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The Majulah Series : The Art of Singapore Money

No, no stop – this isn’t one of those ads designed to teach you how to become a day trader or forex genius in 7 easy steps, nor will you become a millionaire in 30 days after reading this post.

(That said, if any one out there can teach us any of those things- preferably with little to no usage of mathematics-  please feel free to privately message us).

Today’s article is quite literally about the art that’s plastered all over your money. On Singapore’s currency to be exact. We all love the feeling of crisp new notes in our hands, but how many times have we actually looked at the physical cash that funds and fuels so much of our lives?

With that in mind, (plu)ral pays tribute today, to Singapore’s currency and the art that everyone carries around with them, in their purses and wallets.

Cheong Soo Pieng – Drying Salted Fish

If you’ve paid a visit to the National Gallery Singapore (NGS), you surely wouldn’t have missed this masterpiece, painted in Chinese ink and watercolour, on cloth.

Drying Salted Fish (1978)  (Image courtesy of the Straits Times)

It depicts an idyllic Malay kampong scene, something that would have been fast vanishing by 1978 when the work was made. The Malay men and ladies are portrayed as being hard at work in this rural imagining which has seen some critics accuse Cheong of presenting an overly – exotic and fetishized version of the Malay people. Yet others refer to racial slurs promulgated by Singapore’s British colonial masters vis-à-vis the “lazy natives”, and how rural Malay resistance to development and new farming techniques, could have been seen as an impediment to progress. Notwithstanding, Cheong has here  depicted a lush and bucolic scene, an apparently deliberate portrayal of the Malays as a calm and yet industrious and useful community.

Cheong Soo Pieng’s background is notable, having been born in Xiamen, China and trained in Chinese ink, but later becoming equally well-schooled in Western art traditions. He was one of the “Nanyang” artists, and was famous for merging different cultural references and art forms in his work. In this painting, Cheong used fine Chinese ink brushstrokes to depict Malay people in a Southeast Asian setting. In some ways, the path of the “Nanyang” painters mirrors Singapore’s own heritage, being a mishmash of East and West, forever in search of a defining identity, without perhaps realising that the journey could itself be the destination.

We particularly love this alternate reality – type adaptation of Drying Salted Fish by Haig Girls’ primary school students, entitled What Happened to the Salted Fish?, presently on display at the NGS Keppel Centre for Art Education:

What happened to the salted fish? Behold: Here’s the entire production process from start to finish!

And here’s what Drying Salted Fish looks like on the back of Singapore’s $50 note:

(Look at the bit in orange)

Chen Wen Hsi – Gibbons

Chen Wen Hsi was also a Nanyang artist, and his work is right next to  Cheong Soo Pieng’s on Singapore’s $50 note (see the red gibbons above). Fun fact #1: Chen loved gibbons so much that he actually acquired a bunch of them to keep in a private menagerie in his home. Chen’s gibbon works were so well-loved that they spawned a number of counterfeit pieces both during his lifetime and upon his passing. In a recent show at Chan Hampe Galleries, artists Samuel Chen and Justin Loke dedicated an entire series of paintings to these forgeries.

You might have spotted Chen’s work, Herons (1990) at the NGS, which at first glance doesn’t look like anything much, but upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be a beautifully geometrical rendition of the elegant birds.

Yes. These are in fact, birds.

Chua Mia Tee – Portraits

Chua Mia Tee was a founding member of the Equator Art Society, together with such luminaries as Lee Boon Wang and Lai Kui Fang. In their art, they turned to Social Realism as a way to remark upon social conditions, creating artworks with a deep political flavour. Proponents of Social Realism favoured a realistic style of painting and engaged in a form of practice that directly involved their subjects, in order to create works that commented on important issues of the day. (In 2013, the Equator Art Society held an exhibition in Singapore, to  critical acclaim).

Chua’s extremely well- known for his 1959 work National Language Class which hangs in the NGS, and the painting has lent its name to the Siapa Nama Kamu exhibition at the gallery. Here’s what the famous painting looks like:

National Language Class – in which Chinese folk study Malay, while searching for their identities in a post-colonial era. Fun fact #2: The lady on the extreme right, in the white dress,  is Chua’s wife, the painter Lee Boon Ngan. (Image courtesy of the Straits Times)

What may be less well-known, is the fact that Chua Mia Tee is also a famed currency designer. Additionally, his portrait of Singapore’s first President Yusof Ishak painted in 1998, can be found on the country’s “Portrait Series” of currency, including the ubiquitous $2 note.

$2 yusof ishak
The portrait of Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first President, as painted by Chua Mia Tee.
Here he is again –  more importantly, did you even know that $10,000 bills existed?  (Ok, if you came here looking for those day- trading tips, maybe you did.)

We hope you take a closer look at the notes in your wallet, the next time you reach into pay for something. Clearly, you don’t need to be a multi-millionaire to have some valuable art in your possession, you just need to know where to look for it.

(All images of currency courtesy of the Monetary Authority of Singapore)

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