RETURN TO THE TROPICS
Back in Singapore Theo took up Hans Burckhardt’s invitation to stay at his spacious home, and in return he painted landscape murals for his host. He did enjoy his time there. “Singapore was a tumultuous city, a veritable microcosm of Asia,” he wrote in his journal. ”Among the most vivid memories I have of my visit is the noise. Radios were not very widespread in 1935 and so the inhabitants made their own music. The combined effect of all these sounds streaming out from the open verandahs was very intriguing. Sometimes, I even joined in the cacophony myself by singing out loud with renditions of Honegger’s “King David”.
While Theo was in Singapore, a wealthy Chinese merchant commissioned him to paint his daughter’s portrait, The portrait reached public attention, and from this came Theo’s big break. The Swiss consul had recommended Theo to paint the portrait of Sir Song Ong Siang which was to hang in the City Hall. Sir Song had the distinction of being the first Chinese gentleman in Singapore to receive a knighthood from Her Majesty the Queen of England. The commission would pay him four thousand Singapore dollars.
Theo began work on the assignment by making a drawing of his client’s Attila-like face, which stimulated a pretentious article in the Straits Times in April 1935. After the article appeared, Sir Song was not altogether pleased with the drawing. He showed Theo a reproduction of the famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington on horseback, together with a photograph of himself as a young man.
“Just copy this painting on a fairly large scale, with my face instead of his,” he said. Theo couldn’t restrain himself and burst out laughing. That was goodbye to the 4,000 Singapore dollars, but that wasn’t the only commission to go south. It happened again when a respectable manager of a Swiss company in Singapore invited a number of friends and Theo to dinner. The manager indicated to Theo that commissions were certain to come from the get-together.
“I confidently expected commissions to materialize after the meal,” Theo wrote in his journal. “We finished eating and drinks were served. Then my host admiringly showed us what he called ‘a genuine work of art.’ The painting in question was a landscape of bygone times by a bygone artist. It was so bad I couldn’t help let slip a very graphic but somewhat uncouth expletive in Basel dialect. That was that. Singapore’s high society washed its hands of me – all, that is, except my old friend Hans Burckhardt who said, “Meierli-bisch a Siech!”
Theo now laid out his plan to return to Tahiti, but first he wanted to visit Bali in the Dutch East Indies. There were no liners from Singapore to the island. The only ship that Theo could find was a cargo vessel called Babi-Express, a boat used to carry pigs, called babi, from Bali to Singapore. A few days later Theo was on his way to Bali. Having discharged its cargo in Singapore the boat was empty but in a very smelly state.