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Malaysian artist’s works scattered around the world after his death go on show in Hong Kong

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a couple of people posing for the camera: Michael Yong-Haron (left) and his wife Saniza Othman at the opening of the Yong Mun Sen exhibition in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. Photo: Michael and Saniza Collection Michael Yong-Haron (left) and his wife Saniza Othman at the opening of the Yong Mun Sen exhibition in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. Photo: Michael and Saniza Collection

A coterie of art world movers and shakers gathered recently in the penthouse of the Malaysia Building in Hong Kong's Wan Chai district for the opening of an exhibition of a relatively obscure artist from the Malaysian state of Penang called Yong Mun Sen.

Yong, who died in 1962, was born 125 years ago to descendants of Chinese immigrants in Kuching, Sarawak. He was sent at the age of five to Taipu (Dabu) in China's Guangdong province, where his ancestors hailed from, to study Chinese painting and calligraphy.

This grounding in ink painting would become something he had in common with many other early 20th century ethnic Chinese artists who were either born in or settled in what was then British Malaya, including in Singapore. They became known as Nanyang artists (Nanyang is the Chinese for South Seas); they melded Chinese and Western art and looked to their own homes in Southeast Asia for subject matter.

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The well-known Singapore artist Chen Wen Hsi, for example, often painted in traditional Chinese style at the same time as he made abstract murals informed by cubism.

Fishermen Mending Nets (1947) by Yong Mun Sen. Photo: Michael and Saniza Collection © Provided by South China Morning Post Fishermen Mending Nets (1947) by Yong Mun Sen. Photo: Michael and Saniza Collection

The 26 paintings in the Hong Kong exhibition cover a range of media and styles that Yong adopted at different stages of his life. There are watercolours of idyllic village life and of landmarks of urban Kuala Lumpur, paintings of fishermen in bolder, more solid colours inspired by Paul Gauguin, and one charcoal portrait of a Nyonya woman (a foreign married lady) from around 1930 that's unlike everything else on show.

The inscription on the latter suggests that she was originally a client at the photo studio that Yong set up in Penang, where he and his family settled for good in 1920, and Yong later drew the portrait from the photograph.

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The reason the exhibition is being held in Hong Kong is because Yong's grandson, Michael Yong-Haron, is a private banker in the city. He never met his grandfather, who died before he was born, and he first learned about the extent of the artist's practice when he saw a retrospective exhibition of Yong at the Penang State Art Gallery in 1999.

The family had sold all the paintings immediately after the artist's death for financial reasons. That exhibition prompted the then young banker and his wife, the Malaysian-born lawyer Saniza Othman, to start buying back Yong's extant works, which today are largely scattered around the world. It was, they say, driven by a need to preserve family heritage.

"We feel that to understand ourselves, we need to understand where we came from," Othman says.

a photo of himself in a mirror: Charcoal portrait of a Nyonya lady (circa 1930) that Yong Mun Sen probably photographed in his Penang studio. Photo: Michael & Saniza Collection © Provided by South China Morning Post Charcoal portrait of a Nyonya lady (circa 1930) that Yong Mun Sen probably photographed in his Penang studio. Photo: Michael & Saniza Collection

For a not particularly well-known artist who painted some fairly conventional watercolours, this may seem to be a personal project that has garnered an inordinate amount of interest from major institutions.

At the opening on Friday, speeches were made by the politician-businessman Bernard Charnwut Chan, in his capacity as chairman of the Hong Kong Palace Museum; Suhanya Raffel, director of the M+ Museum of visual culture in the city's nascent West Kowloon Cultural District; and Alice Mong, the head of the Asia Society in Hong Kong.

Both M+ and the Asia Society provided support for the exhibition, with Pauline Yao, lead curator of visual art at M+, providing curatorial advice.

a close up of an old building: Sultan Abdul Samad Building (Before 1955). This was one of the first two paintings by Yong Mun Sen that Yong-Haron and Othman bought in 1999. Photo: Michael & Saniza Collection © Provided by South China Morning Post Sultan Abdul Samad Building (Before 1955). This was one of the first two paintings by Yong Mun Sen that Yong-Haron and Othman bought in 1999. Photo: Michael & Saniza Collection

This, in part, is a testament to the couple's influence as patrons. Both are well-connected professionals - Yong-Haron is the North Asia head of wealth management at BNP Paribas and Othman is an experienced lawyer specialising in alternative dispute resolution. They are founding patrons of the M+ Museum and they are known for collecting contemporary ink art and works by women artists such as Tayeba Begum Lipi, Maude Maris, Wang Gongyi and Hong Kong's own Jaffa Lam and Ho Sin-tung.

More broadly, the level of interest is also indicative of how eager Asian institutions are to challenge, expand and diversify art historical narratives.

"Yong Mun Sen is one of the lost masters who have been found and introduced to the canon of modernism in this part of the world," Raffel says. "These are works that change our basic knowledge of art and culture."

a palm tree: Preparing for the Catch (1948). This was one of the first two paintings by Yong Mun Sen that Yong-Haron and Othman bought in 1999. Photo: Michael & Saniza Collection © Provided by South China Morning Post Preparing for the Catch (1948). This was one of the first two paintings by Yong Mun Sen that Yong-Haron and Othman bought in 1999. Photo: Michael & Saniza Collection

Fundamentally, the inclusion of Yong and other previously neglected Asian artists allows for the creation of knowledge "using languages of our own", Raffel says, as opposed to a history of modern and contemporary art dictated by the logic and perspectives of the West.

It's not just about the visual images he left behind. Yong's legacy also lies in his role as co-founder of the Nanyang Academy of Art in Singapore, in 1938, and the forming of the Penang Chinese Art Club in 1935, for example.

"This is just the beginning of the journey for us," Othman says. "There is so much more to learn about him and we are humbled by the support we have received."

"Nature as Teacher and Model: Art Retrospective - Yong Mun Sen", Penthouse, Malaysia Building, 50 Gloucester Road, Wan Chai. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, visitors are required to register for specific viewing times on the Malaysian Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong website.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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