In Landmarks of Singapore, Cheong Soo Pieng captures the quintessential and immediately recognizable geographical and architectural features that make up the visual identity of Singapore. Executed in 1968, three years after the nation attained independence from the British, this is a piece that conveys a confidence, pride, and hope, for the new nation.
An homage to the physical monuments rich in culture and history that make up the city, Cheong depicts key landmarks, including the distinctive Sri Mariamman Temple located on South Bridge Road, the steeple of a Catholic church, the dome of a Jewish synagogue, the pagoda-styled roof of a Chinese temple, and the minaret of a Muslim Mosque. Through an innovative compositing and layering of finely detailed images, Cheong achieves in presenting the bustling and multi-faceted cultural make-up of Singapore. With Cheong’s expert ink wash technique, the boundaries of the buildings are at once sharply defined and indistinct. Architectural features such as pillars and spires draw the eye from one building to another in quick succession, and Cheong achieves in highlighting the similarities and dissimilarities between the facades of the structures. The elegant mast of a small boat in the foreground of the painting draws the eye upwards to the peaks of the buildings that are pleasingly arranged in ascending order, and culminate finally with a glimpse of the iconic Singapore River as it runs under the first bridge constructed over the river in 1929.
Amidst the staggered beauty of Singapore’s man-made monuments, the river that runs from the top of the composition to the open sea in the foreground of the painting remains a strong metaphor for the ceaseless ebb and flow of migrants, commerce, trade, and industry so crucial to Singapore’ early development. The river continues to this day to be a key icon and physical referent for the Singaporean identity, and is presented clearly by Cheong as the lifesource for the young nation.
Regarded in its entirety, the concerted decision to render Landmarks of Singapore in its elegant sepia tone that conveys an immediate sense of nostalgia, was perhaps, on the part of Cheong, a nod to the awareness that this composition would serve as a cultural and historical reminder not only of the physical features of Singapore, but of the more intangible emotion of feeling a true sense of belonging for a place. Cheong’s story of migration and relocation was one shared by many Singaporeans, and that he was driven to produce a painting filled with such admiration and humble respect for Singapore was telling of his deep affinity for the country by this time. For Cheong, the effort to assimilate different races and cultures, and the inclusive message of the newly independent Singapore must have resonated deeply.
One of the only known paintings by Cheong to have made such a concerted effort in recording and conveying the Singaporean landscape and psyche, Landmarks of Singapore is a celebration of Singapore’s history of development and progress.