Koeh Sia Yong is an influential figure in the development of art in Singapore. He was born in 1938 and studied Western Painting at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1958. During his time at NAFA, he joined the Equator Art Society, an art collective that promoted social realism and drew attention to the lives of the working class through their artworks. Before it was dissolved in 1972, Koeh actively supported the group’s activities and was considered a key member. He then became an art editor for the art column with Sin Chew Jit Poh, and later, in the 1980s, a graphic designer and political cartoonist for the Nanyang Business Newspaper. After over two decades in the advertising industry, Koeh decided to dedicate his time to art.
This modest composition of a woodcut print captures the zeitgeist of the era. Although woodcut was used for thousands of years in China and Japan before the 20th century, a shift in social and political conditions in the 1930s in China led to a resurgence of woodcut production by activists and artists alike. Woodcut prints were mass-produced during the 30s in China as accessible formats for disseminating ideas and images. This ‘scene’ of the Bukit Ho Swee fire recollects the devastation of a conflagration that obliterated almost three thousand squatter settlements in Singapore.
As woodcuts go, the brevity of the composition belies the gravity of the subject. Koeh focuses on the figures: the different emotional reactions to the devastation, including the ones in salvage, in the distance.