Art Talk

By Nicole CHANG

Koh Teng Huat (Ah Koh), an impressionist artist who devoted to ART and his Home Town

Ah Koh: “Artists’ heart is as wide as the sea and the hill at Balik Pulau. Let’s feel the inner soul of this beautiful city before the flow of development engulfed it completely.”

Koh Teng Huat, widely addressed as Ah Koh, among the local community in Penang, especially among the art circles, the eco-conservationists as well as the heritage and cultural activists. His endless devotion in promoting the unspoiled fishing village town of Balik Pulau through art, culture and heritage has touched many local peoples’ heart in Penang, particularly in Balik Pulau. Besides, through the arts, he attempts to elevate more awareness about environmental conservation and also to advocate and preserve the multicultural harmoniousness in the country.

Ah Koh is a self-taught artist who painted out his very own style of palette knife paintings. Palette knife painting is basically produced using a palette knife to apply oil paints on the canvas. Next, using a palette knife, the artist applies creative strokes on the paints until achieving the satisfactory effects. Ah Koh uses his palette knives and his designated brushes, painted out the scene that he has seen on the canvas. His bold and expressive personality as well as his exuberance in art is uninhibitedly demonstrated through each of his art strokes.  Throughout the years since Ah Koh started to paint, he has produced a series of art pieces that mostly captured scenes at Balik Pulau and George Town, Penang. He passionately painted fishing villages, landscapes, paddy fields, old houses, old streets, heritage buildings, temples, jetties and local cultural festivals or events. Other than that, he also travelled to other places in or out of Malaysia, such as Johor, Malacca, Sabah, Langkawi, Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan and China, to capture the interesting places, objects, peoples or activities found, onto his canvas. As he likes to make new friends and chatting with different peoples, he always enjoys painting outdoors. Sometimes, you will see him on the streets or the side lanes. However, sometimes, you will see him in the open spaces or next to the hawker stalls among the crowds in the cities. Some other times, you may spot him on the hillside, seaside or farmlands. His on-the-spot demonstrations of palette knife paintings always attracted the crowd of locals and visitors.
Ah Koh’s Art Journey

Ah Koh is now 52 years old. He is a Penang-born artist. He was growing up in a Malay Kampung, namely Paya Kongsi in Balik Pulau. At that time, his home was surrounded by rubber estates, where the neighbour was staying as far as a kilometre away. During his childhood, he mingled with Malay toddlers, enjoyed catching ‘Fighting Fishes’ and helping neighbour mixing latex after school. Sometimes, the neighbour gave him five or ten cents as a return. Then, he would be happily running to the shop nearby, buying some sweets for himself. However, life living in a small village during his childhood was never seems easy. During that period, his whole family, with ten siblings, lived solely depending on his parents who were selling handmade bean curd jelly (dòufuhuā, in Chinese). Since young, Ah Koh started to work for extra income for living after school. He had been rearing chicks, plucking cinnamon on hills, cutting grass, chopping the rubber tree trunks and so on. Nevertheless, he never felt unhappy about that. In contrary, he was quite satisfied with what he had and gratefully moved on each day of his life.

After completing his secondary education at Sacred Heart High School in Balik Pulau, he left his hometown for career development at cities in other states within Malaysia. He had been working in many different fields. When he was 24 years old, he joined Guang-Ming Ribao (光明日报) as a reporter for two years.  After that, he went to KL, joined The China Press (中国报) for another two years. At the same time, he met his beloved wife. Life as a reporter was very interesting, but he never stopped looking for breakthroughs. In 1990, he was exposed to plastic trading industry. Since then he and his wife moved to Ipoh, started his life as a sales personnel. This occupation last for 8 years. Throughout that period, he gained some achievement in career and life. He had been promoted to become the branch manager at Johor. Also, he had set up his lovely family with two children. For the 8 years experiences in running sales within whole Malaysia, he had accumulated some knowledge about business strategies and progressively built up his social competence. In 1998, he quitted from his position and moved to Batu Pahat, Johor. He then teamed up with his brother-in-law and some other partners, to get involved in newspaper distribution. In 2001, together with his elder brother, he established “Da Jia Early Learning Programme" in which promoting early childhood education flashcard. Since then until today, he is actively involved in early childhood education.

After his career foundation was well developed with some successes, he started longing to return home. In 2004, he decided to bring along his family and move back to his home town. Rethinking his decision at that time, he felt no regret. His return had allowed him to spend a great moment together with his aging parents, accompanying both of them till the end of their lives. 

