Art What! Arts Preview Singapore

Museum Musings: Asian Civilisations Museum presents Living with Ink – The Collection of Dr Tan Tsze Chor


This November, the Asian Civilisations Museum is set to present the largest showcase of the late Dr Tan Tsze Chor’s esteemed Xiang Xue Zhuang Collection, inviting visitors to experience the passion of Chinese art and connoisseurship, and to explore the collection’s cultural impact and influence in advancing the arts scene among the local Chinese community in 1950s–80s Singapore.

Living with Ink: The Collection of Dr Tan Tsze Chor features over 130 artistic and cultural masterpieces from Dr Tan’s collection that underscore creative expressions of Chinese art, including prized pieces by respected Chinese artists Xu Beihong, Qi Baishi, Ren Yi, and Pan Tianshou.

Ren Yi’s Eight Immortals. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

Through the lens of Dr Tan’s collecting career, visitors will get a glimpse into the vibrant art world that blossomed across overseas Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaya amidst the turbulent years of the 20th century. Works of local artists such as Liu Kang and Chen Wen-hsi, who moved in Dr Tan’s circles while he was building his collection, are also on show – illustrating how his collection influenced and inspired local artists.

Chen Wen-hsi’s Prawns, Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

Mr Kennie Ting, Director of Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum, explains, “Living with Ink will appeal not only to lovers of Chinese art who are aware of this collection in Singapore’s and the region’s art collecting history, but will also reveal to local and visiting audiences that we have an extremely important and valuable collection of Chinese ink art right here in Singapore – one that is rarely presented in its entirety.”

Wang Zhen’s Buttonquail and Chinese Trumpet Vines, Image courtesy of Chinese Culture University Hwa Kang Museum, Taipei, Gift of Dr Tan Tsze Chor

“As a strong continuation of the museum’s Season of Chinese Art, Living with Ink provides a fresh perspective and visually arresting displays of ink painting and calligraphy. We want to re-acquaint visitors with the values, symbolism, and aspirations of the ancient Chinese in a memorable fashion – hence it is important that the Xiang Xue Zhuang Collection’s tale be retold to a new generation of audiences, by way of a completely new perspective, one relevant to a contemporary society preoccupied with questions of identity,” Ting added.

Qi Baishi’s Shrimps. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

The exhibition opens with an introduction to the literati persona adopted by Dr Tan, in “In the Studio” section, before presenting the socio-political circumstances in 20th-century China that made it possible for overseas Chinese businessmen like Dr Tan to collect Chinese art.

Pan Tianshou, Zhu Wenyun and Zhu Lesan’s The Five Prosperities. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

Next, “Appetite for Ren Yi” outlines the development of the local art scene through the lens of Dr Tan’s activities in the art world, including his collection of paintings by the famous Shanghai painter Ren Yi (also known as Ren Bonian 任伯年). Tan lent some of his Ren paintings to Taipei’s National Museum of History in 1982, and also donated some to the Hwakang Museum of Chinese Cultural University, Taipei.

Hsu Chun-lin’s Ducks. © Liu Kang Family Collection

The exhibition culminates in “Gatherings by the Seaside”, exploring the connections between pioneer “Nanyang-style” painters and the Shanghai-school painters they trained under – this physically manifested in the literati gatherings that took place at Dr Tan’s home. These gatherings, beyond being a meeting of artists, collectors, and connoisseurs, provided local artists unprecedented access to international works of art in Tan’s collection, which informed and inspired the local Nanyang artists of the 1950s.

Zhao Shao’ang’s Bird on a pine. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

Mr Conan Cheong, curator of Living with Ink, shared: “The exhibition explores the importance of Dr Tan’s Xiang Xue Zhuang Collection in Singapore, and how it prompted a local Chinese community to form a shared Singaporean heritage outside mainland China. Just as how early Nanyang artists grappled to find a Singaporean Chinese identity at the time, I hope that through this exhibition, visitors are inspired to take the time to contemplate and rediscover their own cultures and identities.”

Pu Ru’s Pavilions amongst mountains. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum

As a complement to the exhibition, ACM will also be presenting family-friendly programmes, guided tours, lectures, and weekend festivals. These include exclusive curator tours with Conan Cheong, where participants can gain behind-the-scenes perspectives and discover little known facts about highlights from the over 130 treasured artworks on display; a series of “literati lessons” where visitors can pick up artistic skills like Chinese ink painting, stone seal carving, and papermaking; and an exciting weekend cultural bonanza (28th February to 1st March 2020) that brings Chinese culture to life with an interactive performance of the Eight Immortals, a showcase of traditional martial art form Tai Chi Guan, and more fun-filled programmes suitable for adults and kids alike.

Living with Ink: The Collection of Dr Tan Tsze Chor runs from 8th November 2019 to 22nd March 2020 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Admission charges apply. For more information, visit

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