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Biography of artist Lim Tze Peng wins richest S'pore book prize

April 25, 2024

Soul Of Ink: Lim Tze Peng At 100 (2021), a biography of Singapore's oldest living pioneer artist, won the inaugural Dr Alan H.J. Chan Spirit of Singapore Book Prize.

There was palpable excitement in the air at the dinner ceremony on April 23, held at the ballroom of the Conrad Centennial Singapore, where organiser Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) presented local author Woon Tai Ho with the $30,000 prize. The award is Singapore's richest book prize.

SUSS chancellor and Singapore's former president Madam Halimah Yacob was the guest of honour at the event attended by about 150 invited guests from the literary and publishing world, as well as 102-year-old Lim.

"I'm honoured, but also a bit shocked," Woon told The Straits Times after receiving the prize.

"It's the first art book that World Scientific published, and the boss had to fight and justify why it needs to be published."

Lim, who was in good spirits and chuckling when he spoke to ST, said in Mandarin: "The honour is not mine - it's the author's, who wrote such a great book.

"I continue to make art and write every day and haven't stopped."

The book was praised for its "in-timate portrayal of the artist, a Cultural
Medallion recipient, who strove to improve, innovate, and challenge himself even at the age of 100", according to the judging panel.

The nine-member panel was chaired by president emeritus of SUSS Professor Cheong Hee Kiat. Mrs Triena Ong, book editor and former head of publishing at the Institute of Southeast Asian Stud-ies, was the chief judge.

Soul Of Ink explores how the former school principal and self-taught artist - famed for his abstract and bold calligraphic gestures known as hutuzi (Chinese for "muddled writing") and his ink paintings of old Singapore - had dedicated his life's work to art and received belated recognition in his 80s.

Woon had interviewed 103 people acquainted with the artist for the book. He also visited Lim weekly over nine months, observing the centenarian's interactions with his guests, including curators, gallery owners, art collectors and friends.

Woon, a media veteran, has written other books on prominent Singaporean personalities including pioneer artist Tan Swie Hian, veteran journalist P.N. Balji, pioneer architect Koh Seow Chuan, beloved muralist Yip Yew Chong and formed historian Keir je Weis The Food Of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels Through The Archipelago (2021), an award-winning epic tome documenting the evolution of Malay cuisine in Singapore published by Marshall Cavendish, was awarded the merit prize worth $5,000.

Asked why the judges picked Soul Of Ink as the winner and how it embodied the spirit of Singapore, Mrs Ong said: "It was loyalty to country and homeland. (Lim) was very grateful to Singapore for giving him a chance to do what he did in his career and take care of the family. And then, in his senior years, when he wanted to paint, he felt that society gave him the opportunity and encouragement even at 100.

The judges also created the category of the merit prize as the top choices were "very close"

The Dr Alan H.J. Chan Spirit of Singapore Book Prize, which attracted 43 entries in its inaugural edition, was established through a $1 million donation by the late Confucian scholar and philanthropist Dr Alan Chan, who died in November 2023.

The award aims to recognise fiction and non-fiction authors whose works champion values important to the shaping of Singapore.

2024's prize shortlist included novelist Sebastian Sim's And The Award Goes To Sally Bong! (2021); former ST news editor Peh Shing Huei's Standing Tall: The Goh Chok Tong Years, Volume 2 (2021); and Eat Here Or Take Away? All About Singapore Hawker Culture (2022), written by humour writer Sylvia Toh Paik Choo and other contributors.

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