It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: From numbers to nostalgic murals

Ex-finance director with no formal art training has captivated hearts with his paintings

One of Mr Yip Yew Chong's dreams in life is to compose six special love letters.

The 50-year-old has finished four, the latest completed just two weeks ago.

Crafted with skill and affection, all of them are evocative, bursting with humour, colour and emotion.

The letters are unique because they are dedicated to Chinatown, where he spent a good part of his life. And they are writ large in the area too, in the form of huge colourful murals.

The one he finished recently is in Temple Street; it's a beautifully evocative scene of a Cantonese opera troupe performing on an open-air stage in the 1970s. Also meticulously depicted in the mural are street hawkers plying their trade, as well as an assortment of characters who make up the audience.

"It's a gift to my beloved Chinatown, where I grew up. I have fond memories of chasing street wayang here," says Mr Yip.

It is also his gift to the Community Chest. He painted it to raise funds for the five causes the organisation supports: adults with disabilities, children with special needs and youth at risk, families in need, people with mental health conditions and vulnerable seniors. Interested parties can contribute at this site.

Although it holds a special place in his heart, Chinatown is not the only place where Mr Yip's colourful and nostalgia-tinged odes are found.

Mr Yip Yew Chong’s latest mural in Temple Street, titled Street Wayang, is his gift to the Community Chest. Donations for the mural will go to causes supported by Community Chest. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Since 2015, he has painted about 50 all over the island. The streetside barber in Everton Road, the provision shop in Spottiswoode Park Road, the old National Library and MPH Bookstore in Waterloo Street and that stunning 40m painting of early Hokkien immigrants at the back of the Thian Hock Keng Temple in Telok Ayer Street: They are all the products of his paintbrushes and imagination.

His reputation as an evocative street artist has spread overseas; he has been commissioned to paint murals in, among other places, Malaysia, Hong Kong and India.

It is a big achievement for a man with no formal art training, and who, until July last year, was the high-flying finance director of a British multinational corporation.

Lithe and tanned from hours painting under the scorching sun, Mr Yip is the second of three children. His late father was a shipyard fitter and his mother, a seamstress and dishwasher.

Home was on the second floor of a shophouse owned by an Arab family in Sago Lane. As the key tenant, his family sublet the unit out to several other people.

"There were five families on the second floor. We slept on a long, high bed. I remember sleeping next to an old woman who coughed constantly at night. We didn't think about hygiene in those days," says Mr Yip, who painted himself, his siblings, his grandmother and mother in their old home in a glorious mural in Smith Street.

In those days, Sago Lane was known as the street of death houses.

"We lived directly above an effigy maker, next to a funeral parlour and opposite a coffin shop," he says.

Taoist funeral rites were a daily occurrence, and the neighbourhood was constantly assailed by the sounds of monks chanting and relatives of the dead wailing.

"From our window, we had a bird's-eye view of everything. Some of the funeral rituals like 'Breaking Hell's Gate' were pretty spectacular," he says, referring to rites performed by Taoist priests to free the souls of the departed from hell.

With a laugh, he recalls a bizarre incident which threw denizens of the neighbourhood into a tizzy.

"A dead body was delivered to the funeral parlour, but when they opened the door of the hearse, it was sitting up instead of lying down. Everybody was talking about it for the longest time."

Mr Yip completed his primary education at Pearl's Hill Primary.

"It was then the tallest school in Singapore; it was 12 storeys high. The lift could take up to 41 pupils," he says.

No slouch in his studies, he aced his Primary School Leaving Examination and got into top boys' school Raffles Institution (RI).

Although never formally developed, his artistic talents were evident from a young age. His eye for detail and keen sense of colour served him well. He was chairman of the Art Club at RI, painted props for school plays as well as a 50m mural on a wall at the school's swimming pool.

After completing national service, he studied accountancy at Nanyang Technological University.

By then, Sago Lane had succumbed to the wrecking ball.

 

"I lived there from 1969 to 1983. After that, my family moved to a four-room Housing Board flat in nearby Smith Street where my mother still lives," he says.

Like many of his neighbours, he felt a great sense of loss when Sago Lane was demolished.

"But, at the same time, we also looked forward to our new HDB flat. Everything was so clean and convenient. We didn't have to put basins under leaky spots in the ceiling when it rained. My mother was very happy because there were no more rats or fire scares," he says.

