Alex Leong’s paintings have a sheen of nostalgia that reflects once-upon-a-time days of being young and carefree. They lift us back to when life was less frenetic and people found pleasure in simpler things.
Like catching up under the shade of a sprawling tree after the school bell rings. Or slurping an ice lolly outside hedged fences while waiting for the bus home as schoolmates mill around the kuih man or scramble onto trishaws and motorbikes.
Leong’s Celebrations & Nostalgic Moments captures these ordinary moments, which people recall with fondness and a longing smile. He hopes visitors’ smiles will erupt into laughter at his sixth solo exhibition, which opened at The Art Gallery Penang on Aug 7.
“I want to give people some happiness, especially in these times,” the 51-year-old artist says over the phone from his home in the northern island state, on the theme for his 25 watercolour pieces, all newly painted for the show.
The works are flush with details that draw one to step closer and look harder. Those for whom the strokes strike a chord often feel a flood of joyful memories.
His after-school series abounds with the exuberance of children rushing out after class to kick a ball with friends or grab a bite before their transport arrives. “We used to play and eat sotong bakar or bangkwang. That was a very happy time and I thought it would be a good idea to show these scenes,” says Leong, who did his first such painting of a Singapore school in 2017.
Having to drop his only daughter, now 10, at the gate gives him the opportunity to observe youngsters who remind him of his schoolboy days. The series has led him to paint the Penang Chinese Girls’ Primary School, St Xavier’s Institution, Convent Light Street, Chung Ling High School, Penang Free School and St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur, among others — establishments as well known for their academic achievements as their iconic architecture, not to mention distinguished alumni.
It is easy to see why people connect with the intimate series, although Leong is surprised. Collectors have snapped up his works and he has been commissioned to do more.
“I want to do the heritage school buildings first because they are so beautiful,” he says, in answer to friends who ask why he has not painted his alma maters, Chung Hwa Confucian, Primary and Secondary. “It’s so nostalgic but I’m still looking for reference, such as old photos. I do lots of research before I start.”
Research fills out the details in his paintings that depict celebrations Malaysians mark year-round. Chinese New Year Highlights, Toh Aka Lane, Penang is a visual feast that starts with a small family gathering for their reunion, a lion dance on the narrow street, prayers for the God of Fortune and the Jade Emperor, lanterns aflutter during Chap Goh Meh, and people tucking into traditional favourites in between.
Leong says he took more creative licence with this piece than his other works — which he usually sketches on location then colours in his studio — by combining the various festive scenes into one long horizontal painting.
His Nyonya Baba Wedding series is awash with colours, rituals and grandeur. Stare at Thaipusam Celebration, Sri Mahamariamman Temple, Queen Street and the fervour of devotees smashing coconuts and carrying the kavadi washes over you.
There are also festivities that the islanders look forward to every year, such as the Mid-Autumn Festival, Pesta Chingay Parade, Hari Raya, Merdeka, Deepavali and Christmas. Leong’s animated depictions of these occasions are both panoramic and personal, and tell of a time and place that hold special meaning for many.
He was drawing even before he started school. His working parents left him in the care of his maternal grandmother who, after the cooking was done, would go out to play mahjong with friends.
“Grandma took me along. Every time they changed the paper on the mahjong table, they threw the old one to me and let me draw.” And the little boy did, creating heroic figures from comics and movies in fight scenes.
After Form Five, Leong studied graphic design at Equator Academy of Art and was a graphic artist for a couple of years. “I was not interested in such work. It is commercial and you have to listen to the client. People kept asking for alterations and they just wanted everything big.”
He soon realised he liked teaching children art and set up a centre. Teaching would also give him more time to draw. “If you have interest to do something, it’s more song [Hokkien for enjoyable]. At one time, when I didn’t sell any paintings, I continued to draw to sustain my interest.”
Typical of the practical Penangite, Leong gave classes at his Bayan Baru studio full-time and created art in between because, “if hong hiam [suddenly] cannot sell, cham [it will be tough]”. Now that art sustains him financially, besides giving him peace of mind, he goes out to draw daily and teaches during the weekends.
Thinking back on how he honed his craft since the 1990s, he does not hesitate to acknowledge the influence of those who came before him. “I liked certain artists and went to see their shows and followed them.”
He names fellow Penangite Tan Choon Ghee, famed for his George Town street scenes, Singaporean Ong Kim Seng, who painted visions of sojourns across the Causeway, and Chinese-American Dong Kingman, known for his urban and landscape paintings.
“I like Dong Kingman’s work — his colours are sharp. Before, my paintings were like Choon Ghee’s. Later, I formed my own style,” says Leong, who has numerous awards to his name.
The one or two pieces of his own paintings that he has kept for himself over the years show that his technique and colour sense have changed. His compositions are also different. But there is a constant: “Every painting has pigeons. That’s my signature. They represent peace and give my work movement. I can also add them to fill in the space.”
Watercolour may look easy to the untrained eye but, unlike acrylic or oil, which one can paint over, you cannot cover up a mistake, he explains. He prefers not to overlap his strokes when painting, to retain their transparency. “For every painting that I do, I throw away two.”
Street scenes of people going about their daily business, and old trades and traditional practices in danger of dying out captivate Leong. He is also fascinated by heritage buildings with majestic façades and old stories embedded in their framework.
“I want to preserve the heritage, activities and way people do things in Penang. Many things are no more, or less and less like before. You go to the Chew Jetty — there’s no place to sit and draw. At Khoo Kongsi, you are asked to buy a ticket. Penang must preserve the things that make it special,” he says.
Looking ahead, Leong hopes to explore the theme of nature. “Covid-19 has made us realise that nature is very important — we must take care of Earth. It’s an idea for now and I am doing research at the Botanical Gardens. When I’m confident enough, I will start.”
'Celebrations & Nostalgic Moments' is on at The Art Gallery Penang, 368-4-8 Burma Road, Level 4, Bellisa Row, Pulau Tikus, until Aug 28. Viewing from 2pm to 5pm, Friday to Sunday, and by appointment only on other days. Call (012) 604 1434 for more information.
This article first appeared on Aug 10, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.