YONG MUN SEN
B. Sarawak, 1896 – 1962
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 the Kwangtung Province of 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 scene 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. With the onset of the Second World War in 1939, the Penang Chinese Art Club was disbanded never to be formed again. When the Japanese occupied Malaya from 1941 to 1945, for Mun Sen, this was the most fruitless period of his life. He had to resort to farming for the sake of survival.
The streak of misfortune continued when his wife died in 1941. Soon after, he remarried to the beautiful Yao Chew Mooi, the daughter of Yao Swee Lum from Ipoh (a descendant of Kapitan China, Yap Ah Loy). She eventually gave birth to four sons and two daughters. Post-war, Mun Sen got back on track and delved into the art scene actively and soon after, he became well known through his exhibitions in Malaya and Singapore and also through foreign contacts in Britain, USA and Australia. Mun Sen’s forte and heart was landscape in watercolour. Although he did frolic into oil and Chinese traditional brush painting with success, eventually he steered back to the watercolour medium, in which he excelled. One can observe that his works assimilated the Chinese artistic spirit. It is also evident in his landscape paintings that Mun Sen did not depict the details that made up a landscape, rather, through watercolour, he illustrated fluidity and a carefree rhythm.
In 1956, he had the first of several strokes. Undeterred by his physical infirmity, he struggled on to paint. Things really took a toll on him when his illness lingered and financial hardship eventually led to a morose man. He died on Sept 29, 1962.
A decade later, in 1972, the National Art Gallery organised a Mun Sen Memorial Art Exhibition. Yong Mun Sen’s works will always hold a distinguished place in Malaysian art, as they rightfully deserve.