By Dr. Zakaria Ali


          Art historians agree that the beginnings of modern art in Malaysia are to be traced to a number of 18th and 19th century English amateur watercolorists. They depict scenes of Penang that have since become the city’s landmarks. In 1787 Captain Elisha Trapaud paints a watercolor entitled “View of Fort Cornwallis” that was then a garrison enclosed by timber ramparts.

            James Wathen in “View from the ‘Hope’ Indiaman in the Penang Roads” (1811) depicts the magisterial hills partially treeless rising from behind  the newly opened Penang harbor, locally called the Tanjung, consisting of  a disjointed stretch of beaches, with three pointed roof go-downs and two ships anchored off shore whose occupants stay on deck terrified of  mosquitoes. In his other watercolors he portrays similar hilly scenes in which to situate samples of hybrid architecture, stilted Malay houses transformed into two storied bungalows with long balconies on two sides.

          William Harvell records the virgin jungle in “View From Penang Hill”, 1817, or the yet to be dammed “Waterfall of Penang” 1817. William J. Huggins specializes in the ships either anchored off shore with their sails down, or a three-masked ship with their sails blown in full view.   
         Technically the most proficient among these painters is Robert Smith who beholds his tropical subject matter through the sienna-tinted glasses of a country squire strolling through the woodlands in the autumn, breathing in air saturated with the romanticism of Wordsworth. In “Suffolk House”(1818), he installs a forest with rolling hills in the background to an elegant two-story arcaded whitewashed building that is situated by the bank of a pristine stream facing a meadow with a pair of restive cows, a setting infused with the yellowish tinge of an English countryside. The same atmosphere of unreality enlivens his other works: “Glugor House and Spice Plantations” 1818, “View of Glugor House and Georgetown from the  South”, 1918, “View of the North Beach from the Council House”, 1818, “Mount Erskin and Pulo Ticoose Bay”, 1818, “The Great Tree”, 1818, “The Cascade”, 1818, “View from Convalescent Bungalow”, 1818, “Viw from Halliburton’s Hill”, 1818, “The Chinese Mills”, 1818. Many of these scenes were redone in Aquatint by William Daniell, a much lesser talent, or copied in pencil by Catherine Trevor.



Captain Robert Smith    1818  
     The Great Tree      
Oil     69cm x 100cm

Captain Robert Smith   1818  
View from Convalescent Bungalow
 Oil 69cm x 100cm

Captain Robert Smith    1818  
The Cascade 
Oil 69cm x 100cm


         Through out the 19th century other works are produced. Augustus Earle, Thomas Princep, whose “Chinese Puppet Show, Penang” 1824 reveals his keen observation of the theater of the Ghost Festival held in August to express the reverence of the departed ancestors. R. Elliot, Theodore-Auguste Fisquet, Barthelemy Lauvergne, and Leonard Millet, whose “View of the Jetty in Penang from the Sea”, 1840, captures probably most authentically the early structures of the present day wharf to accommodate Chinese junks and European schooners.

          However, with the rough and tumble watercolors of Edward H.Cree, we have a sense of how an amateur grapples with the subject matter before him: waves, shorelines, mountains, sailing ships, soldiers marching in a parade with locals gawking to watch, the sun drenched street with the mosque in the far end, and in one stunning scene “Fitting the young Ladies for Society, Penang” 1845, in the high arched ballroom of the East and Oriental Hotel, young men in uniforms dancing the night away with women in low cut dresses, probably Eurasians looking for future full blooded Caucasian husbands, who are largely transient and fewer in numbers. Another psychological drama is depicted in “The Living Bird Pie” 1845, where the same crowd is having a grand tea under a tent that is half completed on the beach and the crows swooping down to rip up the cakes while the local attendants pretend they see nothing.

          Another set of quick studies is by Walford Thomas Bellairs who records vignettes of Penang from the deck of his ship. Or while on land paints the traveler’s tree, the Burmese Pagoda, St. George’s Church that disallow non-white Christians worshipping. Later painters like Charles A. Dyce repeats in 1847 what has been painted earlier like the huge tree in the Botanical garden, the convalescent bungalow, the strawberry hill. The Engineer John Turnbull Thomson paints the Chinese college, the Rhanee Dhobie monument, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Achehnese mosque, the Siamese temple.

           A rare interior in “A Room in Woodlands, Penang” 1858, by F.Bennerman-Philips shows one lady at the table reading a novel, and another on the couch, a newspaper. Framed engravings hang on the wall, that is lined up with a cupboard of books. The floor is carpeted and the walls whitewashed, clean and immaculate, a replica of English cottage in the tropics.

