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Kopi Culture
by Mulan Gallery
Location: Mulan Gallery
Artist(s): TAN Ping Chiang
Date: 16 May - 30 Jun 2015

This Coffee Shop Series offers a testament and homage to the authentic Nanyang (or Southeast Asian) coffee shop culture, containing within it the rich tapestry of stories and lives that ebb and flow with the changing times. Characteristically imbuing social realism with formalist experimentation, the artist’s observations, overheard snippets and chance encounters presented in this series cut through the everyday and the mundane in an intermittently poetic and jolting ode to this microcosm of contemporary Singapore society. 

For the artist, the flavour and poetry of everyday Singapore life is most potently embodied in the coffee-aroma infused neighbourhood coffee shop or kopitiam. Like the strongly aromatic Nanyang coffee that it serves, the kopitiam constantly brews a rich, flavoursome setting for the multiracial, multilingual city-state’s bustling theatre of life, with its proprietors, servers and patrons each having a part to play. Seen through the eyes of ‘Uncle Ping,’ this piquant melting pot moves to the rojak rhythms of different languages and dialects of people from all walks of life who converge here for their daily sustenance, often accompanied by a cup of strong local coffee (“kopi gao-gao”) or “teh si siewdai” (low-sugar, low-fat milk tea). 

The unsung heroes of the coffee shop featured in these scenes are the hardworking kopi assistants and proprietors. Often seen are ‘pioneer generation’ elderly servers doubling as cleaners, working with a kind of dignity and, oftentimes, out of less-touted necessity despite their age and frailty. The latter exercise their memory and mobility incessantly as they handle and holler out orders of dialect-customised beverages: this one a siew dai, that one a kosong, making sure to si this and gao that, not forgetting that another has to be poh-poh – as if reciting modern poetry. 

The intense aroma of a strong kopi gao-gao reflects what can be called a culture and ‘philosophy of coffee’: an ease and grace of being in the world free of anxieties and worldly cares, which frees the mind to such autumnal reflections and ruminations, to the remembrance of things and times past and the vicissitudes of a life well-lived, and to musings and meditations on the self, on life, and on history and an ever-changing society. These scenes depict an epoch and a culture evocatively, perhaps prompting in us the question: when autumn passes and winter comes, who will take up the mantle?

Tan Ping Chiang (陈彬章, b. 1940, Singapore) is an esteemed Singapore artist and educator with an art and design career spanning the early 1960s to the present. A member of the Modern Art Society in the 60s, Tan has been cited as a pioneer artist who had helped foment formalist experimentation in Singapore art. Notable exhibitions include the 1964 International Youth Art Exhibition in Shinjuku, Japan and the 1969 Salon d'Automne art exhibition in Paris, France, as well as Solid, Soft, Dynamic: Three-Man Exhibition at the National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore in 1990. His work can be found in major public and private collections globally, including the National Museum Art Gallery of Singapore and the National Museum of Malaysia.

Aside from painting, Tan is also known for his sculptural work and writing. His public works include three major sculptures titled "Cultural Development of Singapore" located within the city’s Dhoby Ghaut MRT station. In addition, he is also the author of a series of travel journals offering visual tours of everyday life in Asian cities and their culture using vibrant watercolour sketches, as well as a book of Mandarin collected essays titled <<紅尘留痕>> (2006) published under his pen name 陈大彬. 

A graduate of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Tan received a Master’s (Honours) in Food Packaging Design from the University of Western Sydney, Australia in 1998. As an educator, he has headed both the Applied Arts Department (1981–1992) and the Fine Arts Department (1987–1991) at NAFA. He was also the founding president of the Contemporary Printmaking Association (now Printmaking Society) of Singapore.


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