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Beauty Beyond the Frame

Written by: Tan Sean Tze (20S6J) and Tan Tai Cheng (20A15)

Front view of the imposing Kuo Chuan House

An oak plaque with the characters ‘李国专’ embossed in elegant golden strokes hangs above the entrance to the Kuo Chuan Centennial Art Gallery, greeting every visitor with graceful curves and prominent arcs. Within the building is housed a collection of artworks worth millions of dollars, painted by several of the most important pioneers in the Singapore art scene, artists who shared their skill and flair with Hwa Chong, and shepherded the next generation of Singapore’s talent with brush and easel.

Evidently, the Gallery stands not only to attest to the growth and progress of the Singaporean art scene, but also Hwa Chong’s humble contribution. Thus, this opens up the question, whom has such an important building been named for?

The KCCAG is named after Mr Lee Kuo Chuan, the father of our benefactor Mr Lee Kong Chian (whose statue is within eyeshot of the KCCAG; right in front of the eponymous Kong Chian Administration Centre). For those unfamiliar with our history, Mr Lee Kong Chian was also married to our founder Mr Tan Kah Kee’s daughter, Ms Tan Ai Leh, which drew the Tan and Lee families together. So in a sense, the Chinese High School was built on robust family ties.

Let us move to the history of the building itself. The block which houses the gallery today was completed alongside the Hwa Chong Clock Tower in 1925. The building was designed by Swan and Maclaren Architects, the prominent architectural firm which also has projects like the Raffles Hotel and the Victoria Theatre to its name. In line with the architectural trends of the time, the building was drawn up according to the neoclassical style. Despite rounds of repurposing and renovation, the core architectural elements have remained – the 28 ionic pillars and the symmetrical layout common to the neoclassical style are unaltered, and the two-by-four colonial era mullions have had replicas made of them and installed to mimic, as closely as possible, its original state.

Now, did you know that our science laboratories were actually located in this very building? Although it is currently a symbol of Hwa Chong’s strong artistic culture, where the works of many esteemed artists are proudly hung, Kuo Chuan House once nurtured numerous scientists. But as time passed, the building underwent (one of its many) renovations and the science labs were moved out in exchange for art rooms and computer labs, which were then replaced by the Bicultural Studies Programme (BSP) and Language Elective Programme (LEP) rooms.

In 2018, the school recognised the historical and cultural significance of this building and decided to embark on a bold and purposeful direction, making it what it is now. The ground floor displays the awe-inspiring works of distinguished artists such as Mr Chen Wen Hsi, Mr Cheong Soo Pieng, Mr Chen Chong Swee and Mr Liu Kang for all to admire, while the upper floor serves as a heritage museum to showcase Hwa Chong’s history. In 2019, during Hwa Chong’s centennial celebrations, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the refurbishment of the KCCAG and in 2020, President Halimah Yacob finally cut the ribbon to signify the long-anticipated re-opening of our Art Gallery.

The Publications Society sincerely wishes that the Art Gallery will inspire many more generations of Hwa Chong’s artists in the years ahead.

Kuo Chuan House from the side

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