          Charles Henry Cazalet is quick and confident in his strokes, with almost an impressionist flare in his rendition of trees and buildings, with splotches of colors are let to dry with watering them down for the sake of transition. In “Glugor Residence of Mts. Forbes-Brown”, 1857, he turns this hill top residence with an extensive front yard where he lets his horses roam, with figures of ladies and servants sitting on the grass.




Edward H.Cree
Fitting the young Ladies for Society, Penang 1845

James Wathen  1814
View, looking over George Town,
to the Queeda Coast

aquatint by William J. Huggins  1828
East India Company's Ship
Lord Lowther

 Leaving the Harbour of Prince of Wales Island


        The wives of many of these expatriates register their group in August 1899 by the name of “The Penang Impressionists”. As the name implies, the works must have been inspired by the free flowing colors of Renoir or Monet, painting on the spot, catching the play of sun light and shadows, relying on primary colors of red, white, blue, orange, green, and umber. Unfortunately, no work has survived.
       The nearest we get to the purported impressionism is one by Abdullah Ariff, the only Malay permitted to join this all-white artsy club (the other is one Mrs. Lim Cheng Kung). “Counterhall”, 1933, suggests Abdullah Ariff’s familiarity with the technique in building up the forms. The road, house, bushes, coconut trees, the beach and the sea are articulated with patted strokes, the touch and lift of the broad ended brush, the quick dabbling of the long drying oil paints. Similar techniques can be seen in “Batu Feringhi”, 1933, a beach scene with a fallen coconut trunk across a lagoon. Also in the 1930s, Abdullah Ariff illustrates the magazine Dewasa with vignettes that both express his belief in the power of knowledge, also his skill in rendering volutes of floral motifs.

          Painters active in the 1940s included Khaw Sia who paints “The Street Musician”, 1940, and Yong Mun Sen, “Net Drying”, 1940.

          During the Japanese Occupation (1940-1945) in World War Two, Abdullah Ariff contributes a series of satirical cartoons lambasting the Americans and the British in the Penang Daily News. The Javanese immigrant Mohd Hoessein Enas settles in Penang in 1948, where while painting outdoors he is spotted by Frank Sullivan, who arranges for him to have a one man show at the British Council in Kuala Lumpur in 1949. Kuo Ju Ping closes this dark war ravaged decade with a bright and sunny “Fire Station at Jalan Tek Soon”, 1949.

          After the Great War the country is back under British rule that imposes Emergency Law to counter the communist insurgency. Penang, despite labor unrests, enjoys a measure of relative peace. Lee Cheng Yong trained at the Amoy Art Academy in China in the early 1930s, celebrates it with burning yellows and reds in “Village scene” 1952. Tay Hooi Keat, trained at the Camberwell School of Art in London, 1948-1952), brings back the idea that shapes are best articulated by colors that are dabbled, slash, and dipped. He practices what he preaches in “Upper Tunnel Train Station”, 1954.

          Kedah-born (1925-1977) but Penang-based is Ibrahim bin Abu Bakar, a superb self-trained watercolorist who irks out a living by dishing kampung scenes in rapid successions to tourists on the sidewalks of Chulia Street and Penang Road. Signing his works as ‘A.B. Ibrahim’, he has inadvertently attracts forgers, who see his washy unsophisticated style readily imitable. With none dated, a reliable chronology of his works is therefore impossible. Without that to aid in detection, the forgers continue to have a field day.

          Other painters of the 1950s include Khaw Sia who popularizes the orchid as a subject matter. Delineating the petals and flowers, he often ends up with works saturated with details.

          In 1953 two groups are formed. The first is the Penang Art Society that is mainly Hokkien speaking, with Loh Cheng Chuan as the President. The second is the Penang Arst Council that is mainly English speaking, with Souter as President, A. Sabathy as the Treasurer.

