In a mental ward for nearly 35 years, he paints old Singapore from memory - and he dreams

In a mental ward for nearly 35 years, he paints old Singapore from memory - and he dreams

A talented artist as a child, Sim Kah Lim's horizons abruptly shrank when he was warded as a teenager with schizophrenia. But he never lost his gift - nor his dream of exhibiting his art to the world.

For over 30 years, Mr Sim Kah Lim painted vivid scenes of a long-gone Singapore - from behind the walls of his home at the Institute of Mental Health. A prolific artist since the age of 4, he'd always dreamt of one day sharing his gift with the world. Read his story here.

SINGAPORE: For nearly 35 years, Mr Sim Kah Lim’s world has been the walls of his ward at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

Outside, changes have swept the landscape, old buildings falling and new ones rising – skylines and shorelines of a 21st-century nation transformed. 

But in his mind’s eye – and in his bold-stroked acrylic and watercolour paintings – Mr Sim’s homeland is one where bumboats still crowd the Singapore River, ferrying goods and passengers; and where Chinatown’s open-air markets thrive and its five-foot ways are bustling with locals, not tourists.

They are pictures, frozen in time and memory, from early childhood when his father used to take him to these places.

“My father brought me outdoors (for) painting. I saw the Singapore River and all the artists,” the 50-year-old said, words spilling out without pause in a torrent of English and Mandarin, sometimes incoherent and muddied, like the river of his paintings during monsoon season.

It’s through his art that he finds order, focus and clarity in expressing himself.

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Along the IMH corridors are hung some of his paintings. We counted 15 on our short tour, and there were more, including renditions of the old Woodbridge Hospital off Yio Chu Kang Road where he used to live.

More of his artworks are stuffed into cupboards in two rooms – and he bashfully takes them out one by one to show us, such as one of a Chinese dragon and another of a tiger.

His sister Cindy Sim later lets on that he paints these predators when he is feeling angry or moody.

AS A CHILD, LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS

Her brother was four when he started doodling and painting.

“He was really good,” Ms Sim recalled. “He could draw a very precise animal. 

For me, drawing a cat is like two balls, two ears and a tail. For him, he could draw the whole cat.

Recognising his potential, his father took him to the Singapore River and Kampong Glam to paint and learn from the artists who used to congregate there.

Those veterans were generous in sharing their knowledge of stroke techniques, different mediums and colours. The young Kah Lim was even under the tutelage of renowned local artists Ong Kim Seng and the late Ong Chye Cho.

“There were a few artists who thought his painting was very nice so that’s why they advised him,” said Ms Sim. “He didn't go through any other proper training.”

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Mr Sim's painting of bumboats on the Singapore River of old.

Their father had also wanted to dissuade his son, the eldest of three, from drawing too many pictures of Chinese deities, as he thought that “drawing scenery and buildings was more meaningful”, added Ms Sim.

Those childhood visits became the strongest and happiest memories of her brother’s life. “He enjoyed those days. That's why he could remember those days better. Ever since then, he has kept drawing those (landscapes),” she said.

He also does still life (while CNA Insider was with him at IMH, he painted the garden); tackles portraits, and paints from photographs.

His flair for painting was rewarded at a young age when he won cash prizes at a couple of art competitions, and he seemed destined to be a professional artist.

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(Photo courtesy: Cindy Sim)

WARDED AS A TEEN

When he was 14, however, his behaviour started to change. He started talking to himself, refused to leave the house and wanted only to paint. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Then when he was 17, he fell from their sixth-storey flat but miraculously survived. “I don’t know why, but I believe he felt sad on that particular day, and he just looked down and fell,” said Ms Sim.

He was subsequently warded long-term at the mental hospital. His family were at a loss for what to do, but he seemed to adapt well.

“At the old IMH children’s unit, he was doing quite okay and was quite happy there because every day he was drawing,” said his sister.

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(Photo courtesy: Cindy Sim)

Long-stay patients are classified as those who have been warded for more than a year, where all possible discharge options have been explored and failed. And Mr Sim is now one of the longest-staying residential patients at IMH.

Over the years, his art has been a record of sorts of his emotions.

“When he was in a bad shape, he drew more of the (Chinese) gods,” said his sister, adding that he would paint landscapes when he is in a good mood.

