Chen Chong Swee, also known as Chen Khai, was born in 1910, Chenghai County, Guangdong, China. He graduated from the Xinhua Arts Academy in Shanghai and Union High School in Shantou, China, before settling in Singapore in 1934. Known as one of Singapore’s pioneer artists, Chen was also an influential art educator and writer passionate about the state of the arts in Singapore. He spent his early years in Singapore teaching at Tuan Mong High School and Chung Cheng High School before heading the Chinese Painting Department at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), where he remained for over 20 years. Proficient in various mediums, including watercolour, oil, and Chinese ink, Chen was best known for his realist works and application of Chinese ink painting techniques. Mixing Chinese and Western pictorial traditions, Chen was one of the first to capture the Southeast Asian landscape and people in the Chinese ink and brush landscape format.
Following its independence in 1965, the 1970s marked Singapore’s history of major redevelopment plans. Gradually, Boat Quay, once a popular trading port, grew less germane once newer port facilities were established. Chen’s Boat Quay depicts one of the location’s last economic activities, where men are pictured unloading heavy sacks of goods from the boat. Here, the pastels create a soft background. The bold and white strokes break the monotony of the brown buildings and evoke the effect of fleeting sunspots in the water’s reflection.