Lai Foong Mui

赖凤美 Lai Foong Moi

 

Born: 1931

 

Education:

1950 - Nanyang Academy of Art,Singapore

1954 - Ecoles des Beaux-Arts, Paris

 

Lai Foong Moi was the first Malaysian-born woman artist to study art in Paris and she was influenced by Post-Impressionism. She produced landscapes, genre scenes and sensitive portraits, mostly of women. This portrait study of an elderly Chinese San Sui construction worker is significant because it records a part of this nation’s modern history, namely, the earlier story of Chinese migration and indentured labour. These hardy Hakka women from Guangdong province in Southern China had come here during the Thirties to work in the new construction sites as labourers. They were still a regular sight at our construction sites until the early Sixties. Dressed in their black sam foo blouse and pants and wearing their familiar bright red headgear, which shielded them from the hot tropical sun, they epitomized the spartan toughness of the poorer Chinese women who had come here to eke out a living in order send back money to their families in China.

Lai Foong Moi has immortalised the Sun Sul women in this remarkable portrait painting. One may wonder today what this younger Paris-trained woman painter, who had also come from a poor working class Malaysian Chinese family, had felt as she was painting the wrinkled, older woman. Something of the artist’s emotional feelings do reveal themselves in the way she has depicted her subject matter, emphasising the woman’s hard existence and resilience. Note the stark realism in the treatment of the subject’s face, hands and the feet. The feet are clad in a pair of rubber sandals, that were usually made from cut pieces of discarded rubber tyres. The artist has placed her subject against a landscape. Beside the woman is her old rattan bag containing water bottles and what looks like a small stove. The depiction of the bamboo plants just behind her may have been deliberate. The resilience and strength of bamboo is well known and the bamboo plants may have been used by the artist as a metaphor for highlighting the toughness and perseverance of these now vanished breed of Chinese women.