Visible Trail – Terengganu

The Visible Trail Of
Asia in Watercolour


CHANG FEE MING was born in February 1959 in Malaysia, in the small town of Dungun in the coastal state of Terengganu. At first, he painted the life of the Malay villagers amongst whom he lived. Although his paintings of colourful batik sarongs hanging in the wind soon brought him early fame, he went away exploring the whole of Asia, looking for new challenges.


Since then, Fee Ming has never stopped growing. He now ranks among the finest of Asia’s watercolour artists. His works have been exhibited and collected throughout the world. Since 1995, his watercolours have appeared regularly in auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Fee Ming has also received a few international awards, such as the “Rockport Publisher’s Award of Distinction” (USA). More recently, one of his works, The Year 2000, So What? was selected by Winsor & Newton for the United Nations’ Millennium Art Exhibition in London, Stockholm and New York.


Fee Ming is acclaimed for his extraordinary grasp of texture and light and for his orchestration of vibrant colours that confer a strong vitality to his paintings. Then, there is also his unique way of presenting subjects and creative compositions that focus attention on a detail, yet unmistakenly evoke a world around it.


“The Visible Trail” is a journey of discovery and wonder. It retraces Chang Fee Ming’s continued search for his art and his fascination with the ever-changing life of man.




Painting When the Wind Blows

Today, you are fair and your skin is smooth
You play the proud and laugh at me
But when you will be very old and wrinkled, in the evening,
By the candlelight, you will tell with pride
To your grandchildren gathered around the fire,
Ronsard celebrate me in those days when I was beautiful. — Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585)

Early success can fossilize an artist or slow his growth, but that would not happen with Chang Fee Ming. His “watercolour world”changes as the waves of the South China Sea and as the chameleon that runs on the jambu trees. First hailed as an artist who painted Malay kampong scenes, he excelled in batik cloth, then was famous for people without heads, then for Burmese monks in monochrome robes. Balinese women with their legs in the water, Laotian rivers, Cambodian ponds of lotus… How can Fee Ming renew himself so much? How can he tackle subjects so various, and still be equally successful – each of his different approaches acclaimed by a following of collectors?

First Guru

One secret lies in the beauty of Fee Ming’s first “guru” – the Terengganu of his childhood. That beauty is both rich and romantic. It is made of memories of ancient kingdoms nestled by rivers that ran through forests of gigantic trees, of stories of seafaring people migrating to sundrenched shores. The state itself is a long stretch of land tucked between the mountains of the Banjaran Titiwangsa (the Main Range of Peninsular Malaysia) on the west and the South China Sea on the east. To the north lies the border state of Kelantan and on the south the vast plantations of Pahang. The Kemaman, the Dungun and the Terengganu rivers flow from hills covered with jungles inhabited by tigers and elephants down to estuaries where small towns-actually gatherings of villages-where born from fishing and maritime activities.


These were days of legends when deities were summoned to help mortals. In the Ulit Mayang ceremony, no less than seven fairy princesses descend from their abode above the sea to heal sick fisherman. Islam, though, was adopted as early as the beginning of the 15 th century. Since then, the hours in “Terengganu Darul Iman” – the Home of the Faith-are marked by the call of the azan, and the years by the return of Ramadhan, the Fasting month.


From the 18 th century onwards, the Sultans in Terengganu, particularly Baginda Omar and Zainal Abidin III, encouraged the arts and crafts. Craftsmen and religious teachers from Pattani, Cambodia and Vietnam, belonging to the Muslim branch of the diaspora of the Champa Empire, settled in villages around the capital, Kuala Terengganu. They brought with them the elegant architecture of the north-east, the houses on stilts with their long roofts and slightly upturned ends, the carved balconies and brick and stucco walls. Merchants of Chinese descent, from Hainan, Fujian and Vietnam joined their relatives around Kampong Tiong and Jalan Bandar, forming a small but well-connected trading community. Junks and vessels from far away gathered in the harbour, unloading silks and ceramics, carrying away golden brocades, brassware and fragrant woods. Small Chinese groups settled further down along the rivers, following opportunities in plantations of areca nut or rubber and iron or gold mines.


As a child in his native Dungun, Fee Ming could not have been aware of the past that had formed the landscape and the character of the people that he would paint later. However, he could, walking back from school, catch glimpses of the sea between the blades of the mengkuang tree, follow the sail of a skuci boat as she rode over the waves, or answer the salute from the crew of the crescent moon-shaped perahu kolek. On land, there were timber houses, with their dark interiors, a refuge for the eyes, and, at the bottom of the stairs, water from the tempayan (jars) to cool the feet. There were green islands and the shadows of the coconut trees’ moving patterns on the ground.


Fee Ming and his family, who were of Hakka descent from South East China, lived among Malay villagers. With his friends, he would draw on the wet sand of the beach while fishermen came back carrying their catch. With his father, a goldsmith and a calligrapher, he went to the cinema. Those were the heydays of “the one-armed swordsman” who triumphed against all odds… and inspired the twelve-year old Fee Ming to compose a book full of sword-brandishing, robe-swirling heroes.


