AT 100

The Book

Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100 pays tribute renaissance at 100.

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The exhibition

A selection of artworks created by Lim Tze Peng in 2020 when he reached the age of 100 years. Large scale, bold colours, and vigorous brushwork; these paintings capture the artist’s will to defy convention.

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the exhibition

Painting for Lim Tze Peng is a solitary endeavour, from the start to the middle to the end, every decision is his and only his to make. He wears nothing on his face, everything is happening inside him. The spirit, or the soul, has been shifted to the highest gear.

Every stroke is executed with the firm energy of a talented hand. Muscle memory is a good and a bad thing. The body relies on memory to do what is required, but the memory likes to do what it has done before. The struggles for Lim Tze Peng is the hard fight between what is tried and tested and what has never been done before. The mind keeps saying, Try! That colour, it has never been used before. Never mind, use it for the first time. This is not a recognisable shape, it is going to be awful. Good, it is new. The format, the paper, it is just too big! Do it, it will allow the composition to be larger than ever before. Do it! Do it!

And so the struggle goes on within himself. What the soul looks forward to is a surprise. When his hands stop listening to memory and habit, when his mind is in full control and forcing every faculty to veer into uncharted terrain, that's when the artist is most spirited and happy. "In his 100th year, the new energy we see is the energy he is using to exceed his own expectations of himself," says his neighbour and friend Chua Eng Lee. "And that's what I find inspiring for all of us who are decades younger than him. The soul behind his ink is a lonely hunter, hunting for surprises."

The artist's soul is never completely happy; what it seeks, it knows it never will attain. The standard is not just high, but impossibly so. Yet it is because he is this way that he has come so far, shone this brightly; and he will go on to do so beyond 100 and 101. The soul knows, it is only by aiming at impossible heights that greatness is reached.

Lim Tze Peng has been able to achieve breakthroughs late in life by keeping this spirit alive and well.

Soul of Ink:
Lim Tze Peng
at 100



Significance of publishing the book

Few artists live past 90, not to mention still painting and innovating at 100 years old. This book is a celebration of an artist who finds new meaning and discovers real breakthroughs at 100. In addition to the art, the book looks at what contributed to his success. Not much has been written on his wife and family, the stability and peace of mind they offer him. From his home studio after his 80th birthday, real magic happens. The author follows the centenarian around his studio and learns how domestic bliss contributes to his spirited art.


His thoughts on calligraphy are original and even controversial. Instead of imitating the best in China, which he thinks is futile and unproductive, he believes in approaching calligraphy as painting instead of calligraphy as something to be read. So his characters are sometimes difficult to read or impossible to make out. His analogy is that of birds singing. When the birds sing, there is no need to know what the birds are singing about, their sounds are meant purely for enjoyment. If one tries to find out, chances are, one would be disappointed, even frustrated. In art, Lim Tze Peng believes there should be margins for mystery, the artist keeps some secrets, not everything needs to be revealed or told. And this has been the attraction to and the popularity of his calligraphy.

Why Lim Tze Peng is important to Singapore

The artist considers himself to be a patriot. He was born in Singapore, met his wife here and made a livelihood in Singapore. Unlike the Nanyang artists whom he is constantly being compared to, he gets his inspiration from Singapore. From the beginning through to his eventual success, Lim Tze Peng has stuck assiduously to local subjects and scenes. He has also painted the region, but the themes are tropical, what local audiences can identify with. In the 70s and 80s, during the big clean-up, he painstakingly “recorded” vanishing Singapore by producing close to 500 works of old Chinatown and the Singapore River. Today, painting from his studio, he recreates these from his memory, producing massive works of old Singapore in many colourful tributes.

Lim Tze Peng does not paint snow-capped mountains, cherry blossoms or famous foreign landmarks. Contrary to popular assumptions, his art is not Chinese, but Singaporean. He may choose to hold the Chinese brush, paint on rice paper, but his subject matter are what Singaporeans can readily identify with. Whether inspired by his early kampong home in Pasir Ris, vanishing scenes of Chinatown or the Singapore River, or just the ubiquitous tropical trees, Lim Tze Peng’s works are instantly recognisable as being fruits from the local soil, or as some critics called it, bumiputra art. He believes that a good artist is one who paints where he comes from, one who knows his origins, one rooted to his beginnings. Today, Lim Tze Peng’s successful works, works that are collected, are his original or recreations of Singapore scenes and his abstract renditions of the tropical trees.

