Art Without Limits

If a book could be written about the last forty days of the life of the late Madam Ng Siew Heah, his son would have done so. For Kok Hwa Kean, those forty days of his mother’s life, which was spent laying on her deathbed in an Ipoh hospital, was the bitterest experience of his life, as a helpless spectator.

The fashion designer, who was running his own boutique business for both couture and ready-to-wear at the time, had to drop everything to be by his mother’s bedside. “My mother was suffering terribly from cancer those last forty days of her life, after a drastic drop in her health condition compared to the past months since her diagnosis. I rushed to be with her, leaving the boutique in Kuala Lumpur under the care of my business partner,” he recalled.

artist Kok Hwa Kean with 'A Parting Message' (installation art @ Ni Artweek 2016)
artist Kok Hwa Kean with ‘A Parting Message’ (installation art @ Ni Artweek 2016)

Kok’s experience was certainly not unique to him alone. Nevertheless, to witness his mother ravage by the disease, to see her lose her battle to cancer when she was still so young in her sixties, he was certainly unprepared to let her go. The experience definitely opened Kok’s eyes on how fragile life is, cliché as it may sound.

“Not too long after my mother’s passing in 2013, I decided that I wanted to do something for myself. I gave up my fashion business and returned to Ipoh. I wasn’t really a ‘free agent’ as I had to help out at the family vegetarian restaurant. My mother was no longer around to work alongside my dad, so I had to step up to the plate, reluctantly at first, I must say. I have to admit that I wasn’t used to working in the kitchen but over time, I realised that I could still express my creativity through the dishes that I whip up.  

“Working at the restaurant in Taman Song Choon takes up my time from early morning until about 2pm, and then I am available to do whatever I want, particularly to indulge in art. I have always been interested in fine art but it was my parents who persuaded me to pursue a course that offered better employment prospects,” he added.

Kok ended up studying graphic and advertising design but did not attempt to build a career using his qualification. “I was young and wanted to see the world. I worked for some months, saved up and went away to stay in a foreign country, most notably spending six months in Chennai, India and three months travelling across South America. I didn’t want to be a tourist. I wanted to live like a local without a particular itinerary to follow.

My true self (performing art, 2016)
My true self (performing art, 2016)

“I wasn’t done with travelling yet but my parents wanted some stability in my life as I was almost hitting thirty. So, I decided to go into fashion, with the focus on evening gowns and wedding dresses. I did everything from designing to cutting and sewing. I truly enjoyed running the business; 7 years in Ipoh and then relocating to Kuala Lumpur,” he shared.

With a career that spanned thirteen years in the fashion industry, Kok once worked with Tourism Malaysia Hong Kong to promote Malaysia in Hong Kong, through fashion. On top of that, his creations had graced many a beauty pageant runway. Still, when he turned his back on his business, it was without regret.

“I wouldn’t say that my mother’s demise caused me to give up my career. It was a decision that I made because to earn a living from fashion, I needed to keep a commercial mind. I had to meet my clients’ many requests. No matter how I wanted it, I wasn’t able to go all out in my creativity. So, perhaps I can say that I had a good reason to walk away from it all when it dawned on me that there is no better time to pursue my own dreams, finally.

“Now, I involve myself in everything art related, in a non-commercial way. People have asked me why I left a lucrative career for art. Can one make a living out of art? In most cases, no. But my mother’s 40-day episode had taught me that there is more to life than fame and fortune. I am happy with my income from the restaurant. It’s not much but I do not let money worry me. I can create art without investing too much money, either,” according to Kok.

Once your retreat is cut off, the only way out is forward (installation art 2016)
Once your retreat is cut off, the only way out is forward (installation art 2016)

These days, Kok, 42, spends a lot of his time coming up with different artistic concepts, under his JIU in Art brand name. ‘Jiu’ is the Chinese word for ‘move towards’. Although most of his creations are for his own pleasure and those of like-minded friends, Kok is trying to open up the heart and mind of Ipoh folk to contemporary art, even though his idea of art has caused him to be hauled up by the city council authority for questioning, when he created an installation art piece with mannequins placed right in the middle of Old Town without a permit.  

Nonetheless, that brush with the city law department hasn’t deterred Kok from continuing to bring art to the people. “It takes time to educate the community. I hope that one day, we will all discover art, embrace art,” said Kok, who recently successfully organised a free-for-all ‘Ni Artweek’ art festival, which saw a group of Malaysian and international artists coming together to Ipoh to showcase their masterpieces.

Note: An edited version of this article [Art without limits] was published on 14th January, 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.

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