Upon graduation in 1993, he landed a job with an international shipping company. Over the next 2½ decades, Mr Yip - who got married in 1996 - focused on building his finance career, and raising two children, now aged 19 and 21, with his wife, a housewife.

"I really enjoyed my accounting career," says the amiable man who worked for several well-known corporations, including Reuters and Visa. "It gave me so many opportunities to lead different international teams and I love interacting with different cultures."

Art was always in the background. "I painted a bit at home and I would always sketch when I travelled the world," says the avid globetrotter, whose wanderlust has taken him to exotic locales in the Himalayas as well as the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu high in the Andes mountains in Peru.

Every 10 years, however, he would take a break to pursue an interest.

In 2005, he took an eight-month hiatus from work and completed a short film-making course at Objectifs.

Armed with his newly acquired skills, the film buff spent the next few months making short films. "I tried everything, comedies, home videos, travelogues. Most of them were just a couple of minutes long."

One of them, Visiting Seong Gu, was a 30-minute documentary about Seong Gu, an old hunchbacked ma jie who lived in Banda Street in Chinatown.

Ma jie were once a common sight in Singapore. Hailing from Guangdong, they were domestic workers who took vows of celibacy, wore black-and-white samfu outfits and tied their hair up in a bun.

"I shot my aunt and sister visiting Seong Gu and helping to declutter her place. There were dead things everywhere, and they threw away a lot of expired stuff. I've never shown it, it's not of that calibre lah," he says with a laugh.

A decade later, in 2015, he took another break from work to try mural painting.

"I never stopped," he says.

The idea came to him a year earlier; he was inspired by the vibrant street art scenes in many countries, including neighbouring Malaysia.

"I spotted all these vacant walls and thought to myself: 'Singapore also can do'."

By the time he got around to doing it, others had beaten him to the game. "I missed the boat. So many murals were painted for SG50, including those by foreign artists," he says, referring to Singapore's 50th anniversary celebrations.

But better late than never.

Getting started, however, was not easy.

"First, you have to spot the wall. Then you have to knock on the door of the house. People would shoo you away. Most of them wouldn't even open the door," he says wryly.

His first piece was on a wall in Everton Park. He had googled the address, found out it was up for rent, called up the property agent and asked to be introduced to the owner who, as it turned out, was Dr Victor Choa, great-grandson of pioneer Choa Kim Keat.

"I was very confident of being able to pull it off. I told him that if he didn't like the outcome, I would wash it out in the same colour."

Intrigued, Dr Choa not only gave him the green light to paint his street barber but also asked him to do "something Peranakan" on another wall. The result? A mural of an amah washing laundry by hand under a clothes line with sarong and kebaya hung out to dry.

Word spread. Hordes of people dropped by to watch him while he was painting; he even caused a traffic jam.

And it has been like that ever since.

"People would stop to chat, buy me lunch and drinks," says Mr Yip, who gets approval from the authorities such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority and HDB for all his murals. Depending on the weather, he takes between a couple of days and a couple of weeks to finish a project.

People have told him they can feel the attention and affection he lavishes on each mural.

"I guess you can't get the same flavour by painting from a photograph. You must have lived through the times, and have a lot of passion and interest in your memories," says Mr Yip who, for three years, juggled work and mural painting, painting at night, on weekends and even during lunch breaks.

What he does is gratifying in more ways than one.

People have cried seeing his murals; they tell him his murals make them think of home and loved ones.

"A Taiwanese woman once told me while I was painting that I was making the world a happier place. Recently, another woman told me she had a very bad day at the office but my painting saved her day."

Most of the more than 50 pieces he has executed are commissioned.

With encouragement from friends and the support of his wife to develop his art, he quit his finance job last year.

He declines to reveal how much he gets for each commission but lets on that his earnings are comparable to the full-time salary he used to draw.

His murals may be nostalgic but he describes himself as a practical man.

"We can be nostalgic about something, but if something needs to change, we shouldn't cling to the past. Learning from history is important too, and many a time, we don't learn enough," he says.

He won't be painting murals forever, he says.

"You got to know when to stop. Right now, I'm fulfilling my dreams of painting Chinatown. When I'm done, I'll slow down and move on to what I think is worth doing.

"I will move on to canvas."