As a senior corporate figure, Yeow Teck Chai could have done what most do when it comes to charity — just donate money. But the former deputy director-general of the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority is not one to stand on the sidelines. Over the years, he has held fundraisers that have included carnivals, buying out a theatre performance, and organising walks.
A few years ago, Yeow figured out how to marry his post-civil service retirement hobby with charity. In 2018, the self-taught watercolour artist held his first solo exhibition at Bangsar Shopping Centre in Kuala Lumpur to raise funds for The Society for the Severely Mentally Handicapped (SSMH), which provides rehabilitation services, and Persatuan SLE Malaysia, which offers counselling and financial aid to people living with systemic lupus erythematosus. Last year, he was part of a group exhibition for SSMH, which was also held at Bangsar Shopping Centre.
“Both of these organisations were started by my ex-colleagues,” says Yeow, who has been supporting them for years.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, a planned solo exhibition of his latest series in September has been postponed indefinitely, though he had decided to release a coffee table book in tandem with the exhibition that is now available for sale.
“In a way, the Movement Control Order was a blessing in disguise for me because I had more time to stay home and focus on painting. I think these works are better than my earlier ones because of that. Hopefully, we can have the exhibition next year to sell them, but I decided that we should still go ahead and launch the book because at least, there’s some income coming in for them this year. They have been very much affected in terms of funding,” says Yeow. Eighty per cent of proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the two organisations.
Having painted landscapes, nature and portraits previously, the 70-year-old manufacturing investment consultant has shifted his focus this time around to a particular feathered animal. Birds of Malaysia — An Artist’s Love is a 240-page hardcover publication featuring about 130 prints of watercolour paintings of Malaysian birds and their habitats.
In an evocative opener, Yeow describes his affinity with and love for birds. He recalls learning how to make various bird calls during his childhood in his hometown of Kuantan, teasing the birds into responding. “As a boy, I used to go into the jungle with my catapult, I would trap birds and rear them as well, from the common myna to spotted doves and zebra doves. I taught them how to sing.
“Of course, after I grew up, I stopped that hobby. I think it’s cruel to keep birds in cages. It was only when my friend, an avid birder, showed me photos he took that it reignited my interest. Since I already had a few paintings of birds, I thought, why not make a series out of it?”
Much of the works are based on photographs by Dr Samuel Ong, a cardiologist at Sunway Medical Centre, as well as fellow bird enthusiast Francis Chin. Rather than just pictures of the birds themselves, Ong’s ability to capture the birds’ natural habitats particularly inspired Yeow. In one painting, we see a pair of imperial pigeons in flight in a verdant environment, over a river, in Fraser’s Hill.
“They were performing their mating ritual,” notes Yeow, pointing out that the setting and composition of the images was very good. “In some, you can see details such as the berry trees which they eat from.”
As a painter, he was especially attracted to the colourful bee-eaters, barbets and terrestrials, like the male Malayan peacock pheasant and rhinoceros hornbill. Yeow added a painting of an Iban chieftain in a ceremonial Singalang Burong headdress made from hornbill feathers to be included in the book.
“The main challenge in painting birds is to capture the sheen and detailed texture of the feathers; even if they are the same colours, the tone is always different. I have to put on bright lights and enlarge photos to see the details,” he laughs, shaking his head.
The two-year-long project is made more special this time as he got to work closely with his daughter, Charlotte, who came on board as writer for the book. “I tried to ask some friends at first, but it was difficult for them because the research and workload are not easy,” he explains.
“It felt like studying for the SPM all over again,” quips Charlotte of the research process. “Still, we didn’t want something too categorical or academic. There isn’t too much writing or text; we deliberately put more space around the prints so you can appreciate them fully.”
Approaching the writing with a storytelling style befitting the artist’s voice, Charlotte decided to include local poems and folk songs for a more interesting read. “There is a wealth of Malaysian folk songs to discover, not just from [West Malyasia], but also East Malaysia, and in so many different dialects and languages,” she observes. An example is a Hokkien ditty about a grandaunt and granduncle searching for each other in the dark. She used it to accompany the segment on nocturnal birds.
“There aren’t too many books in the market on bird paintings. Most of them are illustrations, and are unlike my type of paintings, which is more for art’s sake,” Yeow highlights. “The objective of the book is not just for charity, but to also create awareness on our depleting natural forests and the need for conservation as well.”
Charlotte agrees. “That’s why the first painting in the book is actually of the Belum-Temenggor forest, which is one of our last continual stretches of rainforest [and] that has all 10 species of our indigenous hornbills.”
The publication of 'Birds of Malaysia' is largely sponsored by Oncogen Pharma and Novugen Pharma as part of their corporate social responsibility outreach programmes. Purchase the book (RM200) here.
This article first appeared on Nov 23, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.