“I try not to think of transmission – things will die and flourish naturally. If artists don’t produce interesting work, people will not fall in love with it.”
For someone with such a long list of achievements under his belt, Mark Chan isn’t one to dwell on the past. The 63-year-old Chinese brush painter isn’t any ordinary Singaporean artist. He’s also a former national swimmer, music director and renowned composer who’s worked with the likes of Andy Lau and Tracy Huang. Mark doesn’t like the term “jack of all trades”, but we’d like to think of him as a polymath of sorts. We sit down with him to chat about his passion for music and Chinese brush painting, and his views on preserving Chinese arts in Singapore.
Mark Chan: Composer, music director and artist extraordinaire
From the first second you meet Mark, you know he’s not afraid to speak his mind. He greets us at the front door of his home, all ready to get down to business. “Just tell me what you need from me, and what you want to know,” he says. You can tell he’s done this several times before.
Mark’s living room is filled with stacks of paintings in preparation for Email and Eternity – his upcoming show at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC) on 1 and 2 October. Other than his current pursuit, his walls and shelves are bare of reminders of old achievements. The only trace you’ll find of past successes is in two huge boxes he begrudgingly pulls out from storage (at my insistence).
“In case you haven’t realised, I’m not very sentimental. I don’t like looking at the past, maybe I’m just kind of freaky that way,” he jokes.
He leaves me to trawl through his collection. I find a treasure trove of photographs, posters and newspaper clippings from days of old. But Mark insists that he never goes through them. That’s evident in the way his eyes light up in excitement when he finds an aged photo of his family. “I didn’t even know I had this!” he exclaims and snaps a picture of it with his Samsung Galaxy flip phone (I know, very edgy).
That’s just the way Mark works – he’s a forward-looking person. So it might take you by surprise that as an artist in Singapore, his current chosen mode of expression is traditional Chinese brush painting and Chinese musical instruments.
Falling in love with Chinese ink on paper
His first brush with the mao bi (pun intended) came many years ago when Mark was only 27. Mandarin wasn’t his forte, but he had to pick it up to work with pop singers in Taipei.
“A year before I left for Taipei, I couldn’t read and write the language. I couldn’t come to grips with how to write the various characters,” he shares. Eventually, he decided to learn Mandarin with the help of the mao bi and Chinese ink, and that’s when everything changed.
As a composer-singer-songwriter, music is Mark’s pride and passion. For many years he kept himself busy with it, leaving his experience with calligraphy and brush painting behind him. But in 2015, when an injury robbed him of his ability to play instruments, he began exploring other mediums to express himself. That’s when his interest in Chinese brush painting was reignited.
“Brush on paper is very much like a musical performance. Once you start painting, you can’t stop. You have to carry on. It’s very unforgiving,” he says. “There’s a real synchronicity to it, very much like music and performing. Chinese brush painting has its own culture and aesthetic, and I fell in love with that.”
It’s all in the way we adapt
I request to see him practise his calligraphy and watch as Mark uses the mao bi to deftly paint beautiful Chinese characters onto a large sheet of paper. It’s obvious he’s enamoured by this traditional art form.
So when I ask about his thoughts on the preservation of Chinese arts in Singapore, his response takes me by surprise. I was convinced he’d tell me how imperative it is to pass it down to the youth. Instead, he challenges this notion.
“Traditional arts or music also has to evolve. As a composer, I’m comfortable with bringing the past forward and making something new out of it,” he says. Mark believes the key to building interest in Chinese arts is to transform it into something younger generations can resonate with. For example, if you listen to the music he’s composed in Email and Eternity, you’ll hear swirling, hypnotic melodies with a dash of contemporary playfulness in between.
“Imagine if you ask young people to listen to a song played on an erhu from hundreds of years ago. Of course, they won’t find it interesting,” he says. “So I try not to think of transmission – things will die and flourish naturally. If artists don’t produce interesting work, people will not fall in love with it.”
The past and present collide in his work
This blend of old and new is exactly what you’ll find in Email and Eternity this October. To Mark, this show is about finding meaning in uncertain times. It showcases his Chinese brush painting skills in combination with contemporary music that’s played on traditional Chinese instruments like the erhu and the sheng.
Mark says the inspiration comes from parallels he’s spotted between 2003 and 2022: SARS and the invasion of Iraq, Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine. I’d like to think of it as an ode to Mark’s ever-changing, ever-evolving mediums and modes of expression. One that isn’t stopped by the passing of time or injury.
So, what’s next for Mark? Well, you can expect to see more of him in the coming months. The artist extraordinaire is keeping himself busy with painting commissions (and an upcoming collaboration with NLB in 2023). We hear there’s even a novel in the works!
Perhaps that’s how this polymath continues to stay relevant in 2022. And maybe that’s the way our local Chinese arts scene can continue to survive and thrive in the future. Not through remaining as it were, but growing and changing with the times, come what may.