketches with his sensitive line expressions. Though he might be modest in certain ways, I would say that he is definitely bold when it comes to art as is evidenced in his works in this book of his entitled Sketches of Pulo Pinang.

Kiah Kiean experiments with and explores all possibilities of expressing lines with graphite, giving his viewers much thought-provoking experience. As a direct approach to communicating with lines and tones he opts for just black and white sans colours so that his audience may enjoy his works without other distractions.

Through this approach he has displayed his strength and versatility in expressing a wide range of subjects from street scenes to buildings and from boats to houses on the sea-front, employing different treatment in styles where he has shown to be much at ease with constructive realism which is much reminiscent of his training in architectural drawing. However, that does not deter him from going impressionistic, even approaching the semi-abstract with expressive vigour and freedom, thus asserting his competence in this medium.

This fine collection of drawings put together by Ch’ng Kiah Kiean in one book Sketches of Pulo Pinang, is indeed a great accomplishment for a young lad and is so commendable for the high quality of the labour of love.

Tan Lye Hoe • Penang

A Burst of Powerful Lines

Those lines in graphite may look askew and awry, yet they are so bold, powerful and penetrating making you wonder if they are really by the hand of the quiet, shy and skinny Ch’ng Kiah Kiean.

When you come to know Kiah Kiean better, you will discover a volcano of artistic passion and creativity right beneath his gentle demeanour.
I first met Kiah Kiean in 1996 in a public slide show organised by Nanyang Folk Culture, a local cultural group of which I was a key player. It was quite a pleasure to see an architecture student coming out of the campus walls to take part in arts and cultural activities. Soon after that, he became a stalwart of the group and together we organised many arts and cultural activities in which his multi-faceted talent and ability were brought into play.

Since high school days, Kiah Kiean’s creativity in painting had already surpassed that of his peers and even many artists who boasted to be professional. Besides painting, he is also adept at calligraphy, photography and graphic design.

The old Penang is one of the major themes of Kiah Kiean’s sketches. Born and bred in George Town, he has fond memories of and a strong love and concern for the heritage of the city. In the recent years, as development has caused much damage to the old cityscape, he walked the streets even more frequently in order to preserve the disappearing street scenes and buildings in his sketch book.

But Kiah Kiean’s sketches are not direct, realist representations of the old buildings and street scenes of George Town. They are always imbued with his passion and affection toward his home city. By representing the buildings and street scenes with a twist, he is in effect expressing his affectionate impressions of his subjects.

In the sketches, Kiah Kiean embraces his subjects, be they buildings or street scenes, with strokes of thick and thin lines in so powerful a manner that the subjects are somehow twisted. Such an affectionate embrace of his subjects is always interesting and very often touching.
Not only being a burst of powerful lines, Kiah Kiean’s sketches are also a lively dialogue in black and white. The abstract and the concrete, the dynamic and the static, and the tense and the lax can always find their dialectic spaces in the visual dialogue, in which the spaces left blank always have a weight.

Now, having captured so many images of George Town with his graphite pencil, it is time for Kiah Kiean to share with the world his love for the heritage city. With all my heart, I wish his solo exhibition and the publication of his sketches collection a great success.

Tan Yeow Wooi • Penang

The Magician Who Makes Buildings Come Alive

In 1995 I returned from Singapore to work in Penang. I met Kiah Kiean on my first day at work sometime in May. He was then an attachment student at an architectural firm. Both the firms we worked with were in the same building. He was modest and reticent. I saw him almost on a daily basis but we did not interact much. A polite greeting was all we exchanged when our paths crossed.

I only found out about his love for art when he showed me his portfolio one day. Once acquainted, I realised we both share a passion for art and we were at different times active in the art society of our alma mater Chung Ling High School. Both of us were president of the art society. These common backgrounds brought us close together.

Since then, we interacted much in art. From the joint exhibition at the Syed Alatas Mansion in Armenian Street in 1995, to being involved in the activities of Nanyang Folk Culture and the Penang Water Colour Society. With some friends we set up the Ching Lotus Humanist Space at China Street. From sketching outdoor together to discovering the fun with digital photography together, the shy reticent young man is now the owner of a graphic design firm.

Kiah Kiean’s accomplishments in art are expansive. Among the many are his streetscape sketches. He has a sensitive perception for buildings. With his exaggerated yet balanced form and his seemingly chaotic yet emotive lines, he brings the streetscape, especially old buildings, he sketches to life. Each modest or even dilapidated old building seems to come alive with vigour, proudly showing off.

You would realise Kiah Kiean’s tidiness if you visit his office or his home, everything is spick and span, very much the image he projects of himself. The wild lines produced by his hand seem incongruous with his character. Perhaps that’s the real Kiah Kiean.

I wish him the very best for his third solo exhibition and the publication of this marvelous collection of his works.

Khoo Cheang Jin • Penang


Ch’ng Kiah Kiean has travelled a long way from the young person who honed his artistic skills under the tutelage of Tan Lye Hoe. Today he combines his architectural training and his keen, intuitive eye to produce works that can only be described as haunting in their depiction of a city in the transitions of change.

Taking a journey, very much with his father in mind, he has captured George Town with a stylish freedom in his lines and spaces, remembering the footsteps taken by his father – from the Swatow Lodge in Armenian Street where many of his Teochew clansmen frequented to the shop house where he stayed when he first arrived in the then Malaya – picturing a soul on its quiet journey, remembering and memorizing every tone and shade of that life.

Sentimental sweeping lines, sometimes colour washed, sometimes in shades of grey accentuated with black ink and different thicknesses of graphite, are used to create his expressions of streets, lanes, buildings and cityscapes with elegant style.

Here is an artist who also has a quirky sense of humour – look for his juxtapositional use of shop signage in his street scenes, be it in calligraphy or typography, often telling a story of its own. His depth of skill emerges with his use of improvised equipment like sharpened bamboo and chopsticks to get finer details when using Chinese ink.

Kiah Kiean’s love for the city and its heritage is conspicuous in this book. By representing the nooks and corners often ignored by the passer-by, he accentuates and thus elicits thought-provoking questions from the viewer of his works.

These sketches are also wonderful reminders of what George Town was and sometimes still can be today. A diary in graphite, they have captured the essence of childhood experiences in the streetscapes of his present life.

Ambiga Devy • Penang

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