Visible Trail – Tropical Asia

A Thousand Masters

For many autumns I followed the waves,
Fortunate enough to escape a watery grave
Today I have reached the ocean’s source –
Why should I take the boat and go on roaming?

— Flowers in the Mirror, Li Ruzhen (19th century)


Why can’t I just paint in Terengganu!” Chang Fee Ming once exclaimed, referring to watercolour master Andrew Wyeth whom he admires and whose devotion to Maine is well known. After the haunting murmurs of the South China Sea breaking on the sand, it is the insatiable desire to learn that has, over and over again, enticed the Malaysian artist out of his beautiful native land. Otherwise, how could he, for two decades—and besides a yearly pilgrimage to Bali, find the time and the energy to visit a wide range of places, from the far reaches of the Himalayas to the plains of Indochina and all the way down to the Flores Sea? From there, he has steadily brought back paintings that are a journal of his vision of Asia. “I had to go and see these people,” said Fee Ming, “observe where they live, how they live and learn from them.”


Among the paintings presented there, a few early pieces are landscapes or still-life. The others are of people: people around rivers, people caught sleeping, beautifully clad squatting figures, pensive children, petty traders…In the end comes the mysterious vision of a dream. Somewhere along the way, the pictorial journal has become the record of a journey in art, a most fruitful transformation, fascinating to watch.

The Potter, 1987, black ink on paper,
13.5X18.5cm, Bhaktapur, Nepal
Collection of the Artist





In the beginning, Fee Ming recorded almost everything he saw on the spot. “In Nepal,” he says, “I opened the window and paintings were waiting for me everywhere.” In Darjeeling, the mist staged ever-changing views of the mountains. Fee Ming explored?with technique as well: Winter in Darjeeling, 1984(page 109), Food at the Refuge, 1988 (page 110) and A Cup of Chhang, 1988 (page 110) are treated in the classical manner of transparent watercolour on thick-grained paper. A crowd on the stairs at the Ganges (Pilgrims in Benares I and II, 1984, page 113) and a group of porters in Kathmandu recall the work of the American artist Prendergast, where people are spots of colours in the fragmented puzzle of a picture. Further in time, Midday in Madura I, 1990 (page 115), a soft coloured clear composition look very much like a serene scene of the French impres-sionists…But the “impression” here is of formidable heat. At the Turn of a Trek, 1989 (page 111), a study in textures of wood and stone with a striking juxtaposition of orange and red, already announces a direction that Fee Ming will take in the future. By comparison, Sahur, 1998 (page 114) a recent, strong and quick work in a blue wash of wet brush shows the self-confidence acquired by the artist over the years. The manner there is totally “Chang Fee Ming”.

Travelling as an artist is not easy. One has to pass the reportage stage, yet the specificity of a place, the ambience and the details, have to find their way into the painting. The artist has to prepare maps and documentation, to plan itineraries, transports, and even to foresee the weather. Fee Ming travels light and alone. On the way back, to help substantiate the matter of his future works, he will carry rolls of photographs, samples of cloth, crafts, hundreds of sketches, paintings, corals, woods, bits of ceramic, stones… Although his wife accompanies him to Bali, or perhaps to Bangkok, he prefers to spare her the long hours he spends sketching in awkward corners, absorbing an atmosphere, the interruptions of a meal or a trip to catch a sight. Once, in Laos, the local bus on which Fee Ming travelled had an accident. Passengers were injured. “I was in shock, looking at one of my hands”, says Fee Ming. “White tendons were protruding through a red gush. After a few seconds, I realised that it was not my right hand, the one I use for painting. I was so relieved that I almost forgot the pain!”
However, the most taxing for Fee Ming is the assimilation of what he has seen and experienced. Extreme poverty, the livelihoods of fishermen threatened by a dam up river, children of wars…At times, not unlike the reporters of magazines, the plight of humanity is still in him when he is back at the shelter of his well-organised studio in Kuala Terengganu. The feelings of rapture at the revelation of the beauty of faraway lands and the happiness of discovery are as well overwhelming. “I wanted to shout, to cry,” he says, remembering the sensation. The artist has to hold these coexisting contradictory feelings within himself until they are “delivered” on the paintings. On his return, the usually determined, purposeful artist is drained of energy and has to rest for a while. Then images, colours, sketches emerge and take shape around subjects often familiar to the artist, but bringing with them new meanings. The people, the history?and the atmosphere of the lands just visited will enrich, in a visible or invisible way, each of the new paintings. In return, the paintings will reveal aspects of a country hidden beneath the appearances.



