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.
Kukup is located in the Southern part of Johor, Malaysia. The folklore of Kukup Island tells the tale of the five celestial princesses who lived on the island, who were cursed and engulfed by the sea. During this time, one among the five eloped with a sailor. The mystery surrounding the mangrove-covered island in the area is reiterated with stories of disappearing pirates and lost fortunes. In this Chinese ink painting, Chen employed a system of multiple vanishing points. Here, a meandering walkway of boards on stilts traverses the mangrove forest, receding into the village far away. The bird’s eye perspective emphasises the expansiveness of the island. This unique combination of techniques attests to Chen’s proficiency in the medium.