Over the past two years, Singaporean artist Koh Chin Tong spent long hours at his neighbourhood coffeeshop – hard at work on his artistic practice. While most coffeeshop patrons were engaged in leisurely activities such as feasting, chatting, or watching videos on their mobile phones with the free Wi-Fi, Koh was immersed in his creative process – gathering online research and experimenting with ideas for his next masterpiece.
A modest individual with profound wisdom and insight when it comes to professional art practice and the local art scene, Koh is one of Singapore’s few artists with an established career in creating temple art. After decades of professional experience in the advertising and media industries, Koh returned to his true calling in illustrating mythological and folkloric imagery, a unique artistic practice which began in his early childhood. His first project in temple art was illustrating t-shirt designs when he was merely 10 years old. His love of drawing eventually led him to pursue a career in media, starting as an in-house artist at children’s publisher Bookworm Club. He has since created comic works for different publishers over the years, though rarely credited by name.
After many years of keeping a low profile, he published his first ever book in July last year – The Legend of Mazu, an illustrated adaptation of the ancient Chinese folklore of Mazu, goddess and protector of the seas. The Legend of Mazu tells the story of Lin Mo, a mortal girl born in Meizhou Island in China, who displayed unrivalled intelligence and compassion from a young age. Gaining various extraordinary abilities and spiritual powers throughout her life, she protected her people from natural disasters and evil demons, leading to her ascent into immortality and earning her the name Mazu.
Today, Mazu is more commonly recognised as a religious figure, worshipped as a deity in Buddhism and Taoism in several different nations. While Mazu’s tale stems from folklore in the Song Dynasty in China, it remains relevant in contemporary society in socio-cultural contexts of diaspora, sea travel, and identity.
While retelling the widely-known story, Koh had to ensure that his representation of the goddess was sufficiently comprehensive and accurate to historical records, while conveying her narrative in a universal manner for audiences of all backgrounds and cultures. This required intensive study of classical Chinese history and folklore. The result is a fantastical and enchanting chronicle of the goddess of the sea.
Koh’s artwork in The Legend of Mazu is unprecedented and highly distinct. His skillful use of traditional Chinese bai miao black-and-white line drawing is a reflection of his expertise in classical Chinese art styles. His artistic mastery, self-cultivated over decades, is echoed in his use of finely-controlled yet organic linework in the intricate illustrations that pay tribute to the goddess’s grandeur and prestige. Every page is a work of art. Each piece of Koh’s drawings encompasses its own compelling narrative, bringing a touch of lifelikeness to mythology.
For Koh, The Legend of Mazu is a personal milestone in his artistic career, one which he believes has been meaningful and value-adding to his lifework. He sees it as a consequence of fate, which allowed him to reconnect with his lifelong passion for drawing and illustration.
Today, he continues to work on comic and illustration projects that are mostly published on Facebook, notably Gangster Days, an ongoing webcomic containing vivid and visceral portrayals of urban youth in the neighbourhoods of 1980s Singapore.
Pick up your very own copy of The Legend of Mazu comic book here.