Originally from Malaysia, Fuen Chin is an artist who has travelled widely, both to study and as part of her former career in the fashion industry. Having studied at the London College of Fashion and later the Royal College of Art, she has formed a long and enduring connection with London. Encompassing painting, calligraphy, textile-based art and installations, her work has been shown at events such as the London Design Festival, and most recently at Vintners Place in the City.
Richard Unwin: Where did you grow up and what were some of your early influences?
Fuen Chin: I was born in a small town in Malaysia. I spent most of my time as a child in the herbal shop ran by my late grandparents, where I established my first contact with Chinese writing. In the shop, each drawer could accommodate four different types of herbs and the Chinese names were written on the outside of the drawers. At that time, the characters were mnemonics instead of words for me. Then, I spent six years learning to write the simplified Chinese characters. As a teen, I worked to distribute herbs to each drawer and touched-up the fading Chinese characters.
I developed an interest for reading Chinese classical novels, folklores and fables, through starting to learn Chinese calligraphy. A Chinese idiom: Shu Neng Sheng Qiao (熟能生巧), it means practice makes perfection. I used to copy stories into exercise books. The more Chinese calligraphy practise I did, the more stories I read and the more fascinated I became in the variety of Chinese doctrines.
RU: Did you have much exposure to exhibitions and artists, and did you have a sense back then that art was something you would like to do professionally?
FC: I’ve loved drawing since childhood, but I did not have much thought that it would become a career for me one day.
Opposite to my late grandparents’ herbal shop, there was a tailor’s shop. I used to love watching them changing new outfits on the mannequins. I think that was my first understanding of art and the reason for my choice of fashion.
The first fine art gallery I ever visited was the National Portrait Gallery in London. I often walked there from the London College of Fashion on John Princess Street. Then, of course, I went to Tate Britain, Tate Modern, the V&A, etc. I started to love visiting exhibitions, private views and galleries, instead of high-street fashion. I made my first painting on canvas when I was teaching fashion design in Shanghai. I have been making paintings ever since.
RU: What type of work and roles did you perform during your time in the fashion industry?
FC: Before going to London College of Fashion, I took a dressmaking short course at the local training centre and an English course at The British Council. Then, I worked as junior fashion buyer at a department store. In 2001, at the UK education fair in Malaysia, I approached University of the Arts London (formerly The London Institute) with the portfolio I had been developing for years. I was lucky to pass the interview with an unconditional offer to the BA Fashion Design Technology (Womenswear) at London College of Fashion.
While in London, I did seven months full time internship with Hussein Chalayan. After the undergraduate program, I worked as fashion designer for many years in Malaysia and China. However, my favourite role was teaching in Shanghai.
I would say that my fashion experience was like a voyage of discovery to the unknown: the numbers on production sheets, the space in containers, the fabric off-cuts and yarn ends going to landfill, and the colours flowing into the rivers. I thought of delivering these realities through my paintings.
RU: Your move into art evolved out of the drawings and illustrations you made as part of your fashion work. How did that transition begin?
FC: In 2004, I named the final project of my undergraduate studies at London College of Fashion Reform the Forbidden City. I made a series of fashion illustrations elaborating a historical incident in China: The Boxer Rebellion. I designed six sets of womenswear inspired by each of the critical moments of the incident. Then, I drew the womenswear collection on paper by emphasising chinoiserie design elements on each outfit; models with dramatic body languages; distorted typefaces; and images from the library archive. The outcome suggested a quasi-fictional context, yet without twisting the historical truth. Simultaneously, it introduced imaginative and unique fashion narratives.
My obsession with stories is the drive that set my mind free to linger around fashion design and fine art. Not just Chinese stories, I love subculture studies too. I am particularly interested in the Goth aesthetic, the ethereal vibe at cemeteries (Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and Highgate Cemetery), Ophelia by John Everett Millais, and labor intensive crafts: hand-crochet, weaving and fine embroidery.
I made a womenswear collection in 1999 – The Madness of Ophelia – in which most of the pieces in the collection were hand-crocheted. Later, I made The Storytelling Wardrobe in 2015, for which I spent six months weaving 20 meters of fabric by up-cycling off-cuts and yarn ends collected from garment factories in China and fashion studios in London.
RU: Was it a difficult decision to decide to change career, and what made you choose the RCA as the place to study art?
FC: It was not a difficult decision. I made an application to the RCA with the intention of continuing the development of The Storytelling Wardrobe. The project is more suitable to develop at the School of Fine Art & Humanities instead of the School of Design. Also, I was clear that I would continue the project by looking at shahtoosh and the Tibetan antelope. For the project, I made a large, interconnected calligraphic painting on Khadi recycled papers for the group exhibition at Studio RCA, in Nine Elms.
I think this is a destiny. Although the reality is a bit hard for me and my new career, I am working hard to promote my paintings to collectors, to support even more stories for public audiences.
RU: Did you have a relationship with London or the UK before you travelled here to study?
FC: No, I did not know anyone in London. I traveled alone. Luckily, I met a few good friends and we remain in touch today. No worries: I had good time there, so I went back again for my postgraduate program and I am keen to do a PhD at the School of Fine Art & Humanities at RCA.
RU: Given that your interest in art and fashion, and the ideas and themes you explore in your work, go back to your childhood in Malaysia, what effect have your travels and artistic journey had on your sense of place in the world?
FC: I am Malaysian born Chinese. Malaysia exists simultaneously as a Muslim country that is multicultural and multiethnic. I get used to observe, listen and be with ‘multicolours’. I have collected a lot of colourful stories along the journey of life. Also, I realise my fascination for stories and making paintings by using Chinese ink. I see myself as a storyteller who innovates old stories by writing, drawing, painting, marking, singing, dancing and playing with ink. For example, I started developing a practice-led research project: Storytelling the Void in the Chinese Pictographic Writing System, where I use Chinese ink as a tool to reflect stories embedded in a simplified Chinese character. I hope that my practice will establish a practice-led research methodology of narratology for the contemporary art research community. However, presenting my calligraphic paintings at a supreme level to the world would be a life-long career goal for me, regardless of the research establishment.
RU: During the global COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown you have been back in Malaysia. Would you like to stay and develop your practice there, and are you engaged with the local contemporary art community?
FC: I wish to stay in London for my art career. Unfortunately, my student visa expired in 2018 and I had to leave the UK. However, regardless of where I am, I am not giving up my practice. After being abroad for so many years, home in Malaysia has become a new context for me. I spend time to learn the local community. Contemporary art in Malaysia has a restricted context, it is not as liberal compared to the neighbouring countries, Thailand and Singapore. I work hard for my artworks to appear in international exhibitions and events, so the (restricted) voices are heard. I have made submissions of paintings to online galleries, online marketplaces, art dealers and curators to, create opportunities for sale and exposure, both locally and internationally.