In 2008, after some academic case studies were conducted on the community of Hakka immigrants and the heritage as well as the culture of Balik Pulau, this little fishing village town has caught the media’s limelight. Many local and international media teams came for documentary shootings. Subsequently, in 2009, many locally as well as internationally famous artists were attracted to visit Balik Pulau. They came to taste the well-known durian fruits. At the same time, they came to sketch and paint the natural scenes of this village town. Slowly, this town had become a great hideout for artists to source for creative inspirations. At that time, Ah Koh, who is always friendly, voluntarily became the local tour guide for the groups of visiting artists. Seeing the artists enjoying painting the scenes of his hometown beautifully on their canvas with freely brushed strokes, Ah Koh’s long dormant desire in painting was aroused. He then took up his paintbrush once again, started with a piece that painting soil, rocks and rivers by using the leftover paints from the visiting artists. Later on, he was exposed to palette knife oil painting. He was so attracted to the uninhibited and bold brush strokes. Since then, he recognised palette knife oil painting is a medium that well suit his personal character. Subsequently, he started his journey in the art world.
His Participation in Art

In 2010, together with his old friend, Maggie Fong, the well-noted local writer, Duola, and others, he had founded Balik Pulau Art Society. Through art, he meets many friends from many different places. He always enjoys meeting peoples and sharing his stories in art. A year later (2011), he set up his own art studio, namely the “Fishing Village Art Studio” at Pulau Betong, Balik Pulau. He loves to invite friends, especially artists from different places or different countries to his art space for sharing and exchange in art. He always hopes that through the engagement and interaction among artists from different places, it would eventually help to promote Penang’s art to the international market.

Since 2010, Ah Koh has started to showcase his artworks in some group exhibitions which held within Malaysia. Also, he had participated in a few international exhibitions, for instance, in Hualien, Taiwan; Hainan, China and Singapore. In 2013, other than his hometown, he started to paint George Town, capturing the local scenes and recording the living cultures and local stories of the old streets on the canvas using his knife paintings. With the combination of bold strokes by the palette knife and the fine touches by the paint brushes and other tools, he painted out the beautiful and expressive streets of George Town. During the same year, he had his first solo exhibition, themed “The Story of Old Streets, George Town, Penang” at Atelier Art Space in Kuala Lumpur. This embarked his big step forward in his artistic journey, 10 years after his return to his homeland. In this exhibition, there were 25 pieces of paintings under 7 different themes, including Chew Jetty, Khoo Kongsi, UNESCO Heritage Buildings, Temples, and Traditional Cultures & Traditional Delights along the Old Streets. Ah Koh’s strokes on the canvas touched the heart of the locals, especially those who have left George Town for some times. His paintings rekindled a nostalgic vibe among the George Town’s community.

Although being a self-taught artist, his passion and determination in art is never less than the professional trained artists. Since school-age, his talent in art was recognised. He had once attained the Merit Award in the North Malaysia’s High School Drawing Competition, which was organised by Kwong Wah Yit Poh Press Berhad. However, after completing his secondary school, he had paused his artistic exploration and proceeded to other career development in big cities. When he came back and started to paint again, his journey in art was never easy. But, with the strong supports and motivation from the friends and family members, he managed to sustain his work in art until today. Nowadays, his paintings are part of the favourite collections of the local as well as the international collectors. Beside of individual collectors, his artworks were also collected by many art galleries and some private institutions. Since 2014, his artworks have started to be included in Malaysia’s art auction market. This year (2015) he was selected to be listed in the “310 Malaysian Artists”, which is the latest art book published by Dato’ Dr. Tan Chee Kuan (The Art Gallery). To Ah Koh, this is definitely an exciting motivation as he never expects such a great recognition within his scant experience in art. He felt grateful and honoured to receive such acknowledgement.

From the journalism to the education and now venture into the art sector, Ah Koh reluctant to predict for the future. He would rather prefer to enjoy the process of pursuing what he likes to do along his life. He said, “I simply enjoy the process of creating art! I am not looking for any particular achievement so far! I greatly appreciate all the supports from those who like my works”.

To those who know Ah Koh well, he is always being described as friendly, sincere, artless, truthful and open-minded. His friendly, approachable personality has caused him to have lots of friends, who come from different backgrounds and different places. His friends are generally multiracial and multinational. From Ah Koh’s perspective, I learnt that life can be simple and less complicated without too much demand for luxury. Ah Koh, who enjoys living a simple life, appreciates and thankful to what he currently has. He hardly bothers to put stress on the return or outcome of his initiatives. But rather, he enjoys every single process that he went through in building up what he dream of. I think this is what we called the value of life!