For close to 80 years now, Singapore has been his muse. Through his art, we witness a changing landscape, and of late, an increasingly abstract understanding and tribute to his surroundings. His life consists of two love stories, one with his wife, and the other with art. And it is through the latter that he will be remembered by Singaporeans, the kampong boy who stays true to his talent and calling.

Praise for Soul of Ink:
Lim Tze Peng at 100

“This book is unlike other earlier publications on Lim Tze Peng. Reading it is like watching a relationship blossom between the author and artist. Written from the perspective of an ‘arts outsider’, we eagerly follow the author as he sets off to investigate the man behind the artworks. From this book, we gain a better understanding of the ties that bind the artist with his family, friends and collectors, and from that vantage point, a deeper appreciation of his artistic practice and beliefs.”

Low Sze Wee
CEO, Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre,
Former Director of Curatorial & Collections, National Gallery Singapore

“Lim Tze Peng is the bumiputra of Singapore art, son of our soil.”

Jimmy Koh
Managing Director, Antara Koh

“Master Lim Tze Peng is one of my cultural heroes. He has excelled in both calligraphy and landscape painting. His life and achievements are inspiring.”

Prof Tommy Koh
Rector, Tembusu College
Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Chairman, Governing Board, NUS Centre for International Law,
Special Advisor, NUS Institute of Policy Studies

“I first met Mr Lim at the Chung Cheng High School 80th Anniversary celebration in 2019. He showed me the huge artwork hung on the school wall, a cross between a calligraphy of Man Jiang Hong 《满江红》 (The River Runs Red) and a painting. I am very simple when it comes to art appreciation, and that piece of work managed to evoke a sense of awe in me. I visited Mr Lim’s studio later, and spoke with him at length about his work. What amazed and impressed me most was his young mind. He has made a conscious effort to reinvent his art work over and over again, and you can see how his style has evolved over the decades. Something he said is etched in my mind, ‘I can’t sleep well at night sometimes, because I am thinking through how to paint what I have in mind.’ Mr Lim is a true lifelong learner, artist and gentleman.”

Mr Ong Ye Kung
Minister for Transport
Chairman, Chinese Development Assistance Council
Board Member, Monetary Authority of Singapore
MP Sembawang GRC

“A very thoughtful piece of writing. Well done.”

Liu Thai Ker
Architect and Founding Chairman, MORROW consultancy
Former Chief Planner at Urban Redevelopment Authority

“Soul of Ink tells the story of a 100-year old artist who still paints every day. Written in an engaging and personal style, it gives a rare insight into one of Singapore’s most important artists. A must-read.”

Melvin Poh
Art collector

“Tai Ho has meticulously followed and studied the daily routines of artist Lim Tze Peng. He has written, with insightful details, a riveting book on the way the artist works and the various phases of his painting and calligraphy. This is an invaluable record of a person’s lifelong evolvement and commitment to art.”

Ong Kim Seng
Award-winning, world acclaimed
Watercolourist Member,
American Watercolour Society

“When a 100-year old man writes the word LOVE in ink on rice paper, it stands out from the everyday celebration of the word in mass media: songs, advertisements, and casual exchanges. The word, out of a plethora of Chinese characters to choose from, summarises in calligraphy everything important without the need to explain or elaborate.”

Chen Yi Quan

“This book is a story of a man with two passions: a portrait of an artist consumed with love for paintings; and the nourishing love for his wife and family. Written in a vivid and visual narrative, the reader sees and feels the spiritual, colourful world of an artist. Lim Tze Peng is inseparable from his ink and paper. Every ounce of strength is muscled to hold a brush and allow the ink to create yet another piece of class. Truly, the Soul of Ink indeed!”

Albert Lim / Linda Neo
Art collectors

Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100 pays tribute to the remarkable achievement of artistic renaissance at 100. It traces the lean beginnings of the early years; relives the times of controversy over the artist’s innovations in Chinese calligraphy; celebrates his breakthroughs. Throughout the book, attention is paid to Lim Tze Peng the man, the foundation of everything that is admirable about Lim Tze Peng the artist. The book isn’t only about his art; priority is given, rather, to the man behind the art, and how the art had given life to him and his family.

At the heart of this book is the word “soul”. What pushes a man at the age of 100 to continue breaking new ground in his life’s work? How has he been able to surprise not just the art community but himself?

This is Woon Tai Ho’s second book on a Singaporean artist. His first, To Paint a Smile, is about the artist Tan Swie Hian.

Why Soul of Ink?

From a historical perspective, there are a few reasons why Lim Tze Peng is rare, significant and unique to the art history of Singapore.

He is the oldest living local born artist, the only artist who was an adult during the second world war. Unlike artists who came from China to explore their fortunes in Southeast Asia (Nanyang), Lim Tze Peng is self-taught and home grown. His mentors might have been Nanyang artists, but his visual language is inspired by his immediate surroundings and his art vocabulary originally and uniquely his own.

One of the earliest to put a personal stamp on his art that is neither Eastern nor Western, but unapologetically home grown. In 1977, his entry for the Commonwealth Art Competition was initially rejected as it did not conform to any Eastern or Western art convention. But he was eventually allowed to participate and surprising everyone, actually won.

He joins the ranks of a small group of pioneer artists who have been awarded the rare Meritorious Service Medal. But unlike all who were awarded posthumously, he got his medal at 95. The four who preceded him were big names, Cheong Soo Peng (received the award in 1962); Chen Wen Hsi (1992); Pan Shou (1994); and Liu Kang (1996).

He is the only practising artist from the Ten Men Group, the group that collected inspiration and material from the Southeast Asian region instead of perpetuating the style of art from China in the 1960s and 70s.

Lim Tze Peng is the only artist alive who has memories of adult interactions with such important pioneers like Lee Man Fong, Cheong Soo Peng, Georgette Chen, Pan Shou and Liu Kang. His personal art journey, milestones and anecdotes consist of these historical art figures either as mentors or fellow-artists, and through him, we get a ringside seat to Singapore art history— first-hand, personal accounts dating all the way back to the Second World War.

But for how one copes with the human condition and what ultimately matters in life, the story of Lim Tze Peng is worth reading because of the values he embraces.

First and foremost, he believes that to be a good artist, one needs to be a good man. Art emanates from the moral fibre of an artist’s soul. How the artist sees his world and what he brings to his canvas or rice paper comes deep from the artist moral core. And for this reason, the artist is honest to a fault, spends on others but is frugal with himself, never has a negative word to say of fellow artists or indeed of any fellow human being. But most importantly, he believes in being the upright exemplar, that good man who intuitively knows right from wrong. And when he sets that example, good art will follow. When asked how he wants to be remembered, he says simply, “I want to be remembered as a good man.”

But it is his fighting spirit that most find most inspiring. It is brute and relentless determination, against the onslaught of age, fighting illness and fatigue to paint every day, to try and achieve breakthroughs past the age of 80, through his 90s and now at 100. He does not see his life as a sprint, but a long, almost unending marathon. There is no retirement, instead he sees himself as a learning student at every stage. And it is because of this spirit of a humble, improving student that his art continues to improve past the medals and accolades. There is almost a dichotomy, two conflicting impulses that balances him and propels him forward: the confidence that he can make a difference, and the continuing and underlying need to improve because he is not good enough. This conflict is at the core of who Lim Tze Peng is and why he is fresh and new at every stage of his life, even at 100.

At the age when most are no longer around or in deep retirement, Lim Tze Peng made his most significant innovations and finally gained recognition, in his 80s and 90s. He made innovations in the institution of calligraphy by coming up with hutuzi, and added colour to an essentially black and white practice. He won his most coveted awards, the Cultural Medallion and the Meritorious Service Award at 82 and 95. Which is why they called his art the art of perseverance.

He is the only practising artist from the Ten Men Group, the group that collected inspiration and material from the Southeast Asian region instead of perpetuating the style of art from China in the 1960s and 70s.

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“Lim Tze Peng takes his talent seriously. He paints every day and works harder than most artists younger than him. His ink, oil and calligraphy form a cultural and artistic heritage, an important legacy for our young nation. This book is a salute to his art of perseverance.”

