Bordering on depressive and destructive, these figurative faces gazed at me when I entered a crumbling shophouse along Beach Street.
Their stirring expressions - and the ruined environment of the space - drew me into their world of desperation, fear and a sense of longing.
At the corner of the entrance, Chee Eng Hong, the artist behind these thematic works, gave us a surprisingly wide grin amid the torment of his work. Feeling at ease, Mark and I peered down the open space of the 180-feet long shophouse and saw no one but effigies in various forms.
“Some of the locals refuse to enter this shophouse,” Chee revealed. “They believe the space is haunted because it has been neglected for decades. And now having images like these all over the shophouse only discourages them more. But I believe spirits would never enter such a dirty, lonely space.”
Basing his work on his observations and experiences with superstitions, norms, and traditions within the Malaysian-Chinese community, Chee tells a story of life. “I want you to question what you feel. Is your mind playing tricks on your consciousness as you see each work?”
It was a raw emotional experience walking through the interpretative installation in the century old shophouse. Cracks along the walls and floor, ceiling boards missing, stagnant puddles. But also a sign of its opulent past in the decorative banister of the spiraling staircase.
Once owned by Tye Kee Yoon, the last Qing Dynasty vice consul to Penang, the shophouse is itself a significant piece of history, lending a compelling connection to the installation.
Among Chee’s provocative works - No Title Yet 还没封拿督; Got Project Ah? 有空头, 无?; Father and Emigrant Son, Sorrow of an Emigrant’s wife 两头家庭 – are interpretations of social issues that are familiar to anyone from the local Chinese community. These works represent the stories of our friends, neighbours, family members, and ourselves.
But Chee wants us to see beyond these dark portrayals, to find the strength to rise above their hopelessness.
Many of the objects found at the shophouse – such as clothes, rope and building materials – are used as part of the installation.
When I saw an old Chinese man in his white singlet and blue striped pajamas reclining on a metal framed, plastic armchair, I immediately thought of my late-grandfather. Grandpa too used to wear those blue striped pajamas. The installation depicts the sentiment of many Malaysian parents who encouraged their children to leave the country to seek better opportunities. In retrospect, they too once left their homeland for a better life in Malaysia.
‘Ultra-Wallet Protection’ - This piece mocks the Chinese community for thinking that they can protect themselves from all ills as long as they have money.
The final work entitled The Great Skull @ Miluo River makes an explicit reference to Qu Yuan 屈原 (340-278 BC.), a patriot who despaired at the corrupted state of China in the third century BC. “I found this piece of work very relevant to Penang because of the practice of Duanwu Festival 端午节 - dumplings and dragonboat festival etc.”
“In this venue, an old, but significant piece of historical remnant, I take example of a pride of place created by the owner. How proud he must have felt when he first built this house, and how it has been left unattended and reduced to this dilapidated state. The house probably bore silent witness to the events that shaped the owner’s generation, experienced his dreams for it. It is a situation that mimics what our forefathers have dreamt for us, their future generation, only to have their aspirations and sacrifices shattered by some of our apathy and blind pride.”
But like this shophouse that will begin restoration next month, Chee is optimistic that there can be rehabilitation of thought and action to combat our corrupt society.
Rehab, My Foot - a featured exhibition for 1MCAT (Malaysia Contemporary Art Tourism event) - runs until the end of September. The exhibition is located at No 212, Beach Street (near intersection with Chulia Street), opposite the fire station.
Chee also informed us that he will be having a second exhibition at the same shophouse, when the restoration of the house is halfway complete.