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Nanyang Style - Singapore's Pioneer Art Movement

Singapore was known as Nanyang in the late 18th century. Representing South Seas in Chinese, Nanyang was a goldmine for many Chinese immigrants.

Art was denied progression during this period of colonial rule. The first nationwide art class was also implemented reluctantly to comply with British examination standards.

So what is the Nanyang style? Who are the main artists? This article will attempt to address these questions. 

According to the definition from Singapore Art Museum, Nanyang style integrates teachings from Western schools of Paris and Chinese painting traditions, depicting local or Southeast Asian subject matters. Most Nanyangpaintings are either Chinese ink or oil on canvas. 

There was a great influx of Chinese immigrants and the emergence of Nanyang style was in response to the dichotomy of Chinese nationalism and Southeast Asian regionalism. Colonial rule restricted art development and it was only in the 19th century when the first art society started – The Amateur Drawing Association. While in Kuala Lumpur, United Artists Malaysia emerged. These societies imparted mainly Chinese influences in the Nanyang style.

As global economies were recovering from Great Depression, artists of the Nanyang style were benefiting from extra exposure from art trends in Europe and China. The establishment of Society of Chinese Artists in 1935 had members who were not only alumni of Chinese art academies but were also avid fans of western art. 

The need to craft a unique identity was stronger after World War II, amidst growing anti-colonial sentiments. Founding artists wanted to portray Nanyang culture in a visually unique flavour. 

In the same period, Singapore’s pioneer art institution, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), steered away from its usual pro-China positioning and started gaining inspiration from Southeast Asia too. Founding artists of theNanyang style, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Liu Kang, flew to Bali and defined this localized style from there.

Chen Chong Swee is a realist painter who believes the paintings should be easily understood in order to elicit a response.  An abstract cubism artist, Wen Hsi paints primarily in Chinese ink and in the style of xieyihua (the concept of ‘painting an idea’, not the realism of it).  Liu Kang paints local subjects in a post-Impressionist and Fauvist style.  He avoids using shades to create depth, preferring to use shapes. His paintings also direct the eye to travel instead of focusing on a single point. These techniques are adopted from Chinese landscape paintings.  Apart from being adventurous in his choice of medium, Soo Pieng experimented with the depiction of human form when in Bali, which resulted in his signature style of painting Malay women with long limbs and bambi-like eyes

These four artists had similar backgrounds. Graduated from Shanghai’s XinHua Academy of Fine Arts, they each had profound understanding of modern art in French schools and had worked in NAFA at different periods. While each painted in authentic Nanyang flavour, they had very individualist styles. Pictures of their art will provide further descriptions.  


Singapore Art Museum (2002).Singapore modern: Art in the 1970s. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum.

Kwok, K. C. (1996). Channels & confluences: A history of Singapore art. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum. 






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