In the Cambodia of Lotus After All…, 1998-99 (page 128), a boy is standing in the sun. Pol Pot, the Vietnamese inter-reign and even the indestructible old Norodom Sihanouk have gone. The dark silhouette of the child—bluish shadow on copper skin— is cut out on the pale backdrop of a green marsh and distant temples. An almost transparent flower, the delicate, half-open, white and pink lotus that the boy holds close to his heart is like the fragile blossoming of peace.


The Grasscutters in Maymyo Botanical Garden, Myanmar, 1994 black ink on paper, 10 x 14.8 cm
Collection of Mr. Yeap Lam Yang, Singapore

Other images are so visually enticing that an interpretative reading is inevitable. In Boat Race, 1999 (page 130) a young Laotian monk sleeps apart from the novice’s lodgings on a beautifully decorated canoe. “The boat is used in regattas during festivals,” explained Fee Ming. Still clutching the piece of paper that he was reading (Buddhist teachings?), head resting on the boat, hand on the board, the young monk is perhaps dreaming that he is rowing with his friends on the cool river, having found a short cut to “nirvana”.

A theme dear to Fee Ming—waterways and the people around them—is wrapped in the mists of the “Golden Triangle”—the area where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet. On the Mekong river, a mysterious man is on a Journey, 1998 (page 125). A modern, photo-realistic “close-up” effect is directed on the warp of the cloth, on the chequered scarf of the personage and on patterns on painted wood. The central space is filled with multi-coloured waves blurred by the speed of a boat. Only the essential is shown in this powerful, deliberately silent piece. Morning Catch, 1996 (page 124)—a small painting recording the silvery mood of dawn by the same river—is strongly reminiscent of Winslow Homer—another artist Fee Ming admires—because of the dark foliage, the superimposition of liquid washes and dry brush. The calm scene, however, is Asian. There is a Chinese net, a conical hat and palms grow on the banks of the river. The style is similar to the ancient Chinese scrolls that treat the same subject using monochrome inks.


Bhaktapur, Nepal, 1987
Photograph by Sunil K. Ranjit

Sometimes the intuition of the painter supersedes the traveller’s information. Down in the rugged West Timor, Fee Ming met a man going to a marriage, dressed in his best finery. Something in the man’s relation to his environment attracted Fee Ming’s attention. He caught the proud stance of the man exposing the rich handwoven heirloom, and called the painting Homeland, 1999-2000 (page 120). For Fee Ming, the thatched building and the land at the back are not only a backdrop to the beautiful cloth—they are the world where these crafts come from. He has treated them with curving strokes of the brush that relateto the way the man’s sarong is tied. Only later, Fee Ming learned that the patterns on the tais cloth indicate precisely from which ancient “princedom”—homeland in West Timor the wearer comes from.

In Asia, people sit…without seats. The way they “sit”, or squat, if well observed, reveals who and where they are and what they are doing. In Myanmar (refer page 117 for The Boat is Late Today, 1995) village women are sitting on their heels, by the banks of the mighty Ayerawadi River, waiting for the ferry that will bring them back from a pilgrimage to the ancient city of Mingun. If it were not for their blouses tucked in at the waist and for the light on the river at the Burmese latitude, which is less bright than by a Terengganu beach, they could be the fishermens’ wives on the beach in Terengganu, (they even wear batik sarong from Terengganu!) The waiting is less intense too. The women exchange glances or remarks.
The same extreme attention to local details transforms a view of two musicians—seen from the back and sitting—into an evocation of an ancient heritage. In the top part of The Gamelan of the Kraton in the Moonlight, 1996 (page 116), the eye is invited to watch the exclusive batik patterns of the Javanese kraton, the keris slipped in a ceremonial sash with horses and to note the particular sitting position of the musicians—legs crossed in the fashion of warriors. The nocturnal range of colours, a symphony in blue, with notes of green, ochre, browns and a hint of copper, contributes to the atmosphere of high refinement. (Even the sound of bells—considered as too “coarse” is forbidden in a kraton orchestra.) The atmosphere is further reinforced by the splendid mirror effect on the marble floor on the bottom part of the painting. This gamelan orchestra has guided Fee Ming to combine technical virtuosity of realism, creativity (in graphics and colour) of abstract painting with the informative quality of reportage in a magisterially honed portrait of the Javanese pride in their culture.

