Malaysians who have settled in foreign countries for many winters, often dream of relocating back to our sunny shores. Artist Eric Quah realised how much he missed his home-town of Penang when he turned 50.
Having lived 31 years abroad in Australia, China and even New York City, artist Eric Quah finally decided that there’s no place like Penang to call home. And he found the incentives under the Malaysia My Second Home programme, the easiest way to come back.
Quah grew up in Reservoir Garden in Air Itam till his 20s and as fate would have it, he has returned to the same neighbourhood, where the sights, sounds and smells bring back fond memories.
Quah in his downstairs living room surrounded by his collectibles and art works
A major part of Quah’s professional life was spent in Australia where he studied and had a relatively successful career as an artist. He even bought a house in Melbourne and collected works of Australian artists. Interviewed at his Reservoir Garden house, Quah, 61, recalls his happy and sad days in Australia and what “home” means to him.
Quah's 2000 painting entitled Good Earth dominates the guest room. It is apparent that the artist has a fondness for blue and yellow walls to contrast with the colours of his paintings
“In 1972, I applied to study at fine art institutions in the UK, USA and Australia. They all accepted me. However, Australia offered me free tuition and they started the semester in March instead of September as in the UK and USA. That was why I chose to go to Melbourne,” says Quah.
“I rented a house at first when I was a student and at the beginning of my working stint in Australia. The first house I owned was a Victorian single-storey terraced-house. I sold it after a few years and upgraded to a nice bungalow in Kew. It has a huge garage which I converted into my studio.”
What made Quah stay so long in Australia?
“After I obtained my degree, I was offered a teaching position. At the same time, my art was shown at the Young Originals Gallery owned by the late Carlotta Bush. She was my agent, mentor and best friend. She handled my work for more than 20 years until she died of an illness in 1994. Those years were good as I was gradually recognised as a successful artist in Australia.
“After Carlotta died, I returned to Malaysia often. I even stayed for nine months in Kuala Lumpur to create my Rose series in memory of her. In 1996, my series Melalui Jendela Masawas shown at the Art Salon gallery in Bangsar, in conjunction with my 50th birthday. This series of oil-andcollage works brought back childhood memories of Penang and Kedah.”
Apparently, working on those paintings made the artist realise that living in Penang might be a good idea. He even laments that should anything happen to him in Melbourne, nobody would be any wiser. But in Penang, his sister, brother and other relatives are always dropping in on him and dinner is usually with family members.
Then in 2002, Quah had to return to Penang to see his mother who was ill and chanced upon a terraced house. “I came back to Penang to be with her for months. I stayed at my elder brother’s house, which is nearby.
The side extension to the corner house now serves as the kitchen
"One afternoon, on the way back to his home, I saw this rundown double-storey corner-house for sale.
“Although dilapidated, the house looks solid and there were happy vibes to it. Apparently it was on the market for a long time but there were no takers. At the time, rumours were rife about a proposed outerring road cutting across this area. I researched on that and knew that the road would be far away or, at least, far enough. I paid my deposit the next day. It was meant to be mine. I paid $360,000. The current value of the same type of basic house can easily cost RM500,000.
“After purchasing this house, I rushed back to Australia to sell my home there. By then, my Melbourne house had gone up 10 times its original value, since I bought it 20 years earlier. When I packed up and shifted my things back here, I decided to keep most of the old features in this Penang house. Things like floorboards, metal doors, 1950s windows, etc. I extended the kitchen, built a patio with a fish pond and planted bamboo in the front yard.”
After having spent about RM100,000 on the house, Quah is proudest of the upstairs living space. He removed all the walls of the three tiny bedrooms to create a huge open space. A Chinese screen from an antique shop in Australia now shields the bed from the rest of the lounge area.
Quah tranformed a linked-house into his studio which is just a stone's throw away from his home
But Quah, who describes his decorating style as a “fusion of the East and West”, isn’t quite finished with his home improvements. He wants to change the tiles on the ground floor and kitchen. The guest bathroom downstairs also needs an upgrade.
“My decorating style includes Chinese antique furniture and porcelain pieces, yet the walls are all decorated with modern abstract paintings. I designed it all by myself. It has to be stylish and comfortable but not glitzy.
“I collected a lot of Australian contemporary art but sold most of the works through Christie’s in Australia before I moved back here. I still have a red abstract painting by Robert Grieve hanging upstairs. There are also abstract works by Sydney Ball and Bruno Leti. Among the other paintings hung on my walls are my own works from the series, Seeking the Roots.
“The lounge downstairs has colourful cushions with ceramic and porcelain pieces. My paintings which I did in different periods are hung on the walls. The work that I treasure is a beautiful calligraphy work by Chinese painter Chen Da Yue, who did it for my solo exhibition in Nanjing in 1984.”
An eclectic collector, Quah even has a couple of wooden horses. His oil-and-collage work, For Love and Fortune, hangs in his dining room
Quah’s studio is located in another single-storey linked-house that he bought for a song. It is within walking distance from his home. He only carried out basic renovations like installing lighting fixtures and airconditioning.
He describes it as functional and intends to expand the space by building a mezzanine floor.
This is also where he keeps his larger works before sending them off for exhibitions.
“My art is expressionistic. I like strong movement and colours. When I paint, I let my emotions go. That is why it is important for me to be totally isolated. Music on and phone off. Afterwards, I stare at my work, with an analytical mind, trying to find room for improvement. It is always a balance. My latest series, Sawah Padi, comprises a total of 44 oil-and-collage on canvas. They will be shown at the Gallery@ Star Hill, Kuala Lumpur, in December this year.”
Can a Penang-based professional artist really make a good living? “I don’t depend on the sale of my paintings to survive. The art market in Penang is still relatively small but things are happening. I had a sell-out solo show in Nanjing last year. Now they are proposing another show in Beijing in 2009.
“I have been back in Penang for four years now. I enjoy each day staying in my house, working in my studio and surrounded by family and good friends. I have made the right and sensible choice of returning to Penang to live.”
Besides his painting and decorating skills, Quah also prides himself on his culinary talent and will, at the very least, insist on making gourmet coffee for “important” friends.
“I love cooking. My food tends to be modern fusion. I may start off with my own spring roll served with fresh lemon and lettuce, then soup, pan-fried chicken breast with wine and herbs served with rice and all colours of vegetables. Then guests are served with a salad. The dessert can be anything local like my favourite Sago Gula Melaka and finally, brewed coffee with cheese, grapes and chocolate.”
But when this writer points out that he has instant coffee in his pantry, the artist sheepishly replies that they are meant for “casual” visitors.