SINGAPORE – Local artist Lai Kui Fang died on Friday August 12 at the age of 86. According to his obituary, he passed away peacefully in his sleep. He is survived by his wife, son and daughter.
Mr. Lai was known for his oil paintings drawing on the classical, romantic and realist European tradition, often of historical figures or scenes.
One of his best-known works is his recreation of the historic moment in 1959 when the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was sworn in as the first Prime Minister of Singapore.
Mr. Lai, born in Johor, cultivated his interest and artistic skills from an early age when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942. He was then six years old.
“When the Japanese troops came, my family went to Labis forest, Johor. We had no school, of course, so we just played with marbles, caught spiders, swam and fishing. And I was so free, I started drawing,” he told the Straits Times in a 1995 interview.
“The environment in the forest was conducive. I drew snakes, butterflies, tigers – there were a lot of wild beasts at the time – and other animals that I saw around me. They were very beautiful and inspired me.”
Although his father, from mainland China, wanted him to pursue medicine, Mr Lai moved to Singapore in his youth and enrolled at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. In 1963, he received a scholarship from the French government to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and spent the next 15 years in France.
He also amassed dozens of awards during this period, including the Knight and Officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters in 1968.
Back in Singapore, he was often asked by wealthy professionals to bring important figures and scenes to life in his chosen medium, oil paint.
Among his commissions were historical paintings illustrating the signing of the Japanese surrender treaty and a discussion led by General Percival as he decided on the surrender of Singapore by Britain – each with an advertised price of $300,000 in mid 1990s.
Mr. Lai’s famous painting of Mr. Lee’s swearing in as prime minister relied on witness memories, as there was no photographic record of the event.