by Joyce Er (15A01A)
Getting Mr Chia Wei Hou to agree to an interview proved to be more difficult than expected. The main H2 and H3 Art teacher at RI (Year 5-6), Mr Chia is found either at staff meetings or mentoring his art students, dedicating the lion’s share of his time to the latter. When we first met him, he was wrapping up a H3 lesson with three Year 6 students—or so he told us. ‘Just five more minutes,’ he implored, before proceeding to animatedly flick through a plethora of images of artworks for the next half an hour with great aplomb and enthusiasm.
In many ways, Mr Chia is the very definition of the archetypal dedicated, passionate art teacher. ‘Art saved my life,’ he declared without a trace of irony early into our interview. And art has been a pervasive part of most of his life. After discovering art at a young age, he studied A-Level Art in National Junior College, and went on to obtain his BA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths in 1996. Subsequently, he taught at Jurong Junior College from 1999 to 2003, and briefly taught at National Junior College from 2004 to 2005. Mr Chia was responsible for pioneering the new art programme in Raffles Junior College in 2006 following its shift to Bishan on the invitation of Mr Hodge, the principal at that time. More recently, Mr Chia went to the Teacher’s College at Columbia University in 2012 for his Master’s in Art and Art Education.
With a solid 15 years of teaching under his belt and solid qualifications, it’s not hard to see the influence he has undoubtedly had over generations of art students in Singapore, many of whom have performed commendably at prestigious local and international competitions. He counts amongst his protégés UOB Painting of the Year winners Alvin Ong from National Junior College (NJC) and, more recently, Bai Tianyuan from RI (Year 5-6).
Despite these achievements, he is as humble as he is elusive, shying away from our camera after a few clicks of the shutter, and abashedly demurring when we mentioned his ranking by Time Out Singapore as the 37th most influential person in the local art scene. Nevertheless, he quickly opened up once we got started on the subject of art.
When asked about how he ended up doing art, he paused before carefully discouraging the very human tendency to seek out ‘just-so’ stories and want things to make sense in retrospect. Nevertheless, Mr Chia’s story is as neat as it is heart-warming. A reserved child, he enjoyed drawing, and theorises, ‘It was probably because I had difficulty with language, so pictures and images made sense to me. I seemed to be able to express myself better through drawing, and it became a habit.’ As a consequence, his parents began to send him to art classes, not knowing that this would seal his fate.
If art-related career tracks are regarded as inferior to more conventional STEM disciplines today, the prejudice against art back then was even greater, considering the relative lack of opportunities for employment in a nascent Singaporean economy. Even today, as grateful as he is for their support, Mr Chia wonders if his parents regret their decision to support him financially and emotionally in his artistic endeavours. But for him, this sacrifice only strengthened his dedication and discipline as an art student. ‘Art was my interest and my strength. I enjoyed it, and it became my one consolation despite the fact that I didn’t like other subjects. I always looked forward to art classes and took on art projects with enthusiasm. My interest in art continues to this day.’
After completing his A Level education, Mr Chia took the courageous leap of faith to pursue art at a university level. Although most students even today decide to study graphic design, architecture or other applied art forms, he instead chose to study fine art at Goldsmiths, a college unique in that its students do not specialise in a particular medium.
He explains, ‘They go for a more conceptual approach to art, where they believe that it’s the underlying concept of the artwork that makes it work, and not necessarily the craft. Maybe they foresaw that soon enough, craft would not be art’s defining characteristic. After all, you can get people to help you fabricate things, but you cannot get a technician to conceptualise an artwork for you.’
This relatively forward-looking, revolutionary approach to art-making, especially at a time when the art world was moving away from realistic representation to artistic expression, was in stark contrast to the traditional approach to art he had been trained for and became accustomed to in Junior College. It changed his life and the way he viewed art.
