Lee Man Fong: A Satay Vendor with Customers

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Born in Guangzhou, China, Lee Man Fong (1913 – 1988) is the pioneer artist of Indonesia-Singapore, who started learning painting since his childhood. He and his parents moved to Singapore in 1917 and studied at the Anglo-Chinese School until 1929 before relocating to Java in 1932. He studied the Lingnan (岭南) style of Chinese brush painting under Mei Yutian, and oil painting under Huang Qingquan. His first career was a Dutch advertising firm Kolff, and then was a Chinese pianist in Batavia, now Jakarta. In 1941, Lee Man Fong was fully dedicated to be a professional painter. He was the best Chinese artist especially skilled in painting animals, natural landscape, figures and village narrative by showcasing cultural aesthetic art. After arriving and living in Java – Indonesia, the artist completed his stunning works attracting Mr. Soekarno’s attention, the first President of Republic of Indonesia. In 1950s, the president appointed and assigned Lee Man Fong as the palace painter together with other celebrated artists.

The present work, entitled to “Madurese Satay vendpr and Customers”, the artist depicted a satay vendor wearing short-sleeve shirt with black and white-striped design and dark pants and on his head tied a piece of black head cover “odheng Madura”. The vendor is shown fanning and turning the skewers on top of burning charcoal burnt container, while his left hand moves a yellow fan creating a cloud of white smoke in the middle of yoke pushcart. The yoke pushcart is painted with a yellow flagging umbrella, and adorned with saucepan as the container of sate flavor accompanied with ketchup bottles and other spices. Two buyers, a mother and her child, in pink dress wait beside the seller are depicted in waiting for their sate. The image scene of this work is painted in a bluish-green hue background with dark-brown tree twig ornaments on the upper right and left. A black Chinese inscription and a square seal mark are written on the lower right.

The present piece is one of Lee’s cultural aesthetic works associated with the Nanyang style executed in synthesis of Chinese technique and Indonesian subject with Western composition styles. The subject on this piece is derived from the original theme of Javanese society’s life, where the artist ever lived in Indonesia. This work is painted with xieyi free-hand style technique, mainly on the tree twig ornaments. Lee Man Fong arranges not-too-flashy lighting color to give the color of puffing white smoke. It is different with his other works with the similar subjects of Satay Vendor he created, which he provides supplemental image of a mother and her daughter as the buyer waiting for a roasted sate on this piece.

Through the subject on the present work, the artist recorded a life theme in the nature surrounding him when he lived in Indonesia. He portrayed the Madurese ethnic image as a sate vendor selling and roving to peddle his satay merchandise from villages to villages and passage away to serve the buyers. Man Fong is skillfully able to record the result of existing reality observation. Although this subject seems simple, but the theme renders artistically touch and deep inspirations for connoisseurs to observe the sociological reflection of this work. Madurese sate or satay is exclusive food made of a chicken cutlet cut into small pieces and pierced with skewers made of coconut leaf sticks or bamboo, then burned by using wood charcoals. Sate is then served with various kinds of peanut sauces or ketchup or depends upon the variation of the served sate recipe.

Satay vendor or seller subjects are the main theme source of Man Fong’s works that are highly sought-after by avid collectors. The similar theme “Satay Seller” to the present work but without additional images of customers was sold at Sotheby’s Hongkong, dated 6th October 2009, Lot. 396. The piece was resold at Christie’s Hongkong, dated 25th November 2012, Lot. 159 breaking a record price HK$524,000 or US$67,931 (see fig. 1). Another with different version is entitled to ‘Satay Man with Closed Umbrella”, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 1st October 2017, lot. 428, sold for US$128,000 (see fig. 2). Compare with Fong’s work, entitled ‘Satay Seller’ (103 x 49 cm), sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 25th April 2004, lot. 575, for HKD 1,127,750, initially estimated between HKD 280,000 – HKD 350,000 (see fig. 3).


Lee Man Fong