Terence Teo
President, Singapore Art Society
Director, Cape of Good Hope Art Gallery

“I became a fan of Woon Tai Ho’s writing after I read his book, ‘To Paint a Smile’, in 2008. The story of Tan Swie Hian, as sketched by Woon, was a page turner with rare insights into the painter’s work. It was like reading one man’s journey into another man’s art. His new book, ‘Soul of Ink’, goes further by not just probing another artist’s work but his life, too. Lim Tze Peng is a ripe 100 and the book celebrates the painter’s art and his existence with a keen eye for the details and a sharp ear for the sounds that ordinary souls don’t pick up. Words meet art and the result is a joyous splash of colour and prose.”

PN Balji
Veteran journalist
Author of Reluctant Editor:
The Singapore Media as Seen through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist 

“Lim Tze Peng is a reminder that we should always paint with our hearts.”

Jazz Chong
Ode to Art

“Soul of Ink reminds us of the sacrifices so many artists have to make in order to persist at making art, they often have to work so much harder than any other profession and often for hardly any money before they are famous. Lim Tze Peng persisted and it was not until he was 80 years old that his art was truly valued on a global scale. This book is truly an inspiration for artists and non-artists alike, and a peep into the genius mind and touching life of a remarkable talent.”

Kelley Cheng
Creative Director
The Press Room Group

“This book shows, beyond art history and theory, how Lim Tze Peng’s lived experiences best explain the magnificence of his art. A hundred years of cultural learning and practice help.”

Kwok Kian Chow
Former museum director,
Singapore Art Museum and
National Gallery Singapore

“Lim Tze Peng is a role model for Singaporean artists. There is no one like him… At 100, he still seeks to break new ground. And the writing too, this book is an inspiration.”

Yeo Mang Tong
Writer / Art critic

“It is with utmost delight that I observe how Tai Ho observes Mr Lim. Although he takes copious notes, for the most part, he just listens. When I read the chapters afterwards, I am not only astounded by the details but also how he has connected the dots and strung what he saw and heard into themes for the book.”

Chua Eng Lee
Neighbour and the artist’s close friend

“Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100 brings readers through the life journey, artistic style and philosophical wisdom of a distinguished centenarian — a cultural medallion winner, an educator and a family man. This brilliant piece of writing brings out the essence of Lim Tze Peng and his art — assimilating both East and West, and yet transcending both, analogous to our Singapore Spirit and Heartbeat.”

Pang Choon How
Principal, Hwa Chong Institution
Former Principal, Chung Cheng High School

Soul of Ink:
Lim Tze Peng
at 100

Sometimes, when I don’t have an appetite and cannot eat, I feel I am dying. Then I walk into my studio. When I see the brushes, the colours and the paper, I am invigorated. When I start to paint, I feel alive.


This is what Lim Tze Peng usually asks, when showing his new works. It is a question he had asked as a young man and still asks today.

This display features a selection of artworks created by Tze Peng in 2020 when he reached the age of 100 years. These paintings and calligraphy are characterised by several remarkable qualities: ambitious scale, bold colours, vigorous brushwork and a daring to defy convention.

About the curator

Low Sze Wee is Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. Initially trained as a lawyer, Sze Wee later graduated with a Masters in History of Art from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Previously helming senior leadership positions in Singapore Art Museum and National Gallery Singapore, he was first Singaporean to be selected as an International Fellow for the Clore Leadership Programme in 2013/14.

New Vibrancy

In 1981, sixty-year old Lim Tze Peng retired as a school principal to become a full-time artist. This was when Singapore underwent rapid redevelopment. Old buildings were demolished, and kampongs made way for new towns. Lim raced to document these disappearing sights, by painting them onsite. Over the next few years, he completed hundreds of artworks.

In the 1980s, these works were painted in Lim’s usual style –detailed linework with subtle ink washes. However, forty years later in 2020, Lim decided to revisit these old paintings, by overlaying them with bold colours. These injected a new vibrancy to his memories of Singapore, which had become more vivid over the years.

When I started out, I was cautious with colours… But I recall all images in colour. So, when I paint them now, seeing them in my head, I reinforce these images in colours. At my age, I have thrown caution out of the window, I celebrate colours and so you see these colourful works now. Life for me is beautiful because it is colourful.