‘I WOULDN’T WANT TO TEACH IF I WEREN’T ABLE TO TEACH ART’
Having devoted the early years of his life to the study of fine art, one wonders what triggered his decision to become a teacher, rather than a practising artist. He offered us a response that was equal parts pragmatism and idealism. Despite idolising Walt Disney from a young age, learning how to draw from watching his cartoons and aspiring to become an animator, Mr Chia abandoned this as a pipe dream after realising in secondary school that animation was virtually unheard of in Singapore at the time. Even then, he clung fast to his love for art, retaining a youthful idealism that he could do what he loved: ‘I thought that architecture was the next thing I could look into and consider doing which would also utilise my interest in art, as a blend of interests and passions.’
What eventually pushed him to become a teacher was an encounter with—of all things—his General Paper (GP) teacher in Junior College. Having favoured visual communication and expression all his life, Mr Chia was skilful in Chinese but never eloquent with English, and consequently performed inexplicably poorly throughout much of his schooling experience.
He muses, ‘It’s very strange that in secondary school they judged us by how well we did in the English language and said that if you didn’t do well in it you wouldn’t be able to make it in future. I accepted it at the time and blamed it on the fact that my parents had a Chinese-speaking background. I lived with the notion that I wasn’t very bright.’
Although he had performed well enough to make it into National Junior College, which was then renowned for its art programme (‘I lived my life entirely for art. Anywhere that had art, I would go’), this lack of self-confidence was reinforced by a streaming system that NJC had adopted, which banded students according to their linguistic ability.
Mr Chia wholeheartedly attributes his self-esteem to his teacher. He recounts to us the singular experience that changed his life: ‘One day, we were talking and she asked me to tell her what word she was spelling. She then spelled a word, and I couldn’t get it even though she repeated the spelling slowly. She asked me how I usually spelled words, and I said that I visualised every letter and put them together to figure it out. She said that I had a certain condition which affected my linguistic ability but did not impede my thoughts.’
That was the first time he learned of dyslexia, the linguistic developmental disorder responsible for his limited fluency in English. Thereafter, with his teacher’s guidance and relentless encouragement, Mr Chia was pushed to overcome the limitations of his disorder, and eventually scored a B3 for GP at the A-Levels, up from the string of D7s he had been consistently bringing home throughout his junior college life.
For someone experiencing such crippling difficulties with communication and expression, it is awe-inspiring to see this determination and willingness to overcome rather than run away from such a fundamental, overarching problem. But confront his fears he did, even electing to complete a staggering 10 000 word thesis for his Master’s in university. In a statement that truly revealed his mettle, Mr Chia told us, ‘I believed that if I worked hard and overcame the problem, I would be able to write while still enjoying writing. I have grown to believe that writing can be an art form in itself.’
It is this memory, then, that made Mr Chia want to teach: ‘I wanted to be in a position where I could affect and change lives.’ His desire also stemmed from his conviction that art can change one’s life—like it did for him. He says, ‘I wanted to teach art and relive this experience of how art changed my life, and I wanted to impart the transformative power of art to other people. I want to make this very clear: I wouldn’t want to teach if I weren’t able to teach art.’ Although he hastily demurred that he isn’t capable of that kind of life-changing touch yet, his teacher remains his inspiration, mentor and role model, and is the driving force behind all that he has accomplished in his 15 years of teaching.
Though the nature of art is still widely disputed, Mr Chia has a clear idea of what makes an artist. He believes that artists see things differently from others, and can notice that one simple thing can make something look entirely different. An artist ‘makes special’—sees special qualities in ordinary things and transforms them into something entirely extraordinary. This definition transcends various disciplines; for example, poets can use conventional material like the sky, clouds, sunlight, roses—even the ordinary people they encounter in their everyday lives—and turn them all into subject matter for their poems. To him, that is the mark of an artist: to see things differently, to make special. In his years of teaching, this is the fundamental spirit and ability that he hopes will guide his students throughout their entire lives.
‘Without art, life is mundane,’ Mr Chia reiterates. ‘It’s this special thing called art – in various forms – that makes us realise that this life has something that is worth living for.’