After secondary school, Fee Ming went up to Kuala Terengganu, to work in a sign board shop in the middle of a busy street, by the estuary of the Terengganu River. Green scenery called to him from the opposite bank. On weekends, the young man asnwered, taking his brushes to the village of Seberang Takir – home to the blind fisherman and poet J.M. Aziz, or to the island of Pulau Duyung where the last of the merchant schoorners carrying salt were anchored.


From an aesthetic point of view, the years 1975-1985 were years of plenty for Terengganu. In the kampongs around town and especially in Pulua Duyung, Fee Ming found again the harmony of a traditional way of life. For years he returned to the island in the estuary, always sketching and working. He made friends with the likes of Wan Ahmad Khoda, a sea captain, and Wan Abdullah, an iman with a ready smile. They called him Hassan. “Pulua Duyungn was my academy,” he says today.


He descended steep beaches to paint boats pulled on shore and penetrated into unknown areas, capturing tirelessly everything he saw. Later, in Kuala Lumpur, some of the landscapes of these early days were well received. Fee Ming was regularly invited to participate in exhibitions. Soon, he would be able to – albeit living frugally-devote himself only to painting, learning directly from the world around him.


Beyond the myriad of subjects in Terengganu, nature bestowed three gifts of special importance to the artist. The first was movement. Located on the “shoulder” of the east coast of Malaysia, the state bears the full force of the north-east monsoon. It is the theatre of a vast shifting operation, on a background of thunder, pounding waves and the frightening swirl of the bending coconut trees. Even during calms, rectangles of kain batik with flowery red and green patterns sail and flaps on the hanging lines, forming a mesmerizing sight that Fee Ming caught many times. In December, 1986, an early painting of clouds, river and boats – everything moves.


The second gift from nature was transparency of the air, a precision in the appearance of things that led Fee Ming towards more realism than is usual in watercolour. For days on end, rain and wind compete to clean the air, brushing away every speck of dust, revealing the raw colour and the detailed texture of things. Fee Ming zoomed in on pots, stairs, vines, stone or fishermen’s nets with renew attention. The wet brush of the earlier fast sketches was replaced by a painstakingly meticulous rendition of matter. To obtain a desired effect – the curve of a jar, the fungus on a plank, Fee Ming applied his paint layer upon layer using a dry brush technique, until he achieved the right glitter and the right suggestion of thickness and volume.


The third gift was light – a gift that earned him the nickname of “Apollo’s Prince of Terengganu” (J. Elizalde Navarro, 1991). At six – degrees latitude above the equator, the sun is strong, even in the morning. Fee Ming studied carefully the effect of the light in surfaces. In his series of windows, filled with cascading bolsters and pillows, and balconies half covered with batik sarongs, his paintings make the heat at various hours of the day appear tangible. (Caressed By the Sun, 1993, page 19) “Fee Ming catches the sun in such a way….One probably has to be born here…” commented visiting Canadian artist Keith Miller.

The sun, the wind and the water – the elements that link subjects and bring dynamism and depth to landscapes – entered Fee Ming’s artistic world, never to leave it. Water especially, will constantly be used in Fee Ming’s paintings, in turns running playfully in Flowing By, 1992 (page 11), transparent and friendly in Chit-Chat, 1989 (page 34) or, as the sea in the later series of Awaiting, bringing food and life and also anxiety. In contrast, wood lends its quiet presencem, carrying the mark of its age as a reminder of the passage of time.


Fee Ming often deliberately left his main subject out the composition. “There are occasions when something is better expressed by lending the imagination to invent it,” he said. In Youth and Children Together, 1985, only the shoes and the bags of the children are seen. In the early paintings, there are nets, birdcages, clothing, even bedsheets, belonging to villagers, but the owners are often absent. Were they really “out at sea”?


Artist in Terengganu follow the Muslim tradition of banning the living form. In woodcarving and in brassware, they explored floral patterns and stylised rendering of the living beings. Perhaps Fee Ming was influenced by such traditions. There was no supremacy, as in Europe for example, of the human form. Free to follow his own sense of timing Fee Ming allowed the people to come out of his sketchbooks step by step.


At first, Fee Ming painted people as a kind of living background, in bits and pieces, focusing on the features most important for this composition – the fold of a sarong at the waist, the contour of an elbow, the stretching fabric on an imposing posterior – leaving the head and torso out of the composition. This strange approach was very effective, the mood of the scene was not distracted by the expression of a face.


Fee Ming focused on the solid hips of a working woman, the straight back of a fisherman and the thin shoulders of a child. In their posture alone, one can read their steadfastness and their patience. The artist made the bareness of an existence felt just by portraying bony feet and rubber thongs on the sand. Batik is everywhere. It is not the tastefully hand-done Javanese kind, but it modest chop-printed (block printed) cousin, a cloth fit for daily work. Introduced in Terengganu at the beginning of the 20 th century as a cheaper replacement of its Indonesian counterpart, it brought a note of flowery brightness to the kampong landscape… and a wealth of visual challenge for the artist. These carefree kain batik taught Fee Ming to use bright colours – rather unconventional in watercolour.


