Chia Yu Chian was born in Malaysia in 1936, and spent his formative years pursuing his education in Singapore. He graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in Singapore, and went on to become the first artist from the Straits Settlements to receive a scholarship from the French government, advancing his Fine Art training at the École Nationale des Beaux Arts de Paris. Chia took much of his artistic inspiration from familiar local scenes, painting mostly episodes from daily village life, and the vast tropical landscapes of the region. Having studied in both Paris and Singapore, Chia’s works straddle the divide between East and West – bringing together the subtle gradation of colours typical of the Chinese palette, with the visible brushstrokes and use of impasto favoured in Paris. While at NAFA, Chia studied Western painting under pioneer master artists Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi where he was influenced and inspired by both masters and their efforts to harmonise the differing styles. By the River showcases Chia’s efforts to render a local scene in a more modern style, likely drawing inspiration from his mentor. Earlier works by Cheong Soo Pieng such as At the Fishing Village (1954) and Brook (1953) have a very similar, stylized aesthetic with bold, graphic outlines in black and the use of white to create strong contrast, creating a visual effect much like batik.
By the River illustrates a bustling riverside at the brink of dawn, with the morning sun beaming through the background and filling the centre of the canvas with familiar tropical warmth. The windows of the shophouses are still dark, evoking an early morning scene as the sampans (traditional fishing boats) point away from river bank – their fishermen maneuvering through the crowd of boats towards the open sea. In the distance, a yellow car speeds past a white clock tower of colonial design, perhaps a representation of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall facing the Singapore River. 57 years on, the river has been cleaned, and the harbour moved to the south-west coast of the island, leaving only taxi boats along the river for commuters and tourists. Through this lens, By the River is a work rife with nostalgia, and a record of a moment in the famed river’s history.