What is the value of a painting? In Mr Chia’s view, to appreciate an artwork is to have a dialogue with it, and in the process of doing so, learn more about ourselves and the world. Despite the fact that paintings are inanimate, external to the viewer and have no direct utility, he believes that a lot of things happen inside us when we look at a painting: we’re looking at ourselves, reordering something within ourselves, getting closer to and more intimate with ourselves. He draws an analogy: ‘It’s through our friends that we get to know more about ourselves, and the same goes for paintings. I hope this is something my students can experience and see. One thing that I don’t want to do is reduce art to just another subject. It is more than a subject—it is a way of life, a way that you see things, a worldview.’
In order to inculcate some form of authentic learning, rather than merely providing instruction, Mr Chia’s teaching approach is governed not by a need to teach the technical processes of creating, but by a desire to plant in his students the seed of genuine yearning for the oceans of knowledge yet to be discovered, and give them space to develop their own means of getting there.
Mr Chia points out the error teachers sometimes make in their haste to ensure that learning objectives are met: ‘We get so anxious to get students to build this ship, but they do not possess any intrinsic desire to conquer this open ocean.’ From an artistic standpoint, this mistake is doubly egregious, because a reluctant student will be unwilling to confront the inevitable difficulties that he will encounter throughout his lifelong learning process, and curtail any form of meaningful learning.
For a brief moment, Mr Chia grew sombre as he confides, ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a dilemma. I want education to be about inculcating creativity, and that hunger for knowledge and curiosity, and the ability to imagine what’s possible rather than always being concerned with what’s impossible. I thought that was what education is for. But at the same time education seems to be doing the opposite, getting people to conform, to follow certain instructions and things like that.’
He brightened up when we steered the conversation back towards his students. Contrary to popular belief, a good number of Rafflesians do end up becoming artists—not just in terms of creating art pieces, but in terms of being creative individuals. Mr Chia speaks of ex-students who have become doctors and engineers with the same fondness as he does of current architects and designers, saying that vocation does not matter as long as the individual upholds the creative spirit. He clarifies his definition of being creative as not just being a consumer, or creating things for oneself, but creating things that have an impact on others and seeing the interconnectedness between things and between people. While he believes that the stereotype of the logical, rigid, linear-thinking Rafflesian is exaggerated, he cautions, ‘However, if you are not careful, this ability might disappear when you subscribe to trivial, mundane, materialistic aspects of life. It’s so, so fragile.’
SINK OF SWIM
Attempts to hold on to a guileless way of viewing the world are complicated by the cynicism most people inevitably acquire as they sober up to the unavoidable realities of the adult world. In pragmatic Singapore, the fledgling arts scene appears to be struggling to stay aloft even as the nation gradually becomes more receptive to a discipline previously seen as resource-intensive and fruitless. When asked for his views on the arts industry in Singapore and the general tendency to view art as a means to an end, Mr Chia reasonably points out that when measuring things in terms of survival, opportunity cost, viability, and effectiveness, it’s no wonder that politicians see the arts as a low priority and stick to emphasising survival and economic productivity. Nevertheless, he believes that this alone is insufficient reason to not support art—the survival of a country or nation through crises does not depend solely on the material aspect of things. In a crisis, we tend to lose sight of reason—we forget our purpose in life, why we make any attempt to resolve the contradictions and ambiguities in our existence. In his view, it takes an artist to deal with these grey areas, while leading a country is a politician’s sphere. No matter what, Mr Chia believes we need everybody to play a part in building up a culture and history.
With the memory of Singapore’s temporary withdrawal from the Venice Biennale fresh in our minds, Singapore’s arts industry is indisputably very fragile. This is why Mr Chia feels an obligation to plant the seed of ‘making special’ in the minds of people. There is no doubt in his mind that we need to start now: ‘We can’t lament that things are the way they are; we have to imagine the possibilities. Imagine a day when more people learn to appreciate art. If they were able to make important decisions about the country, if they were artists at heart, even if they were not politicians, they would be able to make decisions to change people’s lives for the better.’ Therein lies the universal value of art.
We thanked Mr Chia for his time, and he adds a parting line: ‘Art cannot change the world, but it can change one person, who can then change the world.’ A lofty statement indeed, but after hearing his thoughts, we don’t doubt it for a second.