Beaches played an important role in the like of the villagers. Fee Ming often painted women gathered on the sand to get the best price for small ikan bilis that they will turn into a budu sauce or for the ikan selayang that will be used to make their famous kerupuk sausages. They also wait for the boats to come back (Awaiting I and Awaiting III, 1991). Their livelihood depends on the sea. The fate of their men too. Sometime, someone does not come back. Villagers search the horizon tirelessly.

Facing Changes

Something happened. During the Nineties, winds of changes blew over the state. Hills and lagoons disappeared. Beautiful vistas vanished. “These havens of peace we now miss and have made to drift away…” wrote Terengganu poet Marzuki Ali. Ancient palaces and timber houses – including Fee Ming’s audio – had to be demolished. A bridge brought cars to the island of Duyung. Asbestos roofing and cement walls replaced Singhora tiles and filigree timber. Padi fields had to make way for real estates. “Darul-Iman changing her face as if she felt it was a duty,” wrote Marzuki in another poem.


Adam was built upstream on the Terengganu River creating a lake that became a watery grave for thousand of creatures. Back from an expedition to save the forest from further extension of the lake, Fee Ming painted the top of the former giant trees, their branches emerging from the water in a last plea. Tigers and elephants, having lost their habitat sought to enter the orchards. In the sea, marine life was threatened. Fee Ming sailed to islands offshore and learned to dive to see for himself the endangered species, the corals and the green turtles.


Mostly, he went away for months on end – traveling around South East Asia and further away, exploring-camera and sketchbook in hand. On the Mekong, he saw men and women who could have been relatives of the people of Terengganu of the past, living in picturesque poverty. It was in Bali, where he wan an invited resident artist, that he remained for the longest time. There he found nature, man and art living in harmony.


Yet, Fee Ming never left Terengganu, where he would return to paint, bringing home his harvest of photographs, sketches, and samples of craftsmanship. He also prepared for the publishing of his first book “The World of Chang Fee Ming”. The book manifested the fact that Fee Ming’s “world” truly existed. That, together with a continued progress in his career, was perhaps what encouraged Fee Ming to continue to paint Terengganu. An artist, capturing the emotion of passing scenes can help preserve the spiritual heritage hidden behind the apparences. He may have some influence on the evolution of things in the future.


In Terengganu, many inhabitants still live in the fold of their traditions. Summoning all the resources of his skills, Fee Ming set to record the rites and the routines of villagers from the cradle to the grave. The result is a gallery of portraits, bursting with colours of heightened intensity, different compositions and perspectives, each with its own range of lighting, all blessed with the gift of life. In What About Me? , 1997 a little girl peeps from her buaian. One can almost hear the voices of her parents down on the beach where a skuci boat suggests that they are busy. In Usik-Mengusik, 1996, only the eyes of the child are seen, yet viewers would swear that they see the boy’s smile, from behind the kain pulikat that hides his mouth! The warmth of a house nearby is expressed by the rumpled aspect of the kain that the boy may have borrowed from his father.



When Fee Ming portrays the people of Terengganu, however, he pays them the compliment of not idealizing them. “I paint what I feel,” says Fee Ming. The appeal of his characters is due to their own dignity, their sense of fun, and their courage-like the young girl in Her First Fasting Day, 1996. It is also due to a growing nostalgia for the trappings of the simple way of life-tobacco rolled in a palm leaf, gold bracelets of a lady at the market.


The impact of Fee Ming’s warm “reportage” in reinforced by the fact that the technical quality of each painting remains as important as the “feel” of the subject, Emphasis is given to the graphic composition-to triangles in Break Upriver, 1997, or to an original angle, from below or from above, like the point of view of things as seen by a child, or a cat. There is also a growing unity in colour, – sepias, greens and reds, and a magnification of textures-hair, the warp of a cloth and sand.


In Fee Ming’s “tropical watercolours”, everywhere pervades that special quality where silver shimmers on a brown leg or on a cengal plank and light created by the sun when it pierces through a clearing in a cloudy sky.


Today, as an artist, Fee Ming has come to terms with his feelings of loss when things he loves must vanish. He purposely makes Terengganu part of his artistic journey – a journey that obviously brings him happiness. In his latest paintings of Terengganu, he composes and creates scenes that express his vision of his homeland. More and more he uses colours that are shaprly defines, yet do not clash, with vividly contrasting reds and blues (Year 2000…So What?, 1998-99), bold applications of diagonals and crossing lines (A Last Puff, 1999) or circles within circles as in “Cukup Timbang”, 1997. A most recent piece, The Choice, 1999, a diptych is even quite funny.


Once, in Terengganu, Fee Ming was asked, “When you travel, are you looking for your roots?’ He quickly answered, “No, my roots are here!” Then, after a moment, he added, “Yes, in a way, what I have been looking for in foreign countries was what I loved best in Terengganu. Laos was beautiful and alien. In Myanmar, I discovered a monastic mysticism. In Bali, I found art alive. But sometimes a foreign country gives too much-too much to explore and understand. Inspiration must come from inside of us as well as from what we see outside. Whatever Terengganu will be in future, I will always try to paint her because she is part of me.”