BORN
1922

DIED
2012

INDUCTED
2021

CATEGORY
Arts/Culture/Media

THE HONOURED INDUCTEES TO THE SINGAPORE WOMEN’S HALL OF FAME

KWAN SHAN MEI

Pioneering illustrator

Kwan Shan Mei was a pioneering and prolific illustrator of children’s books and an inspiring arts educator. Several generations of Singapore school children grew up reading books that had been illustrated by her.

Born in 1922 in Harbin, China, Shan Mei grew up surrounded by paintings and art magazines. Her father, a politician, encouraged his two daughters to immerse themselves in art. She went to university in Shanghai, then moved to Hongkong in the late 1940s.

In Hongkong during the 1950s, Shan Mei worked as a freelance illustrator for newspapers and magazines. She also wrote and illustrated two popular serialised romance stories that were made into movies starring leading Chinese actors. One of these movies, Blood Stains the Valley of Love, was shot in Singapore in 1957.

A publisher she worked with in Hongkong entered one of her artworks in a competition in Japan. She won the competition, and this led to her being offered the job of art director with Far Eastern Publishers in Singapore in 1963. She decided to take the job even though it meant being away from her husband, who was of ill health, and her two children. Her children later joined her in Singapore.

In Singapore, she switched to illustrating books for children because there was great demand for local textbooks and readers. Shan Mei illustrated the 24 readers that were published by the Ministry of Education during the early 1970s under its Primary Pilot Project. These books were designed for the integrated teaching of language, mathematics and science.

In illustrating textbooks, Shan Mei took a fresh approach, using the cartoon style of drawing instead of the traditional realism style where people, objects and scenes were drawn with almost photographic precision.

Her lively drawings brought to life the characters in much-loved series of books such as Pepy and the Peacock and The Adventures of Mooty the Mouse. She was also the illustrator for the Moongate Collection of Folktales from the Orient, which brought to children around the world Asian tales and myths.

In 1976, Shan Mei was the first recipient of the Singapore Book Council’s Book Award in the children’s books category. The citation for her award spoke of her great ability to be ‘as lively and full of action or as soft and dreamlike as the story dictates’. She used a variety of styles in her illustrations, and often mixed media and techniques to produce eye-catching, evocative pieces.

Shan Mei believed firmly that an illustrator needed to do thorough research before putting pen or brush to paper, and all the more so with the illustrating of stories about people. For example, the facial expressions of parents interacting with their children would be different from the expressions of a commander talking to his subordinates.

When she was working on the Asian folktales series, Shan Mei learnt as much as she could about the culture and customs of the periods covered. She wanted to be able to accurately reflect in her drawings the spirit of the characters and their environment. When she worked on her Animal Frolics series, Shan Mei spent many weekends at the Singapore Zoo observing and photographing animals.

Good illustrators should strive to enhance their life experience and keep abreast of the times in order to get good ideas, she once said. “One cannot work behind closed doors and hope to create something out of nothing.”

An avid gardener and animal lover, Shan Mei had a pet cat that used to sit quietly on her desk at home as she worked on her drawings. When the cat died in 1985, she was too upset to consider getting another pet. Instead it was a stuffed toy, Mooty the Mouse, that kept her company.

In the late 1980s, Shan Mei began to spend more time teaching than drawing. She taught illustration at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) through the 1990s. In 1999, as her health began to fail, she retired and moved to Vancouver to live with her daughter, Loretta, who had married and emigrated to Canada some years earlier. In May 2012, some months after a bad fall, Shan Mei died.

In September 2018, the retrospective exhibition “Kwan Shan Mei: Drawing from the Heart 关山美: 以心动笔” at the Singapore Comic Festival, showcased a selection of her books and drawings provided by her family.

KWAN SHAN MEI

Pioneering illustrator

BORN 1922    DIED 2012
INDUCTED 2021    CATEGORY Arts/Culture/Media

Kwan Shan Mei was a pioneering and prolific illustrator of children’s books and an inspiring arts educator. Several generations of Singapore school children grew up reading books that had been illustrated by her.

