Do you sometimes feel when you see something for the first time, that you have seen it before? A familiarity. Like seeing an old friend. You know for a fact that it is the first time. But the feeling lingers. When the Singapore General Post Office building was turned into the present Fullerton Hotel, I could not wait to check it out. When I did, I was not disappointed. Especially the cafe where you could dine outdoors by the Singapore river. It is a charming area, next to the commercial district and across the Asian Civilisations Museum. On one occasion, I ventured out to the adjacent bridge. There, I saw them. The boys. Urging and pushing each other to jump into the river. Once again, I had that feeling. I thought I had seen this sculpture before. And I thought I knew the boys. From another time.
These five boys kindled something in me. A free kampong spirit. A carefree era when children played by the river. I am attracted to bronze sculptures. Of a period I look back with fondness. I see them outside museums and public buildings. In the parks. Along the river. Most of them depict the first generation immigrants in Singapore. They show a time of strive. A time when making a living and making a life are the same thing. When I come face to face with the sculptures, especially when they are life-sized, I get an up-close and personal experience of almost knowing them. I may not know their names. But I feel a warmth, a connection, beyond mere acquaintances. It would take me some time to discover, that these sculptures that speak to me in a special way, are mostly by one artist.
He is Chong Fah Cheong. His style varied from the abstract to the figurative. A pioneer who is now based in Canada, his many memorable bronze sculptures are a significant contribution to the Singapore artscape. His most visible and well-known is ‘First Generation’, a bronze work of five young boys in the buff jumping into the Singapore River. Placed in 2000, at one of the most trendy parts of Singapore, they do not look out of place. Instead, they add to the history of the river and have become an attraction to locals and tourists. Besides looking and feeling real from near and afar, these five boys captivate me for another reason. I have taken photographs of them from various parts of the river. Each picture, from a different angle, tells a new story. The most cinematic is from the vantage point of a ferry moving along the river. The boys come alive like a panning shot in a movie as the ferry passes them.
I have not met the artist. He was in Singapore again earlier this year for a solo exhibition. The five boys show a whimsical side of life that transport me to a happier time. They honour our first immigrants and the major role the river played in their lives. “For the children living by the riverbanks, it was one giant swimming pool, the source of simple pleasure and high adventure alike.” Chong said. I marvel at how the boys are artfully connected to each other, especially the last boy in free-fall. Chong said his art “is a life process where ‘givens’ are challenged, nature re-evaluated and life re-created.” Looking at the sculpture which freezes the agile motion of five young boys, I see a scene by the Singapore River. Before the advent of the TV world and the digital world. A world when children played in the most natural settings and when the joys of childhood were perhaps the purest…