Other than his art career, Ah Koh always well engaged with social and cultural activities/events, in particular, those related to creative art and environmental conservation. His active participation in the arts has drawn the media’s attention. Looking at the large collection of newspaper articles written about himself, Ah Koh humorously commented himself as an overactive ‘child’ who hardly stops exploring new and interesting things along with his life. However, in contrary, I am rather impressed by his enthusiasm in art and his dedicated devotion to the environment surrounding him, as well as his boldness in pursuing what he likes to do in his life.

Below shows the detail about his participation in art exhibitions, art auctions and other art initiatives.

*Group Exhibitions:
Year Exhibitions
  • Balik Pulau First Group Art Exhibition at  Gallery Kampung Nelayang, Pulau Betong, Balik Pulau, Penang
  • Group Art Exhibition at Kwang Hua High Shool, Klang, Selangor
  • 1st Group Art Exhibition of Balik Pulau Art Society at Gallery Kampung Ku, Balik Pulau, Penang
  • “Beautiful Malaysia” at Hotel Lakeside: Guan Lan, Hai Nam Island, China
  • 5 Artists Exhibition at Island Gallery, Penang
  • 2nd Group Art Exhibition of Balik Pulau Art Society at Gallery Kampung Ku, Balik Pulau, Penang
  • 3 Men Show at Penang Performing Art Centre (Penang PAC), Penang
  • Folk Custom Art Exhibition of Ten Artists from Taiwan and Malaysia at Hualien, Taiwan
  • 1st Anniversary Annual Exhibition of Penang Chinese Brush Painting Art Society at Penang
  • “Artists Favourite II” at Penang State Art Gallery, Penang
  • 3rd Group Art Exhibition of Balik Pulau Art Society, at Penang State Art Gallery, Penang
  • 60th Group Exhibition of Penang Art Society at Penang State Art Gallery, Penang
  • “Duo Charity Exhibition: Old Town Story Charity Show” at Island Gallery, Penang
  • “The Harmony”, Seven Artists Exhibition at Penang Artists Corner, Penang
  • Koh Teng Huat’s Knife Paintings and 石川Calligraphy Exhibition at Kota Kinabalu Palm Square, Centre Point, Sabah
  • 4th Group Art Exhibition of Balik Pulau Art Society, at Penang State Art Gallery, Penang
  • Penang Art Society Group Exhibition at Penang State Art Gallery, Penang
  • Ah Koh’s Palette Knife Art and Culture Educational Tour Exhibition at the Centre of Hock Por Sian Association, Batu Pahat
  • “Knife & Brush Art Exhibition” by Koh Teng Huat & Goh Chin Liang, in conjunction with 6th Malacca Art and Performance Festival (MAPfest), at Calanthe Artisan Loft Homestay, Malacca
  • “Ah Koh & USM Fine Arts Students’ Art & Cultural Exhibition” at Gallery 1 & 2 Performing Arts Centre of Penang (penangpac), Penang
  • “My Landscape 3” at Atelier Art Space Gallery, Petaling Jaya, Selangor
  • “Show Off” Art Exhibition at Gurney Paragon, Penang
  • 2014 Visit Malaysia Year International Art Camp and Exhibition at Dai Ichi Modern Art Gallery
  • 5th Group Art Exhibition of Balik Pulau Art Society, at Penang State Art Gallery, Penang
  • Reminiscence & Future Gazing,Singapore. (缅怀。瞻望) 新加坡中华美术协会80会庆美展
  • International Art Exchange Exhibition, Hualien, Taiwan (“2015春之賞”-藝桐洄瀾客家情
  • 國際藝術交流展)
[Artists Art Fairs Malaysia 2015 {KL Fine Art Festival } Stadium Chinwoo,KL.
Open Studio  Anees  and Koh show:浮罗山背国际艺术村。槟城。
:Art Asia @KL 2018-Palace of the Golden Horses Kl.亚洲艺术@吉隆坡2018.
Trendy Vibes exhibition-The Art Gallery,Penang.
好山好水艺术展。。Metta Lodge。Balik Pulau。
*Solo Exhibitions
Year Exhibitions
  • “The Story of Old Streets, George Town, Penang” at Atelier Art Space Gallery, Petaling Jaya, Selangor
  • “From Turkey to Malaysia” at Publika Mall, Kuala Lumpur
  • “Mother’s Homeland” at Acheh Art Row, George Town, Penang
  • “Aku Aku” at AEIOU Art Café, Singapore
  • “Nostalgia of Koh”, a solo oil paintings exhibition at Younie Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
  • “ The Art Of Pellet Knife “ 刀舞狮城Lion City Art Gallery,Tangling Shopping Centre,Singapore.
  • 再舞狮城。。新加坡狮城画廊
  • The story of pellet  knife-the art room, straits quay .Penang.
  • The Marina Island –Island Gallery,Marina Island.Perak
Date Auctioneer Lot No. Title
October 2014 Masterpiece Fine Art Auction, KL. 076 Sutera Habour Resort, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
March 2014 Masterpiece Fine Art Auction, KL. 206 Balik Pulau Penang
August 2015 Masterpiece Fine Art Auction, KL. 170 Harbour Front
October 2015 Masterpiece Fine Art Auction, KL. 035 Air Stan Market, Penang
October 2015 Masterpiece Fine Art Auction, KL. 036 Happy Morning
Year Award
Merit Award in the North Malaysia’s High School Drawing Competition, organised by Kwong Wah Yit Poh Press Berhad
Asian Outstanding Artist Award --from Hong Kong Economy Net
世界杰出名人榜:飞跃成就 Worldwide Excellence Award-Outstanding Achievement ,by The Circle  .
*Participation in other Art Activities/Events:
Year Activities/Events
  • Artists Residency Program at Balik Pulau – as the organiser 
  • “Silent Bids” of Ah Koh’s Paintings during a Charity Fundraising at 106th annual dinner of Batu Pahat Chinese Chamber of Commerce (*all 16 paintings donated by Ah Koh were auctioned off and a total of RM71,030 was raised)
  • Art and Tour ,Brisbane Australia,Guang zhou ,China.
  • Group Outdoor Sketching at Lombok, Indonesia
  • 4th Annual Langkawi Art Colony at Langkawi, Kedah
  • 新山希望园特殊学校,慈善拍卖会。拍出12万马币。
  • Art and Tour :Macao, Hong Kong , Guang Zhou, New Zealand.
His Art Collectors