Morning at Arab Street


1980 (Colours added in 2020)

670 x 665 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Crowded Bugis Street


C. 1980s (Colours added in 2020)

665 x 670 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Tanjong Rhu Riverside


C. 1980s (Colours added in 2020)

680 x 670 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper



C. 1982 (Colours added in 2020)

670 x 670 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Life in Kreta Ayer


(Also called Salted Fish in the book)


2000 x 2380 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Shop at Amoy Street


(Also called Traditional blacksmith in the book)


1650 x 2280 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Nostalgic Kampong



1670 x 1925 mm, Chinese ink on paper

Kelongs of the Past



1700 x 1930 mm, Chinese ink on paper

Alley in Kreta Ayer



1000 x 1100 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Boundless Images

In the 2000s, Lim Tze Peng was in his eighties. He found it increasingly difficult to paint outdoors, and started painting at home. This liberated his creativity in various ways.

By working indoors, he could now create monumental works, painting with huge brushes on large sheets of paper. And instead of only depicting what he sees, Lim now uses his notes and memories to paint his interpretations of the past.

What has fed my mind? I traveled the world, accumulated boundless images in paintings, sketches and notes. Today, I produce art works from this reserve, my mind. It has become my world. There is nothing more potent than the combination of memory and imagination

Language of Life

For many years, Lim Tze Peng lived on a farm, surrounded by nature. This cultivated his great love for trees. He was entranced by their graceful roots, vigorous branches and weathered bark.

Lim’s other great interest is calligraphy–the writing of Chinese characters in ink on paper. Over time, Lim found it natural to paint his beloved trees using calligraphic strokes. Similarly, his calligraphic works also often evoke the impression of majestic trees or sinuous vines.

I have a great love for trees, especially old trees… They show us how we can age with grace and vigour. The wrinkled barks of old trees, their wide branches and the network of roots -nothing is stronger or more beautiful. Just like calligraphy, lyrical yet so full of strength, trees speak the simplest language, the language of life. Just looking at trees makes me happy.

Trees Series 1


(Also called Trees 2 in the book)


1455 x 1845 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Trees Series 2



1210 x 2340 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Trees Series 3


(Also called Trees 1 in the book)


1260 x 2410 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Abstract Calligraphy 1


(Also called Man Jiang Hong, 满江红 in the book)


1260 x 2410 mm, Chinese ink on paper

Abstract Calligraphy 2



1490 x 2140 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Abstract Calligraphy 3


(Also called Abstract 1 in the book)


1490 x 2110 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Daily Practice

Writing demands skill and concentration. A calligrapher needs to control his brush to produce a variety of strokes. Once applied on paper, ink cannot be erased. The writing must be done without hesitation, so that there is rhythmic continuity from stroke to stroke, character to character.

Lim Tze Peng practises calligraphy daily. In recent years, his writing has become more wildly cursive. Lim calls them ‘muddled writing’ (hutuzi), not caring if they can be read or not. Recently, he even added vibrant colours to heighten the emotional impact of his works.

In art, there is always room for the viewer to think and imagine. Complete understanding is not necessary. In fact, it can be boring. When you hear a bird sing, you are simply delighted by how beautiful the sound is. There is no need to know exactly what the bird is singing about. You’d be frustrated if you tried.

Painting Feelings

Even at 100 years old, Lim Tze Peng still looks to the future. He declares, “There are people who like my past, prefer that I don’t change… They don’t understand what I paint now. It doesn’t matter. It is not possible for everyone to see what I see. And honestly, it doesn’t matter if they never do. I am painting feelings now.”

In his recent works, Lim often starts with cursive Chinese characters, written with great energy. He then reduces their legibility by overlaying more characters or adding colours. The final abstract compositions tug at our emotions, like musical notes from a song.

The main purpose of abstraction is not to tell a story… It is to encourage involvement and imagination. If I give a title to a piece of abstract, I have already instructed the mind to a certain direction which I shouldn’t.

Abstract Calligraphy 4


1460 x 1880 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Abstract Calligraphy 5



1460 x 1890 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Abstract Calligraphy 6



1460 x 1890 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Abstract Calligraphy 7


(Also called Unrecognisable Hutuzi in the book)


1460 x 1890 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper

Abstract Calligraphy 8



1200 x 2400 mm, Chinese ink and colour on paper