ART IN TRANSIT
Learn about the art in our MRT stations
"Despite the age of 20 years, the artwork still looks as fresh and vibrant as when it was first launched"
Hear From the Artist
Tan Swie Hian
The Phoenix's - Eye Domain, 2003
For his artwork at Chinatown station, Tan Swie Hian wrote a poem entitled "Couplets on Chinatown", which chronicles the origins of the Chinese settlers in Singapore. Swathed in mythological imagery, the poem describes their journey to Singapore, the hard work of the coolies on arrival, and then the powerful nation which they laid the foundations for. Although celebratory, it does end on a note of nostalgia, as Tan observes “Roads, lanes and shops in the community still miss the sight of the bullock carts”.
The Chinese characters that make up the poem can be seen on the granite flooring on the platform level of the station, where people first place their feet upon arrival in Chinatown. Tan deliberately wanted to make the slightly provocative gesture of having calligraphy on the floor. One of the couplets that is one part of the whole poem, inked onto white paper. Translated it reads: “The buildings in harmony do away with the random shadows; The waste land of ruined gravel grows a million flowers.”
The process of setting the characters in granite was difficult, as they were made from pieces of lighter coloured granite inserted into specially cut holes in the darker granite blocks. Each detail and splash of ‘ink’ from Tan’s calligraphic pen, also had to be cut out of granite and fitted in like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
This poem complements a large mural created in vitreous enamel on the concourse level of the station. In startlingly bold colours, Tan depicts a phoenix flying to Singapore, and a journey through the history of the island right up to the present. The phoenix is adorned with five Chinese characters for Virtue, Righteousness, Civility, Integrity, and Benevolence. After it stands on the teeth-like rocks at the edges of Singapore known to early Chinese navigators as “Dragon’s Teeth Gate”, the bird passes through jungle and over muscular, larger-than-life coolies, portrayed deliberately, as Tan notes, “like Greek Gods”, before it is joined by many other birds in a spinning spiral of universal energy; a commentary on the never-ending cycle of life. Meanwhile the rocks and jungle have now become the skyscrapers of modern Singapore. The use of the mythological bird, the phoenix, as the main element of the mural’s narrative, comes from The Book of Mountains and Seas, an ancient Chinese classic text. One line in particular inspired Tan: “When the world is in harmony, a phoenix is spotted”.
Tan Swie Hian
b. 1943, Indonesia
Tan Swie Hian is a prominent Singaporean artist, poet, and philosopher, widely known for his unique and innovative style that blends Eastern and Western artistic traditions. Born in 1943 in Indonesia, Tan moved to Singapore in 1954 and began his artistic journey at an early age.
Tan's works are heavily influenced by his experiences growing up in Southeast Asia and his interest in Chinese and Western philosophy. He draws inspiration from various sources, including Chinese calligraphy, traditional Indonesian textiles, and Western art movements such as Expressionism and Surrealism. The artist is particularly renowned for his large-scale ink paintings, which often feature bold, sweeping brushstrokes and intricate details. He is also a prolific poet and has written several volumes of poetry that explore themes such as spirituality, love, and the human condition.
His works have been exhibited widely in Singapore and internationally, and he has won numerous awards throughout his career, including the Cultural Medallion in 1983 and the and the World Economic Forum Crystal Award in 2003.