The rag-&-bone 'Pollock'

The rag-&-bone 'Pollock'
Mr Tan in his ‘studio’, which is one of the rooms in a three-room Circuit Road flat he shares with his brother.
PHOTO: The New Paper

He collects second-hand items and hawks them at a stall in Sungei Road's Thieves' Market for a living. Yet his shirt, dotted with colourful paint specks, hints at another side to him.

Mr Tan Chong Bin, 63, is both a rag-and-bone man and a self-taught artist.

His string of artwork - from sketches of cartoons and people to abstract paintings - tell the story of how he has journeyed through life, which he spent mostly trying to earn enough money through peddling wares to get by.

This "tinge of sadness" in Mr Tan's paintings is why Artcommume Gallery founder Ho Sou Ping decided to exhibit his works.

Mr Tan, who said he was drawn to American painter Jackson Pollock's style, won a Highly Commended award in last year's UOB Painting of the Year competition.


The 63-year-old juggles two jobs and his days are full.

In the morning, he works at his paintings in his studio, one of the rooms in a three-room Circuit Road flat he shares with his fourth younger brother in his 50s.

By 1pm, he is out of the flat, making his rounds to collect unwanted household items before heading to Sungei Road, where he shares a stall with an acquaintance.

He sells second-hand items as well as watches and clocks with hand-painted faces, which go for about $30.

His day ends at about 8pm, when he reaches home. He used to continue painting at night, but has stopped in recent years due to his failing eyesight.

His schedule is flexible, depending on how much time he chooses to devote to his craft.

"Of course I'm tired, walking around so much. Every day, I have to fret over whether I have enough to eat. I don't feel the fatigue only when I know I have earned enough to cover my meals for the next day.

"What to do? I can take only one step at a time," said the rag-and-bone man.

He declined to comment on how much he earns monthly on average.

He became interested in art when he learnt to draw cartoons in school, when he was eight.

Four years later, he moved on to portraits, something he observed from an artist at Thieves' Market at that time.

"I was there because I used to have relatives living in the vicinity. I learnt a thing or two by watching an artist sketch from a photograph," he said, speaking in Mandarin.

"When I got home, I started sketching from my father's photographs. He praised my work," Mr Tan, who is single, told The New Paper on Monday.

By then, the oldest of seven siblings had already stopped schooling.

He spent the next few years peddling his wares at different pasar malams, until he was arrested in 1975 for not enlisting for national service.

It landed him in jail for six months.

After he was released, Mr Tan, then 23, found himself wondering: How do I walk on the right path from here?

In between odd jobs and collecting and re-selling second-hand goods, he found time to express his thoughts in the form of a simple painting on a wooden board.


It showed seven stars in different colours, signifying the different experiences in life. The sun and moon mean day and night, while the birds in flight signify an ongoing search for a direction in life.

But his first "proper painting" did not make the cut for a competition in 1976.

"The three judges were very polite. One of them pointed out that there was no background in my work," he said.

"Now, when I look back at this painting, I realised, buay sai (cannot make it in Hokkien) leh," he added with a laugh.

Eager to improve his craft, Mr Tan started poring over art books and catalogues that he found at the Thieves' Market.

He went for as many exhibitions as he could, including those for children.

He also played around with different painting materials, even using coffee at one point.

In 2006, he "met" one of his biggest inspirations: renowned American painter Jackson Pollock, the leading force behind the abstract expressionist movement.

He had come across the painter in an art catalogue and was especially drawn to Pollock's brush strokes and "drip-painting" style.

That year, he joined a painting competition again, only to be disappointed.

When yet another opportunity swung by in the form of UOB's Painting of the Year competition last year, then 62-year-old fretted - excited but still fearful of rejection.

"I was demoralised, but when I looked at the calendar, I realised years have flown by without me realising.

"I'm already in my 60s now. I should hurry (and achieve something), I thought. Otherwise, I'll have no more time left," he joked.

In order to have a "breakthrough" from his previous works, Mr Tan began painting in pitch darkness, then left it under his bed to dry.

"The next day, when I took it out from my bed again... Eh, buay pai (Hokkien for not bad) leh! The texture from the paint is good too," he said gleefully.

That draft became the inspiration for his 152cm by 122cm submission piece, which he completed in a month.

Titled "Ever Changing of Artworks", it earned him the Highly Commended Award in the established artists category in the competition.

It is a good start for the late bloomer, but Mr Tan has bigger dreams: He hopes to be better known in the art fraternity through his works.

"Give me two years," he said with a smile.

So much 'emotion' in his paintings

Mr Ho Sou Ping first met Mr Tan Chong Bin when the rag-and-bone man turned up at the gallery in 2013.

Mr Tan, 63, said he had some paintings he had collected to show Mr Ho, who founded Artcommune Gallery.

"So I went to Sungei Road where his stall is... Then he showed me a lot of paintings, none of which was of good quality," Mr Ho, 43, said.

They were old paintings collected by Mr Tan and his fellow rag-and-bone men.

"Then he told me that he can paint. I was telling myself, you must be kidding right? He said he would give me a few paintings a few days later," Mr Ho said.

True to his word, Mr Tan turned up at the gallery with some of his works in a series titled "Different Experiences in Life".

Mr Ho was in awe.

"When I saw his paintings, I was shocked because (there was) so much difference between what he looks like and his paintings. I think his paintings are actually of a certain standard. And I think I saw in his paintings... a tinge of sadness of all his experiences.

"It's a rare quality that an artist can express emotions in his paintings. So at that point, I thought I should support him because I think he's very special," Mr Ho said.

The prices of the paintings on exhibition had not been finalised at press time, but are expected to go between $800 and $3,000, depending on the size and series of the work.

This article was first published on October 8, 2015.
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