    Chuah Theng Teng     Batik
Two of the kind   66cm x 61cm

Tay Hooi Keat     Water Colour
Houses on Stilts

Kuo Ju Ping    Pastel on paper
Malay House      47cm x 61cm


Abdullah Ariff
Water Colour  1960
Tin Mine (bumi Bahagia Lombong Bijih Malaya)

Yong Mun Sen
Oil on Canvas
Returning Home

Khaw Sia
Oil on Canvas
Balinese Beautries

 Ibrahim bin Abu Bakar
Water Colour


            The Penang State Museum and Art Gallery is established in 1964 to provide a permanent venue for regular exhibitions. Then in 1966 the Teachers Art Circle is registered.  
           In the 1960s, artists began to experiment with batik, initially a printing technique on cloth to be worn as sarong. Among the masters of batik painting is Chuah Theng Teng, whose bold drawings of the human figures in a tightly composed color schemes manage to make a virtue out of flatness. Artists who actively promote modern art in Penang are Tay Hooi Keat and Tan Tin Kok. With the establishment of a Fine Arts Section in the Science University of Malaysia in 1969 courses in Art Theory and Art History, as well painting, printmaking, photography and sculpture are taught, thus elevating art to an academic or university level, no longer a mere hobby engaged by people who happen to have the means. The university also sets up a teaching Museum and Art Gallery that has regular shows of local as well international artists. Lecturers at the university such as Dr. Chew Teng Beng, Redza Piyadasa and Dr. Zakaria Ali go on to secure solid reputations.  

                   In the 1970s, batik painting is adopted by Toya Lim Khoon Hock, Lim Chee Boon and Lim Kung Chooi. Tay Mo Leong excels both in batik and watercolor, a medium he finds congenial in depicting Balinese dancers, while Dr. Chew Teng Beng waters down the harshness of expressionist brush strokes to gentle misty adulation of forms, enriching tonal gradations to poetic heights. Ho Khay Beng applies the classical technique of glazing to his portraits. Tan Lye Hoe and Tan Chiang Kiong actively promote children art. Also active are Chooi Yew Seng, Lim Eng Hooi, Kuay Soo Kau, Yeo Eng Siang and Lau Tat Hong.

          Khoo Sui-Ho, Lim Chee Boon, Lim Kung Chooi, Syed Salleh bin Syed Mustaffa, Yeong Seak Ling form the ‘Utara Group’ in 1977 that is later joined by Tang Hon Yin, Chong Hip Seng, Askandar Unglehrt and Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir. The group mounts shows yearly at the Penang State Gallery until 1992.



Dr. Zakaria Ali     
Oil on Canvas
51 x 38cm



 Yeong Seak Ling      Untitled
Oil on Canvas 1997
86cm x 86cm

Khoo Sui-Ho
The Rain Dance
Oil on Canvas   1977

Askandar Unglehrt     
She went out of 1001 smiles
Collage     1989

Tang Hon Yin
Water Margin #104
Acrylic on Canvas
146cm x 200cm


         Artists appearing in the 1980s who are still active currently include Chong Hip Seng, with his naïve brush sketches of stylized figures, Chuah Siew Teng with his half-blurred women, Tayep bin Yop with his free flowing patterns and wavy lines, Tan Peng Hooi with his white pigeons, Tan Lye Hoe with his black balcony scene to mark the moment of grief upon hearing of his father’s death, Yuen Chee Ling with her ‘Baba and Nyonya’ scenes, and Dr. Zakaria Ali agonies to purge the ‘indigenismo’ contracted in Mexico by adopting the slanted silences of Edward Hopper’s sunlight.

          Those who show promise in the 1990s include Choo Beng Teng who paints landscapes and birds. Khairul Albar bin Masnor is also a landscape artist. Khoo Cheang Jin is a water-colour painter, whereas Anuar bin Hisham records the architecture details of old Malay houses for the sake of posterity. Multi-talented Mohd. Shafarin bin Mohd Ghani paints portraits that he learns from Abdul Rashid bin Abdul Razak, the President of the Penang Malay Art Society who runs a drawing class-cum studio in the Komtar. Mohd. Mustaffa bin Siddik engages in batik painting.


Dr. Zakaria Ali
The Source
Oil on Canvas
 50cm x 75cm    2002

Yeong Seak Ling
Kampung Life Series
Oil on Canvas

Tang Hon Yin
Afternoon in Seville
Acrylic on Canvas

Yuen Chee Ling
Chap Goh Meh
Oil on Canvas


          The ArtGrup Penang is formed in 2004 by a Tang Hon Yin, Dr. Zakaria Ali, Yeong Seak Ling, Yuen Chee Ling, Ch’ng Huck Theng and hold their premier exhibition first at the UMRO Gallery of Universiti Sains Malaysia, and then at the NN Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. Their second exhibition in 2005 is held also at the UMRO Gallery and at the Capital Normal University in Beijing, China.


Further notes to be added, from time to time.

26 April 2006   


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