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Artist defends samsui woman smoking mural, opposes subjective censorship

Singaporean mural artist Yip Yew Chong disagreed with labeling the Chinatown shophouse mural depicting a smoking samsui woman as “offensive”. While he respects viewers’ rights to openly critique artwork, he opposes extreme measures such as requesting authorities to remove art based on subjective interpretations.



SINGAPORE:  Yip Yew Chong, a prominent Singaporean mural artist, challenged criticism of a Chinatown shophouse mural depicting a samsui woman smoking, which some deemed “offensive” and “disrespectful” to samsui women.

Earlier reports indicated that the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) initially instructed the landlord of the conserved shophouse at 297 South Bridge Road to remove the cigarette from the mural.

The main complaint was that the mural was “offensive” because the samsui woman appeared to resemble a prostitute due to her smoking, hand gesture, gaze, and sitting posture.

However, Mr Yip disagreed with the characterization.

In an Instagram post on 23 June, Mr Yip highlighted that samsui women did smoke frequently and had diverse personalities as human beings.

“A young, freshly migrated samsui woman can smoke and sit like that. We cannot be too stereotypical and expect certain occupations must have only a specific look and no others.”

“Art’s intention is a much wider than to document actual history or beautify a place. It is primarily intended to draw emotions, thoughts and conversations.”

He believed viewers have the right to dislike artwork and express their opinions but disagreed with calls for censorship based on subjective interpretations, such as claiming the mural resembles a prostitute due to the samsui woman’s smoking gesture and posture.

“If there was indeed a request to the authority to take down the artwork for those reasons, it would have gone too far.”

“In my mind, the artwork, when thought of in overall context, did nothing harmful that are against the art presentation guidelines set by the Singapore agencies URA or IMDA.”

He noted that the mural does not promote vulgarity, degradation, or incite hatred towards any community, race, or religion.

“Smoking, though unhealthy and discouraged, is not illegal. When shown in context of a Samsui woman taking a smoke break as they did in their real life, is by no means promoting smoking.”

While acknowledging the impact of public art on communities, Mr Yip stresses the importance of balancing artistic freedom with societal norms and expectations.

Mr Yip shared his own experience with authorities, saying he believes the government agencies dealing with urban art are “all made up of well-meaning individuals who are just doing their jobs to maintain societal order and urban control.”

He added: “As an artist, I do wish governmental censorship is more relaxed in Singapore, and I can exercise less self-censorship too. ”

“As society demographics, attitudes and global information accessibility change, the authorities will have to review their censorship and enforcement stance to catch up.”

Mr Yip also advocates for a diverse and vibrant street mural scene in Singapore. He supports the exploration of various themes and styles beyond his preference for local culture and realism.

“Regardless, approvals and censorship should be based on principles and not be perceived to be based on public complaints as thought to be in many past cases.”

He believes diversity in street art contributes to Singapore’s uniqueness and cultural richness.

URA re-evaluates its decision after public outcry

The mural’s controversy came to light when the artist, Mr Dunston, shared his experience on Instagram on 19 June.

His post quickly went viral, receiving over 3,000 likes and numerous supportive comments by Saturday morning. In his post, Mr Dunston mentioned he was instructed to “get rid of the cigarette” by 3 July and was considering alternatives that might be acceptable to the URA.

Mr Dunston also disclosed that the URA’s initial directive was based on a complaint from a member of the public, who described the mural as “offensive” and “disrespectful” to samsui women. The complainant further remarked that the woman in the mural resembled a “prostitute” rather than a “hardworking samsui woman.”

In response to the complaint, Mr Dunston wrote, “To the member of the public that leveled this criticism, I’d like to say that sex workers are very hard working people, and should be treated with as much respect as anyone else. ”

“You should ask your Mom about it. Also, if I offended you with this depiction of a Samsui woman, trying to enjoy herself for 2 little minutes between grind after grind, then I couldn’t be more pleased about it. You’re literally my target demographic.”

As reported by The Straits Times on 21 June, the URA has now decided to re-evaluate its position due to recent public feedback.

In an email update to the landlord, who is represented by Shepherd Asset Management, the URA stated that it had “taken note of additional feedback regarding the mural.”

The URA requested that the landlord “delay any works to the mural until the review is completed.” The email did not provide a timeline for the review.

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Lets move on…more pressing issues in our faces these days..
How great it would be if these professionals come out to debate the cost of living…rising prices…sgs loss of jobs , high priced public housing aka hdb..etc etc etc…

He knows well maybe bcuz his ancestors woman were once a smoking prostitutes looking like samsui and dick by ang moh, like this painter.

Had it not been for the implied Taoist talisman almost dropping out of the other hand( depicting forsaking tradition to buy herself out of hard labor and inhumane wages ). The cigarette or smoking  is a socially frowned upon activity as much as vice. The pose, the cigarette and the femme fatale look add up to the assumption. Looks like a bold foreign artist works.  In response to the complaint, Mr Dunston wrote, “To the member of the public that leveled this criticism, I’d like to say that sex workers are very hard working people, and should be treated with as… Read more »

Yip was polite and courteous enough, … to explain the manner in which he delivered and portrayed his “art”.

Art or fart is in the eyes of the beholder. You either love it, loathe it or maybe, … could just about live with it.

But, … why pander to the few whom are pathetically sensitive, highly judgmental and overly dismissive.

The mural stays in it’s original format, … deal with it and /or go get relevant help !!!

There are many unsightly things around and whether you choose to look or not it’s your choice. This woke generation find everything offensive. The very fact that the Samsui women did smoke and drink and gamble is a part of history so accepting history is offensive. We are lucky that people of this mentality don’t step into churches and demand the crucifix be covered as deemed offensive or Hindu priests cover themselves up. I guess scientist are still working on a cure for stupidity.

The better complaint should be that a young Samsui woman was depicted. I’ve NEVER seen a young Samsui woman. I’ve only ever seen older ones with worn faces from a hard scrabble life usually in the construction trade.

The URA is over bearing. They should keep their thoughts wraped, their big mouths shut. And keep their ‘legislation of, should this, should not that’ banished. Leave it to the imagination and freedom of those who come across, those who understand, those whose values are entirely personal – have their own interpretation as to what it portray, what it means. Art is NOT science. And art is not subjected to imposition of one’s thoughts on others. Art is the exhibition without any 3rd party restraints to determine what is acceptance. If its unacceptable then go fly kite to put it… Read more »