Since Ah Koh started to participate in art exhibition in 2010, his name began to spread among the art community. Nowadays, his paintings can be easily recognised from his bold knife strokes and the unique style in applying colours. His paintings always carrying bright and vivid colours, which distinctively translating his cheerful and outspoken character.
Ah Koh always believes that each of his artworks is bound to reach its right collector naturally. To him, it is all about fate. He then told me about an interesting instance. There was once, when he painted an Indian man who selling bread at the roadside. The Indian man whom he painted, wish to buy the said painting, but he mentioned that he can’t afford to pay. At that time, Ah Koh told him that he can just give a red packet (“angpow”) as return and Ah Koh promised to keep the painting for him. After some time, someone offered RM1000 to buy the same painting. But, Ah Koh had rejected to sell. Later, indeed, the Indian bread seller came to meet Ah Koh and passed him a red packet with RM50 inside. At last, Ah Koh kept his promise and sold off that painting at RM50.

Today, Ah Koh’s paintings are in demand within the art market in Malaysia as well as in some other countries. His collectors, other than mostly come from Malaysia and Singapore, some are from Australia, New Zealand, England, United States, China, Hong Kong and etc. Beside of individual collectors, his artworks are also collected by many art galleries and some private institutions, which includes the following:
  1. Perlis State Art Gallery
  2. Galeri Seni Lukis Moden Dai Ichi ,Sg Petani,Kedah.
  3. Sabah Centre Point (private organisation)
  4. Penang Gurney Paragon (private),Penang.
  5. Lion City Art Gallery Singapore
  6. Younie Gallery Kuala Lumpur
  7. Island Gallery Penang
  8. Atelier Alan Teh Architect
  9. Penang Butterfly Farm
  10. China Paradise Sdn. Bhd. KL
  11. AP Oil International Limited, Singapore.
  12. Ministry of Transport Malaysia
  13. Marina Island Pangkor ,Perak.
  14. Min Art Gallery。Penang
  15. Palace of the Golden Horses
  16. Art Safe Gallery,Singapore。
The Balik Pulau Art Society

The Balik Pulau Art Society (BPAS) has been established since year 2010. It was joined founded by Ah Koh, together with his friend Maggie Fong (the widely recognised local entrepreneur cum writer who is also the founder of the Hakka Village Balik Pulau Penang) and the well-noted local writer, Duola. The society is now led by Duola while Ah Koh is the Vice President. Since its establishment, it had organised 5 large-scaled annual group exhibitions, in five years consecutively, started from the year 2011. The number of members has been increased from about 30 members in 2010 to more than 60 members today.

