YONG MUN SEN
B. Sarawak, 1896 – 1962
Penang Beach Scene, 1956
Signed and dated “Mun Sen 56” on lower left
Watercolour on paper
27 x 38 cm
Provenance Private Collection, Singapore
RM 8,000 – RM 12,000
The late Yong Mun Sen, born on Jan 10, 1896 was one of Malaysia’s pioneer artists. The country’s art scene wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for his contributions. The artist was born in a coconut estate in Kuching, Sarawak with the forename of Yen Lang. In 1901, he travelled to Tai-Pu, in Kwangtung Province, China to attain a formal education in the proper use of brush and calligraphy. He returned to his hometown in 1910.
One day, Mun Sen witnessed a Japanese artist painting using watercolours and thenceforth, he became enamoured with that medium. In 1914, Mun Sen went back to China and painted majestic pictures of lions and tigers which were much loved by the warlords of the time. Two years later, he married 16-year-old Lam Sek Foong who bore five children. He returned to Sarawak in 1917. A year later, he started his career at a bookshop in Singapore and served at a school bookshop counter. Living in Singapore sparked a fondness and appreciation for its urban scenes he later illustrated in numerous watercolours.
In 1920, he was transferred to the Penang branch of the bookshop in Carnarvon Street. It was his first time in Penang; he saw the lovely island for what it was and was captivated by its beauty and charm. It was in 1922 when he decided to change his name to Yong Mun Sen and subsequently set up Tai Koon Art Studio in Chulia Street. He took up photography seriously and executed some plaster-of-paris sculptures. Eight years later, he moved his studio from Chulia Street to Penang Road and renamed it Mun Sen Studio.
Unfortunately, his career did not gain him any success which later prompted him to open an additional studio housed at an old mansion in Northam Road. During this time, Mun Sen familiarised himself with the works of prominent European artists through books, particularly those of Van Gogh and Gauguin. Gauguin and his works spoke to Mun Sen, which explains the strong influence on the development of his style, especially in his oil paintings. Around 1936, several Penang artists happened to meet up and decided to form their brainchild, the Penang Chinese Art Club, with Mun Sen as the vice-president. He became the president the following year.
Yong’s artistic forte and heart were landscapes in watercolour. With Western impressionism, complemented by Chinese calligraphy aesthetics, Yong garnered aficionados from the US, Australia and the UK. When Yong came across a scene that spoke to his soul, he would swiftly set up his easel and camp stool, equipped with a brush in hand to relay it on the canvas. Yong’s identification of his subjects’ struggles, including fishermen in seaside villagers, farmers in paddy fields and labourers in plantations took centre stage. His conveyance grants viewers with an immaculate escape, a breath of fresh air or to remind people to break away from the bustling life. It is also evident in his landscape paintings that Yong did not depict the details that made up a landscape, rather, through watercolour, he illustrated fluidity and a carefree rhythm. The ‘Penang Beach Scene’ is an illustration of just that, taking viewers back to a time when the waters were pristine, beach clean and less frequented – evoking a feeling of nostalgia.