Petty traders, odd job workers—an ubiquitous feature of tropical Asia—are naturally favourite subjects for Fee Ming. In Yogyakarta,—“that immense village” as it is dubbed, he has made more “portraits without a face”. These portraits are similar by the exuberance of the colours and the dynamism of the composition, yet very different, because of the environment of each of the humble traders. The graphics of Still Hoping, 1998 (page 118) express the difficult life of the becak driver as he waits for a fare. Two parallel arabesques, the line of the roof and the handle of the becak—cross the plane of the picture in a sweeping movement. Decorations made of metallic bars and circles block the view, protecting—or imprisoning the hidden driver. His hand, though, a hand without a single ring and with lots of veins is easily identified: it is a hand that has worked, in the sun and in the rain, fought and gambled perhaps.
By contrast, Fragrance, 1999 (page 119) is a painting of bliss. “It was in Yogya,” explained Fee Ming, “in a part of the central market, a vast area was covered with flowers of all colours. There were these women, rather old; all dressed in flowery sarongs and batik patterns. The perfumes of roses, of kenanga, cempaka, jasmine and of many other flowers mixed thickly in the air. I could not believe my senses!” The colours,—pink, yellow, deep indigo, blue, green, mauve and subdued orange, give an impression as if the flowers and their perfume were spilling over everywhere. It is a perfectly composed vision filled with circles and volutes, an explosion inspired by an overpowering sensation of smell and sight.


A Lucky Day, 1998, sepia ink on paper,
14.2 x 20.5 cm, Pulau Solor, Indonesia
Collection of Mr. Yeap Lam Yang, Singapore

Once, asked if art could play a comforting role in the life of an artist, Fee Ming answered, “Painting flowers is for me a pleasure, a solace in sadness.” Just like the viewers, an artist needs beauty from time to time to rest his weary eye. But an artist solicited by an “ugly” vision cannot decide to censure it. He feels that he must express the range of subject matters (concrete and abstract) that he can grasp. Rembrandt had his carcass. Visiting market places in the north, Fee Ming said that he had apprehensions about showing dogs and monitor lizards offered for food. But hunger looms where people are many and resources few. Why ignore it? Can there be happiness without a price?



There is in Fee Ming a deep-rooted nostalgia for something original, like a primeval source. He looks for it in lands where people live in another time, at the edge of a world. Recently, Fee Ming continued his travels in Indonesia far past Bali to the Flores Sea, to the village of Lamalera on the island of Lambata. On his return he said, “When I arrived in that village, I knew it was a place which I had always dreamed of, a place where life was truly simple, but it was not a place for me to stay. It was not my world. Yet, I have no regrets, because it was given to me in a way. What I was looking for, I now know exists, and have brought back.”
In fact, the villagers, stranded on an infertile soil, hunt whales for sustenance. The island has inspired a diptych Dream of the Sperm Whale During a Summer Night, 1999 (page 122). In the first panel, something like a giant fish tail emerges from the sea. The sight is half-real. It is a dream. In the second panel, posted under the first one, a very young child bathed in the nocturnal light sleeps on a beach. Fee Ming’s extraordinary minutiae make the fragility of the child more real, while the deliberately undefined shape of a leviathan hovers on the ocean. “The moon was there,” said Fee Ming, “I removed the moon, but left the light. I have not seen the whale, but I had to put it in, even in the form of a phantom. ”Another traveller, French poet Arthur Rimbaud, describes the feeling: “Je fixais des vertiges”—“I recorded delusions”.

Market Scene in Maumere, 1998, sepia ink on paper,
14.2 x 20.5 cm, Flores, Indonesia
Collection of Mr. Djaja Tjandra Kirana, Denpasar, Bali

In smaller, spontaneous watercolours, Bhutanese children with inquisitive faces, workers squatting for a quick meal of noodle soup, and food merchants by the embankment of barges on the Mekong are portrayed as they are, on the spot. In black and white sketches, fishermen with their sturdy legs dark in the heavy shadow of a beach, carry big fish. Potters churn out vessels, grasscutters brandish their scythes, a woman holds a white chicken….All these people, most of them busy at work, show Fee Ming’s predilection, and strong empathy,—not to say admiration, for them. “I paint people because they are there, outside, and what they do is interesting.” Classic artists have provided Fee Ming with useful examples. Senior artists in Bali have nurtured his spirit. But the men, the women and the children of Asia—the brothers of people of Terengganu, have also helped him in his journey as an artist. They have given him the occasion to sharpen his tools, given him themselves, their smiles, their landscapes…and have not left his mind once he was back at home. They too, are his many masters.
Now in his early forties, Fee Ming has recently confessed to some weariness of travel, not because he is tired of it, but because of the overwhelming emotional and mental richness of it all. “One day, I will stop travelling, and paint in Terengganu only. Of course, that will be after I have completed my studies on Indochina. I still feel that I have to continue to travel, to progress as an artist, and to grow as a person.”
Travel, after all, is not only about learning. It has become a faithful companion of the artist’s creative process. Moving on the surface of the earth triggers a motion of the brain, pushing it through circles of thoughts and emotions. Then, there is the spiritual quest of a man’s discovery of himself and of humanity. Fee Ming’s images of Asia are all the more beautiful because they are a visible trail that mirrors another—invisible journey— a mystical journey, an extraordinary personal experience, that is the more valuable because, through the paintings, it can be shared.