Lee Man Fong was a celebrated Southeast Asian painter whose impressive career began with his earliest oil painting at age sixteen titled Shuang-lin Ch’an Monastery and ended with his final work in 1988 titled Peace Forever, the year of his death at age 75. Fong’s works have been and continue to be extremely popular at auction for their contrast and integration of traditional Chinese methods and modern European details. His favorite subjects to paint included the vibrant culture, festivals, community, people, plants, and animals of Southeast Asia. Fong is primarily known for his oil paintings and association to Nanyang style, a synthesis of East and West techniques, subjects, and compositions.
Fong was born in 1913 in Guangdong, a province of south China about five hours northwest of Hong Kong. His large family, including nine siblings, moved to Singapore in 1917, where he spent his formative years as a youth and discovered his artistic abilities. In Singapore he received education in English and Chinese at St. Andrew’s Academy and took his first lessons from a master Lingnan painter and an oil painting instructor. As a young man in 1932, Fong relocated to Jakarta, Indonesia. Upon arrival in Indonesia, he was hired by a Chinese magazine as a commercial artist to paint billboards, draw cartoons, and design advertisements. Fong was eager to pursue art, but needed to support his family financially after his father’s death in 1930. For a time, Fong had to put off developing his artistic skills to ensure his family’s survival, but he did not lose sight of his dreams.
Despite many hardships, artistic opportunity found Fong in 1936. The head of the Dutch East Indies Association in Jakarta (formerly Batavia), invited Fong to take part in a painting exhibition, which was previously closed to non-Dutch painters. Local artists were confounded and angry over this seemingly nonsensical invitation. Fong increasingly became known in Indonesia and Holland after this exhibition, in part due to a high-ranking Dutch official’s purchase of Fong’s Telaga Warna. It was shortly thereafter in 1938 that Fong married his wife, Lie Muk-Lan, an accomplished pianist and started a family producing a son who eventually pursued a career in art also.
A turning point in Fong’s career came in 1941, when he visited Bali and dedicated himself to painting full-time holding solo exhibitions in Jakarta and Bandung. During World War II he was interned by the Japanese for approximately six months and released when cleared of any accusations of opposition to Japanese colonialism in Indonesia. The evolution of his artistic style is believed to have been heavily influenced by this first visit to Bali. In 1946, the Dutch government offered him an art scholarship to study in the Netherlands that he accepted. During this time, he showed his work at an art exhibition in Paris and held four solo exhibitions in Amsterdam and Holland. His popularity was spreading internationally and his works were selling quickly. President Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, caught word of Fong’s talents and convinced him to establish and serve both as chairman of Yinhua Meishu Xiehui (Society of Chinese Artists in Indonesia) and his personal art advisor. This art group was invited to a six-month long exhibition in China in 1956. Fong led the delegation and completed 130 works during the trip. Upon returning to Indonesia, he was one of the country’s major artists and in 1961 was appointed chief curator to President Sukarno’s art collection in Jakarta. After President Sukarno, whom Fong was close to, was removed from power, Fong returned to Singapore in 1967. Fong’s mother also made an unsuccessful plea for his return. Fong continued to create art for the next twenty years and made a substantial amount of money painting animals of the Chinese zodiac for wealthy Chinese businessmen. He also held two solo exhibitions at the Victoria Memorial Hill in Singapore, one in 1967 and one in 1981. His final solo exhibition was held at the National Museum Art Gallery in Singapore in 1987. Fong donated all the proceeds from this exhibition to the National Kidney Foundation. In 1985, Fong returned to Indonesia and died there three years later of kidney failure and general deteriorating health.
Xu Beihong, another talented Chinese artist that Fong met in Singapore in 1941, described Fong’s works as having the “power to move people”. Certain art critics have taken Beihong’s analysis to a higher level, stating that Fong’s works have even touched people emotionally in places outside of Southeast Asia, as far away as Europe and North America.
Fong’s highly acclaimed painting Bali Life which he painted at the climax of his career between 1962 and 1964, broke a record for the artist when it sold for nearly $4.7 million at Christie’s Hong Kong auction of Asian twentieth century and contemporary art in 2013. This sale also set a world record for all Southeast Asian paintings at auction. Bali Life measures approximately 3.3 feet by 8 feet and is rare because Fong painted the work on canvas rather than the masonite board he used for the other works in his Balinese series. Fortune and Longevity, another masterpiece by Fong, sold at auction for $4.4 million.