During the launching of the 4th Group Exhibition of Balik Pulau Art Society in 2014, YB Wong Hon Wai, the Chairman of Penang State Museum Board said, “Witnessing the establishment of the Balik Pulau Art Society and attending the activities held by the society every year, I am seeing many creative talents in art among the society. They are talents in fine arts, literature as well as calligraphy.” He then acknowledged the contribution of the society in generating a new drive to the local art society. He believed that the series of art activities held at Balik Pulau, together with its famous seasonal production of quality fruit of durians as well as the popular cycling sites, has progressively promoted Balik Pulau as a town of arts and humanities.
Ah Koh’s Dream:

Ah Koh recalled a great advice from a master in art, who had told him to be an artist that can contribute to the society. This advice has strongly affected Ah Koh’s life in art. He said, “Art is not supposed to be treated as something prominent or noble. Art should be meant reachable and people should be able to feel or experience art in everyday life!” Along his artistic journey, Ah Koh always attempts to creatively bond art with nature, culture and heritage. He hopes that he can contribute a little in promoting the awareness in conservation of nature, culture as well as heritage through art’s engagements that linked to people’s life. He started this move at Balik Pulau, his hometown.

Ah Koh said, “Due to the rapid development in Balik Pulau, many great childhood memories that I have had slowly fated away. However, many of its natural ecosystems and stunning scenery as well as the strong local community’s ties and humanity value are still seen everywhere at Balik Pulau. I wish and persistently attempted to preserve green lungs in Balik Pulau through creative arts. However, the art movements or art initiatives here are being too little if compared to the development projects by the property developers. Less than a few years, the property development here has engulfed a huge piece of green land in this beautiful town. This makes me confused. I doubt if I have done rightfully.” Although he is still confused about the outcome of his effort, he never gave up.

In 2011, joining his friend, Maggie Fong, Ah Koh participated in a project to set up an environmental village in Balik Pulau. The team of friends came from art and industrial sectors, aimed to promote the local eco-tourism. Through a collective thinking and ideas, they attempted to create an environmental art village without affecting its natural forestry ambience. Through this environmental art village, Ah Koh urged more residents in cities to contribute back to the Mother Nature.

In 2014, Ah Koh teamed up with Lusy DeCoursey, who is an artist from London (*Lusy is now based in Penang, teaching art at Prince of Wales Island International School. She has recently set up The Little Art Gallery at Lorong Macalister in George Town, Penang), to organise “AKULUSY International Art Camp”. It was a 2-days/2-nights art event where total 20 well-known international artists came from Malaysia, England, Brunei and Taiwan gathered at Bukit Genting Hill restaurant. That is a great location where one could view the beautiful natural scene of the whole Balik Pulau town. During the art camp, a series of activities including outdoor sketching, interactive sharing sessions, artist-in-residence program, local natural and heritage walks/tours, had provided an interaction platform for local and international artists. Through these activities, Ah Koh and Lusy attempted to encourage more public engagement in local arts and cultural initiatives. At the same time, they hope that more similar projects in the future will help to enhance the local appreciation of arts and culture as well as to elevate the local awareness about the protection and preservation of natural ecosystems.

Ah Koh enduringly organises art events and activities at Balik Pulau, hoping that one day he could realise his long-awaited dream, i.e. making Balik Pulau an International Art Village, or preferably called The Art-topia. Through art, he hopes to encourage more peoples to explore different sides of Balik Pulau. He believed that when this village town has become a well-known Art Village one day, the excessive developments here will eventually signify nothing. At that point of time, how to preserve the original and authentic elements of Balilk Pulau become the key. With continuous supports from friends that consist of artists, academicians, entrepreneurs, businessman, industrialists, activists in art, culture and heritage as well as the nature conservationists, he is looking forward to preserve and retain the unspoiled native scene of Balik Pulau. Although he is aware that this is unlikely happening, he never gives up. He hopes that, with the artists’ joined effort, they could at least documenting the existing scene of multifaceted Balik Pulau onto canvas before it being fated away along with the development process. In future, these work as the reference for the next generations.

Art and culture are being part and parcel of people’s life. Peoples living within nature. Peoples create culture and art along their life. When time passed, the art and culture become part of the heritage. From the chain relations, the nature nurtures people’s thinking and creativity, causes the creation of art, culture and heritage. Thus, there is undeniably a strong bonding between Nature-Art-Culture-Heritage. Excluding any one out of them, people’s life may not be complete. Therefore, the nature, art, culture and heritage are all worth for good conservation for the sustainability of living. In short, it is all about the people and the nature. Art could be one of the great and powerful medium to creatively strengthen and sustain a healthy bonding between people and the nature. Hopefully people will eventually be more considerate when decided to develop a natural space.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely the current opinions of the author and should not be construed to reflect the opinions, policies or positions of any entity other than the author's.