Born in 1922 in Harbin, China, Shan Mei grew up surrounded by paintings and art magazines. Her father, a politician, encouraged his two daughters to immerse themselves in art. She went to university in Shanghai, then moved to Hongkong in the late 1940s.

In Hongkong during the 1950s, Shan Mei worked as a freelance illustrator for newspapers and magazines. She also wrote and illustrated two popular serialised romance stories that were made into movies starring leading Chinese actors. One of these movies, Blood Stains the Valley of Love, was shot in Singapore in 1957.

A publisher she worked with in Hongkong entered one of her artworks in a competition in Japan. She won the competition, and this led to her being offered the job of art director with Far Eastern Publishers in Singapore in 1963. She decided to take the job even though it meant being away from her husband, who was of ill health, and her two children. Her children later joined her in Singapore.

In Singapore, she switched to illustrating books for children because there was great demand for local textbooks and readers. Shan Mei illustrated the 24 readers that were published by the Ministry of Education during the early 1970s under its Primary Pilot Project. These books were designed for the integrated teaching of language, mathematics and science.

In illustrating textbooks, Shan Mei took a fresh approach, using the cartoon style of drawing instead of the traditional realism style where people, objects and scenes were drawn with almost photographic precision.

Her lively drawings brought to life the characters in much-loved series of books such as Pepy and the Peacock and The Adventures of Mooty the Mouse. She was also the illustrator for the Moongate Collection of Folktales from the Orient, which brought to children around the world Asian tales and myths.

In 1976, Shan Mei was the first recipient of the Singapore Book Council’s Book Award in the children’s books category. The citation for her award spoke of her great ability to be ‘as lively and full of action or as soft and dreamlike as the story dictates’. She used a variety of styles in her illustrations, and often mixed media and techniques to produce eye-catching, evocative pieces.

Shan Mei believed firmly that an illustrator needed to do thorough research before putting pen or brush to paper, and all the more so with the illustrating of stories about people. For example, the facial expressions of parents interacting with their children would be different from the expressions of a commander talking to his subordinates.

When she was working on the Asian folktales series, Shan Mei learnt as much as she could about the culture and customs of the periods covered. She wanted to be able to accurately reflect in her drawings the spirit of the characters and their environment. When she worked on her Animal Frolics series, Shan Mei spent many weekends at the Singapore Zoo observing and photographing animals.

Good illustrators should strive to enhance their life experience and keep abreast of the times in order to get good ideas, she once said. “One cannot work behind closed doors and hope to create something out of nothing.”

An avid gardener and animal lover, Shan Mei had a pet cat that used to sit quietly on her desk at home as she worked on her drawings. When the cat died in 1985, she was too upset to consider getting another pet. Instead it was a stuffed toy, Mooty the Mouse, that kept her company.

In the late 1980s, Shan Mei began to spend more time teaching than drawing. She taught illustration at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) through the 1990s. In 1999, as her health began to fail, she retired and moved to Vancouver to live with her daughter, Loretta, who had married and emigrated to Canada some years earlier. In May 2012, some months after a bad fall, Shan Mei died.

In September 2018, the retrospective exhibition “Kwan Shan Mei: Drawing from the Heart 关山美: 以心动笔” at the Singapore Comic Festival, showcased a selection of her books and drawings provided by her family.

“Depicting adults allows for more complex expression of emotions. Children always look wholesome in storybooks, and you can only draw them nice and neat.”

INTERVIEW IN THE STRAITS TIMES, 23 JUNE 1992

“So much of me goes into the illustrations that when the pictures leave my hands to be sent to the publisher, I feel very sad. It is as if my beloved child is being taken away by someone.”

INTERVIEW IN THE STRAITS TIMES, 13 JULY 1979

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Photos courtesy of Wendy Toh