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When asked why he liked to paint, he went off at a tangent once and broke into a National Day song.

But another time, he said with a smile: 

My work is my expression … It’s my dreaming world. It’s my dream to create the picture.

When he paints or draws, he is focused. He constantly shifts the easel to adjust to changes in the lighting.

Holding a pencil loosely, he makes broad strokes on the canvas, with seemingly little purpose to the untrained eye, but the result is an impressive sketch of IMH with its garden in the foreground.

WATCH: His gift unfettered (6:16)


BIG-HEARTED, PROLIFIC ARTIST

While some may think him a little odd, most people are more fascinated by his artwork. “Because he just draws, he doesn't disturb anybody,” said Ms Sim, who thinks her brother has faced “not so much” stigma.

But he is generous to a fault, which got him into trouble before.

He’s so generous he could take anything from our home to give to anybody, since young.

His sister added that whenever she visits him with food, he would share it with other patients. He has a hearty appetite, and often requests for local fare such as char kway teow and roti prata.

On special occasions, like Chinese New Year and Mother’s Day, Ms Sim – who moved near to  IMH so as to visit him more regularly – brings him home, as their mother has difficulty walking and their father is still working.

“He brings all his paintings, and puts (them) all over the place. And he can remember all his paintings,” she said. “He’d say, “Where’s my pigeon?’ Then I’d say, ‘Oh, upstairs. I’ll go and take it.’"

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Chinatown of old, in Mr Sim's paintings.

He is such a prolific artist that he has paintings stored in a warehouse, and his sister doubles as his curator, framing those works she deems worthy. Her home and office are also scattered with his art.

Some of his pieces are displayed in the offices of other healthcare institutions like the National University Hospital. He also sold two paintings to non-profit organisation BizLink for its range of These Abled People greeting cards.

And now, some of his works have been selected for the 'One of Us' exhibition, organised by T-Touch – Temasek's staff-driven volunteer initiative – to highlight the importance of mental health.

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The July exhibition at Temasek's office lobby, at The Atrium@Orchard. (Photo courtesy: Temasek)

Ms Sim is grateful for this chance to showcase his paintings, as he has been requesting for his own exhibition for some time.

“He keeps asking me to keep all his art pieces before they disappear, so that when he gets an art exhibition, he (can) show them. Of course, he also wants to sell his paintings,” she said.

BECOMING AN OBSESSION

Mr Sim said he also likes “singing, swimming, table tennis, badminton”. But he has a tireless commitment to painting, to the point of it becoming an obsession.

And that is cause for concern, said IMH occupational therapist Lee Shu Hui, who works with schizophrenia patients on social skills such as interacting with others and behaving in a group setting.

When she was first introduced to him, it was in a room full of his paintings, and there was not much space for them to move about.

While painting is his strength and should be encouraged, his goals all revolve around painting, and “it shouldn’t be the only part of his life”.

“We’re also looking at other aspects of his life: Whether or not he can take care of himself … whether he can overcome some of the conflicts he faces in the ward itself,” said Ms Lee.

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Mr Sim with IMH therapist Lee Shu Hui.

While painting helps to calm Mr Sim down, he gets frustrated at those times he does not get to paint. And this is not helping his condition.

“We have to have a balance; we need to be able to pace ourselves also. Therefore we have to set structures for him,” added Ms Lee. 

We can have that allowance (for painting). But we can’t do that every day.

Mr Sim recognises Ms Lee’s point, even though he has told her before: “I can paint without food – I can don't eat; I can don't sleep.”

When he spoke to CNA Insider, he said: “Must rest. I every time continue to paint, never take a deep breath – cannot.”

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Kampong Glam in the 1980s, as painted by Mr Sim.

His sister still dreams of reintegrating him into society, and even hopes that he can sell his paintings and help their parents buy a bigger home.

There is always hope. But as with all IMH patients, it is a matter of assessing their mental condition, whether they are ready and whether such a move is beneficial for them.

Said Ms Lee: “If we’re able to find that support in the community, and they’re able to manage, of course we’re more than happy to help them reintegrate.”

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(Photo courtesy: Temasek)

Source: CNA/dp/yv

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