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Lim Tze Peng: The Most Hardworking 100-Year-Old Man in Singapore

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Lim Tze Peng

While the average retiree will likely be enjoying their twilight years in restful repose, you’ll find Cultural Medallionist and centenarian Lim Tze Peng doing no such thing. Even today, the artist keeps a ballpoint pen and notebook by his bedside, writer Woon Tai Ho observes, to ensure that he does not forget any of the ideas that occur to him on the cusp of sleep.

Lately, the acclaimed painter and calligrapher has been busy scaling a new solo exhibition at The Arts House, titled Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100. This exhibition celebrates Mr Lim’s artistic achievements in his hundredth year and is curated by Low Sze Wee, Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. The exhibition is held in conjunction with the launch of a biographical book of the same name that delves into the artist’s personal history and artistic career.

Just what motivates a man like Mr Lim to so unwaveringly devote his life to the pursuit of art? And what are his thoughts on the state of art and culture in Singapore? We pick Mr Lim’s brain about all this and more.

Is there anything that you are especially excited about for this upcoming exhibition?

At my old age, to have the opportunity to exhibit and furthermore, have the Prime Minister grace the occasion, I feel extremely honoured. I am also excited about this book that Tai Ho and my friends have worked hard on bringing into being.   

Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100, written by Woon Tai Ho
Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100, written by Woon Tai Ho, comprehensively captures the life story of the artist and argues the case that Mr Lim’s contributions to Singapore art history are just as valuable as any pioneer artist. Have a read and decide for yourself if you agree!

You’re quoted in the book as having said, “In life we must have a higher goal. My higher goal is love.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by this?

Love can mean many things – it encompasses a very wide scope. To someone like PM Lee, it can mean a love for citizen and country, a desire for peace and harmony for his countrymen. But love can also have a more personal meaning – for myself, for example, my passion for art is a kind of love. My friends’ care for me, their dedication towards helping me scale this exhibition and publish this book, is also an expression of their care and love. I feel that love is the highest moral attainment because it encompasses so much and applies to humanity on so many different levels.

Ai, artwork by Lim Tze Peng, which will be presented to prime minister Lee Hsien Long
Mr Lim will be presenting his calligraphy of the word love (爱 ai) to PM Lee at the opening of his exhibition.

You’ve mentioned that your wish, at 100 years old, is to be given a few more years so that you can achieve even more. What is it that you hope to achieve if you had a few more years?

I’m always fixated on how I can continue to innovate and break new ground. These thoughts are what preoccupy my mind. I hope to always improve on my work and make even better work.  

I also hope that this exhibition will open new opportunities for me for my work to reach an international audience and compete on a global stage. This is why I have ventured into the abstract – because I feel that it’s a global language.

Abstract Calligraphy 7 (2020), features this signature calligraphic style amidst a riot of colour. Art work by Lim Tze Peng
In 2005, Mr Lim developed a calligraphic style called hutuzi, or Muddled Writing. This work, Abstract Calligraphy 7 (2020), features this signature calligraphic style amidst a riot of colour.

What is good art, to you?

To me, good art is that which is different from the past, different from what has already been made. When it comes to my own works, for example, I’ve ventured into abstraction, and into larger scale paintings. I’ve always been pretty good at calligraphy. But now I’ve developed the calligraphic form into a style of abstract painting.

Soul of Ink
Many of the works on view at Soul of Ink are large in scale despite the artist being advanced in years by the time he painted them. To him, scale is simply another frontier to be conquered; a way to progress beyond that which he had previously achieved. Image courtesy of Kelley Cheng.

Being a centenarian, you have had a wealth of life experience. What have you learnt – whether about art, or life – that you’d like to share with our readers?

I’ve always maintained that it’s important to be humble. There is no use in fussing about the petty things. One should concentrate on the important things in life. As the ancients say, the quality of one’s calligraphy reveals the quality of one’s character. To be a good artist, one must first be a good person.

Time is increasingly limited and precious, and one needs to be serious about cherishing the time that we do have. With what time I have left, I hope to make even better work that I can leave behind for the next generation.

Crowded Bugis Street, a work started in the 1980s with colours added in 2020. Art by Lim Tze Peng
Crowded Bugis Street, a work started in the 1980s with colours added in 2020.

In my lifelong career as an artist, I’ve created more than ten thousand artworks. I’ve saved some of my best works as it has been my wish to donate them to my country. I hope that my work can be of some service to this country and inspire the younger generation towards greater improvement in art. As a nation, we have been successful in many fields – but in the area of arts and culture, there is room for improvement.

I hope that the government will help to encourage and support young artists through the organising of annual competitions, at least once or twice a year, to provide an impetus for art and artists to flourish.

Life in Kreta Ayer (2020), Lim Tze Peng
Life in Kreta Ayer (2020). After decades of sketching and painting the streets of Singapore and scenes of the Singapore River, Mr Lim has accumulated a treasure trove of reference images in his sketchbooks. These days, he paints these scenes aided by his sketches, memory and imagination.

What are your fondest memories of Singapore?

I love the old streets of Singapore, though most of them disappeared when Singapore developed into a modern city of skyscrapers. I still miss painting these scenes, so I access them through my old sketches and my recollections of the places back when they were still around.

There are many collectors who collect your work. What is your relationship like with them?

Well, we artists create our works so that we may share them with an audience that can appreciate them. In general, my collectors have taken good care of my work, and now they have some historical value because of how they depict an early Singapore.

My larger works are less often collected. But my largest painting is in Mr Melvin Poh’s collection, and that gave me a lot of encouragement.

Trees Series 3 (2020), artist Lim Tze Peng
The winding strokes that delineate the branches in Trees Series 3 (2020) reveal the artist’s calligraphic roots.

Do you have any advice for young artists who are trying to make it in the art world today?

I often say that one must be serious in one’s pursuit of art. There are no shortcuts on this journey – it is important to get your foundations right. You must be sincere and honest, even more so than a religious person. An artist must be a purist in their commitment towards art.

Artist Lim Tze Peng
The artist Lim Tze Peng. Image credit: Woon Tai Ho.

What is your secret to longevity?

I guess you could say that my passion for art is the secret to my long life. [laughs] Although I am old, I don’t feel my age when I am painting. My work gives me the energy and fire to keep going.

In a sense, painting is a form of exercise, since painting at this large scale requires that I move around a fair bit. That’s what I like about working at this scale – it gives me a certain vigour.

Abstract Calligraphy 6 (2020) by artist Lim Tze Peng
Abstract Calligraphy 6 (2020). As each of these abstract paintings is more than a metre in length and width, they demand large gestural brushstrokes from Mr Lim – which he welcomes as exercise.

As the saying goes, life is short, but art is eternal. One must seize what time is availed to us to make good art. I don’t often sleep well. But when I do, I have the appetite to paint larger works and write larger words.

The older I get, the more I enjoy creating bigger works. My friends have helped me organise this exhibition, which I hope shows that age is not an issue when it comes to creating good works. I’m really grateful for this encouragement, and I hope to seize the opportunity to continue developing my work.

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Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100 is on view at The Arts House from 15 to 30 June 2021. For more information, check out their website.

This interview has been translated from Mandarin and edited for clarity and length. All images are courtesy of Lim Tze Peng unless otherwise stated.

Feature image: Lim Tze Peng in his studio. Image credit: Ode to Art Gallery.

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