A Life in the Arts

by Li Haohan
02 Sep 2020

A first-time recipient of the NAC Patron of the Arts Award, Dr Woffles Wu has been the art community’s longstanding friend.

My life has always revolved around the arts and beautiful things – perhaps that’s why I became a plastic surgeon,” Dr Woffles Wu confesses. “I’m drawn to beautiful objects.” Growing up surrounded by art, antiques, and various collectibles, he occupied himself for hours watching his naïve painter grandfather evoke “melancholic and spare landscapes or tableaus of common people on canvas”.


This year, the National Arts Council has bestowed upon Dr Wu the Patron of the Arts Award. It is a recognition given to those who have contributed (between $50,000 and $99,999) towards the promotion of cultural and artistic activities in Singapore. This is by no means the first time that Dr Wu has supported the arts. He has, so far, been a constant ally of artists.

It wasn’t just the visual arts that captivated the young Wu. He got an early exposure to the theater. When he was seven or eight, and living in London in the 1960s, his school organized an outing to a West End performance of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang starring Dick Van Dyke. When the magical flying car took off the stage and flew up into the heavens, he had an epiphany: A life in the arts was waiting for him.

Years later, he would make a beeline to catch many other West End shows, from Hair to Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, A Chorus Line, Evita, and Phantom of the Opera. “It was a fantastic experience growing up.” In 1989, he went twice to see his friend Glen Goei play opposite Anthony Hopkins at the Drury Lane Theatre production of M Butterfly, remembering it as “theater at its best. On the final night, I went with Glen to the closing night after-party, which was a thrill in itself ”.

The theater holds a special place in Dr Wu’s heart, and his friendship with theater artists Glen Goei and Ivan Heng inspired him to support, along with his wife Juay, their quest to form a local theater where they could create and perform.


Passive Diffusion

Dr Wu believes his appreciation for the arts grew by passive diffusion. His uncle, Lim Chong Keat, a leading architect in the 1970s, was a great arts patron who hosted regular musical soirees at his home in Pasir Panjang. A regular in those gatherings, young Wu was introduced to pianists Dennis Lee, Toh Chee Hung and Seow Yit Kin, violinist Kam Kee Yong, and singer Loh Siew Tuan. His grandmother, a trained opera singer, also performed at those recitals.

His uncle was also an accomplished painter who established the famous Alpha Gallery, which showcased the best of local and Malaysian art of the period. “I used to spend hours there, especially when Anthony Poon, who was then running the place, had to run errands, and my Grandpa and I would sit in to look after the shop for him.”

That was in 1976 when Wu was 16 and was nursing an ambition of becoming an artist. He had previously painted in oils, and dabbled with surrealism, even going as far as submitting a painting to the National Museum for a competition where, to his disappointment, he only garnered a Merit Award.


Meeting His Mentors

In 1977, Wu met Hong Kong artist Ding Yan Yung – known as the Matisse of Chinese painting — who spontaneously gave him ink brush painting lessons, including how to create certain effects. “He was an elderly, simple, scholarly looking man, bursting with creative energy and wild imagination that belied his outward appearance.” Ding left a strong impression on Wu that he traded oils for Chinese ink, yet chose to paint the human figure rather traditional subjects. “I wanted my paintings to tell a story,” he explains.

A year later, when eminent artist Chen Wen Hsi had a gallery at the upmarket Hawker Centre Rasa Singapura (now the site of Tanglin Mall), his mother would take him there while she went shopping. “On many occasions, I watched (Chen) paint with brushes as well as his fingernails. He did not talk much, but I learned a lot by watching him, especially how he painted realistic hairs on gibbons using his pinkie.”

Subsequently, the young Wu embarked on a series of paintings that took seven years to complete. Called the Adventures of Lewd Lew, he painted it merely for fun and to amuse his grandfather, but a gallerist from Taipei saw them and was so impressed he gave him his first solo exhibition in 1987. The success prompted the newspapers to call him “the new Asian whiz kid of Chinese art”. All this happened way before the rise of Chinese Contemporary Art. “I stopped painting after that; my work commitments had become too much.” 

Fast forward to 2005, Dr Wu co-produced the film Singapore Dreaming (now showing on Netflix). “I was thrilled to support the artistic vision of Colin (Goh) and Yen Yen (Woo), who directed the film, and I enjoyed my involvement with the project thoroughly. The film is still being watched and talked about, and its message is as pertinent today as when we made it,” Dr Wu says.

In 2006, Dr Wu opened a small private museum of contemporary Chinese art and design. Although he admits he has not paid as much attention to it as he should, because of his work commitments, it remains a repository of fascinating artworks and objects. Occasionally, Dr Wu gives his friends a private tour of the place, although infrequently. He plans to “resurrect the museum soon” or perhaps offer a virtual tour of it.


An Enduring Passion

Art patronage is an enduring passion for Dr Wu, and many artists have benefited from it. It is difficult to decide who deserves more support, he concedes. “Who should get what has always been a perennial problem for administrators. Who is more deserving of support? All of them are — but funds are limited, and such ‘idealism’ is impossible.

“I believe all aspects of art are worth supporting,” Dr Wu declares. "What artists… create for us adds the most wonderful dimensions to our lives. They are more essential than what people think. I don’t have an interest in specific art forms — all are equally important – although I gravitate towards the visual arts, musical theater, and films. I always look at the quality of (the work) and its relevance to our lives. It is highly subjective.”

“I think funds should be distributed according to specific needs, the group’s ability to raise their own funds, and their long-term plan for the future.” Vision and relevance are the key considerations, Dr Wu emphasizes. “Sheer talent will prevail, but without some form of administrative plan, may not realize its full potential.” Support doesn’t have to be financial, Dr Wu qualifies. It can be in the form of providing facilities and opportunities. “I think the government and the private sectors should work hand in hand to build the artistic community.

“At the end of the day, however, we will help those who help themselves first. So far, I think Singapore has done a wonderful job with the Arts.”