Lim Tze Peng is one of Singapore’s most significant artists and a living legend. He was born in 1921 to a family of farmers in Pasir Ris, Singapore. A graduate of Chung Cheng High School, Lim became a primary school teacher in 1949. Two years later, he became a school principal, a role he held until he retired in 1981.
Lim started to learn to paint in his twenties, but he didn’t do so professionally until after his retirement. His repertoire of Chinese ink paintings, depicting post- independence Singapore, and his calligraphy work, have earned him local and international acclaim; including Singapore’s prestigious Cultural Medallion in 2003.
Lim’s latest calligraphic creations are exceptional examples of his pioneering ‘Nanyang’ spirit. By creatively adding colour to calligraphy, Lim has developed a new expression that is modern while remaining true to preserving Chinese artistic tradition and culture.
For a closer look into Lim Tze Peng’s life and work, THINK’s editorial team ventured into an art gallery nestled in Singapore’s city centre. There we met the gallery’s owner and president of the Singapore Art Society, Terence Teo. A confidante of Lim for over four decades, Teo has met countless admirers and collectors of Lim’s artwork. Amid a collection of stunning artwork and over a pot of perfectly brewed Chinese tea, Teo spent hours sharing anecdotes from their decades of friendship. Through Teo’s stories, we hope to deepen our readers’ appreciation for the tenacity and creative spirit of the centenarian artist.
During his early years, Mr Lim focused on life paintings, which showcased his experiences in Singapore and his travels. This period saw the birth of his celebrated series — depicting the Singapore River, Chinatown, the island of Bali, and the quaint kampungs (Malay villages) in Pasir Ris, where he spent his childhood. As Mr Lim entered his eighties, however, outdoor painting became increasingly challenging. He then started to paint from memories and imagination, and his art took on a more profound purpose: expressing his innermost feelings. As a result, his work evolved to become bolder, increasingly colourful, and more abstract — a testament to his ever-adapting artistic vision.
Though Mr Lim is a self-taught artist — having never attended a formal art school — his high school art teacher, the accomplished Singaporean artist Mr Liu Kang, imparted essential foundational skills upon him.”
Mr Lim is respected for his wisdom, diligence, and kindness. Rarely does he speak ill of others, and his artistic prowess is evident in his constant exploration of new ideas. Both artists and calligraphers in our community hold him in high regard.
Mr Lim was always very passionate when we travelled together to different parts of the world to paint and draw. One such journey, two decades ago, took us to the mystical Angkor Wat. As our tour bus arrived, Mr Lim’s excitement became obvious, and his anticipation for creating his next masterpiece was almost tangible. We got to the grand gate of a temple, and he saw some exquisite architecture he was eager to paint. He was in his 80s then, while I was significantly younger. I dutifully assisted in setting up his easel, standing by to ensure his comfort as we painted together. The rest of our group ventured deeper into the temple, but he remained wholly absorbed in his art. As Mr Lim completed his painting, time had vanished, leaving no opportunity to explore the temple further. Yet, he seemed satisfied and happy, for his canvas had beautifully preserved what stirred his artistic soul.
Over the past few years, periods of poor health led him to announce his intention to retire from painting. However, the moment he regained his strength, Mr Lim eagerly picked up his brushes to continue his lifelong artistic journey. What’s truly inspiring is his relentless pursuit of growth and innovation, as he constantly strives to surpass his own creative boundaries.
With age, Mr Lim remains undeterred, exploring a myriad of artistic styles, mediums, and materials. He adapts to his changing physical abilities, available resources, and living conditions with grace and resilience. He once revealed, “If there’s a next life, I still want to be an artist.” This powerful statement is a testament to his unwavering passion for the world of art.
In recent years, Mr Lim has developed a distinct art form known as hu tu zi (糊涂字), or “muddled calligraphy,” by merging painting and calligraphy. Within these pieces, the calligraphic characters become nearly indiscernible, engulfed by the unrestrained force of the brushstrokes that often abstractly convey the text’s original meaning.
As a gallery owner, I’ve had the pleasure of selling many calligraphies and paintings by Mr Lim over the years. Despite his unwavering confidence in his own artistic abilities, he remains inquisitive about others’ perceptions of his work and humbly seeks my advice and ideas occasionally.