Our neighbourhood estates are often decorated with stone or metal sculptures marking the area, sometimes abstract in style, other times in the forms of animals, like dolphins or birds.
We also see them sprucing up our schools, condominiums, shopping districts like Orchard Road, and landmarks like hotels, parks and malls.
They’re so integrated into our physical environment that we’ve probably never stopped to wonder who designed and installed them as we walk by.
Well, we got to speak with one of the masters behind Singapore’s neighbourhood art, and I’m sure you will find yourself recognising a couple of his works.
When Art Runs In The Family
Teng Kai Wei is 31, and he began taking over his father’s environmental design company, Hong Hai Arts, three years ago.
For the most part of his childhood, he grew up watching his father selling art, or working on sculptures—but it hadn’t always been that way.
Teng Hong Hai, the namesake of the company and Kai Wei’s father, once chose a more “stable career” as an airport executive with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, to ensure his family was well provided for.
It was only when Kai Wei and his elder brother were in primary school that Hong Hai felt assured to pursue his passion for art and explore turning it into a business.
This began as a retail shop in Siglap, where Hong Hai sold a collection of religious art pieces, and where Kai Wei remembers taking naps under the cashier counter.
“I also served as a friendly salesman after I have my nap!” he says. “That was when I was around 6 or 7 years old.”
As he learned and grew as a self-taught artist, Hong Hai landed his first tender project for Marine Parade Boulevard that kicked off his business in 1994.
Residents in the area have grown to be familiar with the dolphins, seahorses, octopuses and swordfish that greet them as they pass by.
Second Generation Sculptor
Taking after his father, Kai Wei also gravitated towards the arts.
“Since my secondary school days, I have always visited art galleries and museums to get inspiration from emerging and renowned artists, which I would share with my dad for his commissioned projects,” he says.
“When I get the chance to travel, [I always include] a trip to the national gallery of the country in my itinerary.”
But similarly to his father, Kai Wei started off on a “safer” route, taking a degree in accounting and finance, and masters in business administration.
On his university breaks, he would spend his days at his father’s office, learning the ins and outs of the business, and already formulating plans for the company in his head.
He spent three years working in finance, as he wanted to get exposure to what he majored in in university.
However, the day I decided to join the company full time was when I came back and saw my dad exhausted from work.
“I felt that it was only the right thing to do, since [I have built up] a great interest in creative arts as well.”
Building History In Singapore
Aside from the sea-themed sculptures at Marine Parade, Kai Wei tells us their public art can be found in estates like Seng Kang, Punggol, Yishun and Woodlands.
“Till date, we have completed close to 50 projects for HDB,” he says.
Hong Hai Arts was also behind the creation of some of Singapore’s nostalgic themed playgrounds that brought animals and dinosaurs to life.
Sadly, most of these playgrounds have since been removed.
More recently, Hong Hai Arts has also been involved in building and installing works at Gardens By The Bay and Universal Studios Singapore.
With many sculptures marking our neighbourhoods over decades, Kai Wei feels that they form memories about the places where they’re installed.
“The story and heritage is preserved as the artwork tries to conceptualise and embody the identity of the place,” he says.
With the progression of time, the artwork serves as a mini landmark that represents the period we were in, and eventually becomes a part of history in Singapore.
One of their most prominent public projects was for Seng Kang Sculpture Park, which consisted of a collection of installations of various designs, sizes and colours.
The project required many laborious hours to create each sculpture uniquely, and was worth $1 million.
While the sculptures’ structural forms are built to last for decades, the paint on their surfaces degrade over years of exposure to weather conditions.
“We are not involved in the maintenance contract, so it is hard for us to just go and restore the sculptures as much as we want to,” Kai Wei says.
The Making Of A Sculpture
Designing and crafting a sculpture from scratch is a gargantuan task involving many elaborate steps.
Kai Wei explains that listening to the client is absolutely crucial in order to produce high quality work.
The artists begin by illustrating their concepts in sketches to let the clients picture the idea and comment on what they would like to see in the outcome.
After taking note of the feedback, they then create 3D renders and submit their selection of materials and colour palettes.
Upon approval, the artist begins to create a scaled-down, mini mock up of the sculpture, before they finally proceed to work on the actual piece in full size.
The actual sculpture is created by moulding clay, polyfoam, or a metal exo-skeleton to create its basic structure.
“We will then forge the selected material and form them into shape. The connected joints are then welded together in sequence like a jig-saw puzzle,” Kai Wei says.
For a finishing touch, the sculpture’s rough edges are polished evenly, and powder coated.
Finally, the piece of work is ready to be transported to its permanent location and installed.
Refreshing An Ageing Trade
As a second generation business owner, Kai Wei introduced a retail and e-commerce arm to sell seasonal art pieces to art collectors or business owners who want to decorate their premises.
He explains that this helps the company to bridge the waiting gaps when installation projects are in their tender stage.
But a bigger and more ongoing worry is that the company’s artisans are catching up in age, and it hasn’t been easy to train new apprentices.
“It often take more than 10 to 15 years to [learn how to] expertly craft an artwork from scratch, so the learning curve is steep,” he says.
[Our artists’] techniques learnt during their career might be forgotten [without] apprentices that will study and work with them religiously.
To tackle this, Kai Wei says they have been actively reaching out to schools to get to know aspiring artists who might be interested in sculpting.
“We hope to build an apprenticeship program for the company where apprentices experience the full process of creating a public art installation.”
“Our biggest ambition is also to give emerging artists or fine arts students a platform to showcase their talent internationally with us.”
Exhibiting At Singapore Night Festival 2018
This year, Kai Wei’s art has landed a place in the Singapore Night Festival, and will be showcased in front of The Cathay from 17 to 25 August 2018.
Titled ‘The Leap Of Faith’, his sculpture represents the first step of faith we take in pursuit of our dreams, even when we don’t see the entire staircase.
“I remembered a key lesson I learnt in a finance class, which was about risk and reward,” he says.
He shares that it was this question of risks and rewards that pushed him to reach out for a risk worth taking to pursue his dreams in creative arts, even when he had no prior training in the field.
‘The Leap Of Faith’ is a personal reflection of my decision in making the leap from a stable environment to one that is of the unknown—but have a deep passion in.
Aside from this recent achievement, Kai Wei tells us that his greatest joy has been to preserve his father’s 24-year business.
“I hope that there will be many more 24 years to carry on this tradition in the family!” he says.
Featured Image Credit: Hong Hai Arts