Labourers on Bumboat (在小贩船边的劳工们), est. 2000, Oil on canvas, 121.5 x 152.5 cm
Koeh Sia Yong brings the viewer back into the old Port of Singapore with this oil painting. The way the sacks and ships crowd most of the frame enhances the hectic energy of the scene, as coollies rush about clambering on and off the ships. Such a sight was common in the 1960s, as Chinese immigrants came to Singapore to seek their fortunes, only to be subjected to indentured labour. They were employed in a wide variety of jobs—mining, construction, port workers. The tedious and exhausting task of unloading and loading cargo, like the sacks pictured in this painting, was a fairly common job. Though, as the port gradually became updated with new technology, the coolie trade became obsolete.
Regardless, it was back-breaking labour, and Koeh expresses it acutely in showing the sheer size of the cargo. Compared to the stacks of sacks, the coolies almost seem like ants. The saturated red of the ships help separate them from the background, which fades into the distance with a pale yellow glow. Glimpses of modern skyscrapers are visible amidst the hazy air, a small reminder that the scene present in this painting has faded away in the face of Singapore’s modernisation.