A Scene at the Back Alley- Tay Kok Wee’s Picking


Tay Kok Wee, Picking, 1955. Oil on canvas.

Back-end robbery


This is 1955, Singapore. A ruckus had just occurred in an unnamed, clean-looking back alley. Ah Seng, the self-proclaimed spokesman or boss of the make-shift ikan business was proclaiming to a listening audience, how much damage the runaway culprit had caused to the young, suffering, fishmonger. With his thumb pointing at the direction which the runaway had escaped with some stolen cash, he is confident and self-assured in his story telling. He is basking in the attention.

Ali, the elderly man in sarong and rolled up shirt, looked at him wearily with a ‘here he goes again’ or ‘I’ve heard this before’ expression. A mild-mannered uncle, Ali’s life experiences far exceeded Ah Seng’s but he was too polite to tell him so.

Other characters flanking Ali acted as the inactive, watching bystanders. In today’s context, they would be the apathetic public who would whip out their smart phones to take a picture or video of the scene. Mr fishmonger and the schoolboy would hence become overnight celebrities.

There is something unique I would like to point out about the foreshortening of these two main characters. Did you notice that the fishmonger’s feet are disproportionately large in comparison to his whole body? (Even the boy’s off-white school shoes look large.) Hendra Gunawan’s rakyat kecil also have similarly large feet that depicted a village life of toil and hardship.

I am particularly interested in the minor characters of the scene. Ah Sim, the granny or ma-jie, with her pulled back grey hair and blue blouse, carries an unidentified brown bag and a bottle of beer. Ah Ling, the lady in green samfoo, listens intently to Ah Seng, while her bottomless child clamours for her attention. Such was the truth portrayed in this back alley. The colours are so vibrant that it was hard to ignore them. Grittiness and hardship are expressed not through scrawny figures and ashen faces but through the minor details and the ongoing narrative of this scene which we would like to unearth more of.

Copyright © 2015 Liau Shu Juan


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