STOPOVER IN SINGAPORE
In Hong Kong, Theo booked a passage to Marseille on the Japanese steamship Hakezaki Maru with a three-day stopover in Singapore, two days in Ceylon and another two days in Cairo. He was anxiously looking forward to meeting up with Lucas when he arrived in Singapore. He had a hundred tales he wanted to tell his friend, about the Sing Song girls and warlords and so much more. He didn’t know where he would begin. Maybe he would tell him first how the natives of the New Hebrides burned his canvases, or how Dr. Wong tricked him into venturing into warlord controlled China. But those tales that Theo wanted to tell Lucas would never happen. Instead of Theo finding Lucas waiting for him, he found a cable from him. Lucas would not be meeting him in Singapore. He was staying longer in Sydney, and the news was that he was engaged. He would meet Theo in Basel later with his new bride. Lucas had met his match. He had gotten engaged to one of the flamboyant daughters of his host in Sydney. He was getting married.
Theo was terribly disappointed, still he decided to make the best of Singapore with the short time he had. He wasn’t one to lose time or harbor over regrets. “I found that I looked upon this island colony with different eyes after all my experiences,” he wrote in his journal. He was expecting to find an Asian city much like Hong Kong, but found something totally different. The architecture struck him most strangely. Here was Art Deco architecture in the tropics, something he never expected. It wasn’t exactly what he had in mind to paint but there was the other side of Singapore that caught his attention. It was the riverfront and the shop houses in the old town, shop houses with sagging lintels and with vines hanging down from rooftops.
But first he had to find Hans Burckhardt, a Basel merchant who was established for many years as an importer-exporter in the colony. When he did find him, the merchant invited Theo to stay with him, and seeing Theo’s enthusiasm for Oriental art suggested that Theo remain behind and wait at least until the next ship departed for Europe. There was a liner departing a month later, but Theo felt he had to return, settle his affairs at home and then return to the Far East. ‘TI-1eo had made up his mind. He was not going to remain in Basel, or any place in Europe. He would return to the tropics as soon as he could. The decision didn’t come suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, but quite the opposite. It came ever so slowly, gradually, almost without his knowing. He found himself no longer wanting to live in Europe. After a time he felt he was destined to remain forever in the tropics. He wanted to paint in the tropics and nowhere else. He began to make plans. He would return to Singapore, yes, spend some time, and then he would make his way to Bali before sailing on to Tahiti. Tahiti was where he longed to be.
Theo also admitted in his journal that the rigors of traveling were wearing him out both mentally and physically. On top of this, he had contracted a severe bout of amoebic dysentery in China and he felt only the doctors in Switzerland could help him. It was time to go back. He assured Hans Burckhardt he would return.
Before he left Singapore, there were a few things he wanted to do, and that was to meet Chinese artists. He remembered how Max Beckman had learned from the Chinese and gained inspiration for his serious paintings by preparing his raw canvases in different tones and shades. He applied very casually his brush strokes so that they appeared to be purely accidental in their application. When Theo’s approach to painting became less formalistic, he adopted this method of undercoating the canvas himself, like the Chinese did. After reading translations of Chinese writers on Chinese art he found this was nothing new. The Chinese masters used the same techniques back in the eleventh century.
Theo did manage to have brief meetings with a few Singapore artists-Lim Cheng, Cueing, Soo Ping and Chen Chon Sweet, all watercolorists. Chen Chon Sweet had been recognized as one of the key pioneer artists in Singapore. But Singapore was not known to foster the arts and Theo was surprised that a well-known and successful artist as Lim Cheng was, who had just returned from a three-week vacation in China, had to go back to work in his shop to make ends meet.
Theo did not find modern Singapore to his liking. Although he found it interesting, he did not care for the Art Deco architecture. He discovered the art was based on mathematical geometric shapes, which he concluded any draftsman could master. But Theo did find delight in old Singapore, especially the waterfront and river areas. The godowns facing the river, built side by side along Boat Quay, were enough to fill any artist’s pallet. Theo sketched as rapidly as he could. Here was the pulse beat of the city. Buildings of cracked plaster and sagging lintels, with rooted ivy plants growing right into the fabric of the walls, filled Theo’s sketch pad. He marveled at what he saw. Here was the waterfront, not much more than a hundred years old, and the buildings were in decay.
The congested Singapore River, however, had all the real drama. Hundreds of bum boats with their painted eyes fought for space along the river. Goods carried on the backs of barefooted coolies-bales of rubber, crates of tin, bags of rice and coffee, and what have you-made their way up narrow, single-planked gangways to waiting bum boats and lighters to be further transported to freighters and cargo vessels anchored out in the roads. And out in the roads, too, were salt-carrying junks down from Siam, all rafted together, awaiting the artist’s brush. There wasn’t enough time for Theo to capture all that he wanted to.
That was the waterfront, old Singapore, with all its color and fascination, but there was another side, a bulging Singapore that was, to Theo, not so flattering. The island colony was Great Britain’s first line of Eastern defense. The port was an unbecoming military bastion. The short time that he was there, three days in fact, five guns were mounted in Sentosa, that small wooded island separating Singapore from the open sea. The British were concerned about the Japanese invading from the sea and prepared for such an assault.
When Theo departed Singapore he carried some fifty canvases aboard Hakezaki Maru. The ship moored in Ceylon for three days and here Theo got an enchanting perspective of Hindu and Buddhist temples. “An honest tropical setting,” he wrote in his journal. He was determined more than ever now, after witnessing Hindu architecture, that he would return to tropical Asia, and especially to Bali with her strong Hindu influence. The seeds were well planted in Theo’s heart.
His next port-of-call was Cairo and here again he felt deeply rewarded. He noted in his journal: “with my encounter with the monumental beauty of ancient Egyptian art.” Six weeks after departing from Singapore, wobbly-kneed and worn out, he arrived back in Basel on a cold February morning. He had done it; he made it around the world, as both a vagabond and a painter. How happy he was deep down in his heart.
Theo wrote in his journal: “The customs authorities took a long time examining my paintings, some of which were painted on old coffee sacks, eventually deciding to tax them as carnival decorations and charging me fifty francs for the privilege of importing them.”
Theo paid up and was back at his home in Basel.