Ah Chong: One of Kuching’s best-kept secrets

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Monica Janowski

Following the recent informative talk on the Chinese dragon (lóng 龙) by Dr Monica Janowski, this article is about one of our own local artisans who is keeping alive the art of frieze sculpture found in our Chinese temples.

KONG PING MENG, known widely as Ah Chong, has a phenomenal talent, which he has developed without the support of a wealthy family or education. While he is widely respected in Chinese temple circles in Sarawak, he deserves to be better known in the wider artistic world. He brings together incredible craft skill and a profound artistic vision. His perfectionism is legendary. He is keeping alive and carrying on a rich and intricate artform.

Ah Chong was born in Limbang in 1966 to a poor Hakka family. When he was only 5 or 6, he began to show his artistic talent, drawing, painting, and making small clay statues of Chinese deities. He left school at the age of 12 and at the age of 13 he began to earn money from his skill, restoring artworks in local temples and making dragons for the dragon dance and lions for the lion dance. In 1981, when he was 16, he moved to Kuching with one of his older sisters.

Soon after Ah Chong arrived in Kuching, he had a transformative experience. He was sitting behind the Tua Pek Kong temple when he had a vision of nine dragons (lóng 龙) coiled around the temple. He told the chairperson of the temple committee about this, and in 1983 the committee commissioned him to create the spectacular dragon frieze around the temple that can still be seen there. The RM12,000 fee that he was paid for this work, and the reputation that he earned, established him in Kuching. From 1983 onwards, Ah Chong has been commissioned to create work in many temples.

Ah Chong in 1983 in the process of creating the dragon frieze at the Tua Pek Kong temple in Kuching City.

The method that Ah Chong uses is one that he developed himself and has experimented with over many years. It involves creating a wire or metal frame upon which he uses wet concrete to sculpt relief. The sculpture is then refined and completed once it is dry.

Ah Chong has also been commissioned to do work outside temples. In 1984, he was commissioned to restore a dragon painting in the Astana in Kuching.

Ah Chong in 1984 with the dragon painting at the Astana Kuching that he restored.

According to Ah Chong, this eventually led, in 1986, to a commission from the then Chief Minister of Sarawak, the late Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, to create a dragon in his private residence. This dragon was in the middle of a fountain and water spurted out of its mouth. Ah Chong said that this dragon sculpture was placed under a staircase, and it was removed after a couple of years.

Ah Chong is very interested in feng shui, and he sometimes does work for feng shui masters. He once created a large prawn sculpture for a renowned feng shui master from Hong Kong who was commissioned to find a good tomb site for a wealthy person in Sarawak. The ideal spot for a Chinese tomb is what is known as a ‘dragon’s nest’, lóng xué 龙穴, which is a spot enclosed by hills or mountains with a stream issuing from it. The feng shui master could not find a dragon’s nest and the prawn was intended to create one—which it did, as the mountain opposite the prawn collapsed the next day and a stream issued from it.

The current commission Ah Chong is executing (2024), at the temple next to the Petanak market along the Sarawak river in Kuching, is the largest commission he has had, covering the entire, very large, front wall of the temple, in front of the spectacular and enormous granite statue of the main deity. It consists of scenes from Chinese legends and myths relating to thirty-six central characters from all different walks of life.

Ah Chong at work on the frieze at the temple by Petanak market in Kuching, March 2024.
Ah Chong with a dragon and horse from the frieze he is creating at the temple near Petanak market in Kuching, March 2024.

Most artwork in temples in Sarawak is now imported from China. One of the few exceptions is the work done by Ah Chong. His work is so good that visiting specialists from China and Taiwan have declared that it is better than anything that their own artists could do, and he has recently been asked to go and teach in Taiwan.

Ah Chong does careful research for his work, ensuring that what he creates is a faithful reflection of Chinese tradition and beliefs. For him, authenticity is very important. He sees his job, as a Chinese, as the authentic transmission of Chinese culture down the generations.

Dr Monica Janowski is a social anthropologist who has been doing research in Sarawak since 1986. She began researching Borneo dragon stories and legends in 2017. She is currently Curator of the SE Asia Museum at the University of Hull.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily