Plan B: From Fine Arts to History (Tan Guan Fan)

Submitted Nov 2022

Initial plan to study fine arts overseas

My path to shortlisting my courses and universities was far from direct — it was one marked with a sharp twist and then a comfortable flow. During my last schooling year in Hwa Chong and time in NS, I had hoped solely and fervently to study fine arts overseas, spending additional time and energy on polishing my art portfolios to apply for top fine arts universities in both US and UK and full-ride overseas scholarships. Six enriching years in art practice and art theory at Hwa Chong AEP have been nothing but incredible, with special thanks to Mr. Ho Zhen Ming, Ms. Grace Ong, and Mr. Augustine Wong, and thus I was certain that fine arts formed the core of my interests. However, while my university applications turned in promising results including offers from Pratt Institute, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Central Saint Martins, and Goldsmiths, I was unable to secure an overseas scholarship. Further discussions with my family eventually came to the conclusion that I will study locally and so I picked History.

Choosing to study History locally

Why History then? It was a subject that I felt reasonably comfortable with, given my four satisfying years studying it for Integrated Humanities (Elective) and GCE 'A' Levels H2 History, especially being taught by Mr. Teh Chee Siong. Apart from this subject-based familiarity, I have been blessed with the History faculty at NUS who have been very supportive of students pursuing our respective research interests. For example, I had the chance to delve deeper into my Teochew heritage and Singapore's oldest Teochew temple when I was writing my research assignment for a higher-level History module. This eventually culminated in my recent research article, "If Roofs could Talk and Walls could Speak: The Understated Arts of Yueh Hai Ching Temple" published on Berita, the official publication of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei (MSB) Studies Group.

Always receptive to opportunities, I have also had the fortune of meeting three wonderful professors, Dr. Jack Meng-Tat Chia, Dr. Priya Maholay-Jaradi, and Prof. Irving Johnson, all of whom are well-established scholars and practitioners in the fields of history, religion, art history, and painting. Their lectures, our conversations, and even artistic collaborations became sources of newfound joys and inspirations to take two additional minors in Art History and Southeast Asian Studies. It is through my interactions with them and the larger NUS History community, alongside engaging myself deeper with various extracurriculars within and without NUS, that I found new bearings in studying here. My recent Ngee Ann Kongsi Distinguished Scholar Award and accompanying Lianhe Zaobao article came as a delightful surprise and addition to my existing trove of memories collected in the past few years, a sweet reminder that hidden gems are everywhere!

While this transition from studying fine arts to history had initially appeared sudden and disjointed, I have discovered many overlapping areas between these two core disciplines and in fact, gradually discovered that interdisciplinarity is, in fact, one of my strong suits. 

Seeking joy & peace wherever life takes you

Hence, I would strongly advise my dear juniors that while it is important to set high standards and work very hard for your current goals, it is also crucial that you learn to be comfortable with where life takes you. The waves of life can push you to places you've yet to discover, interests you've yet to explore, and moments of serendipity that you'd find so magical. Therefore, it would only be wise to stay open-minded, keep a positive frame of mind, and continue learning about yourself and the world. Lastly, I would also like to share my current mantra: Give your very best in all that you do and seek joy and peace in every situation (suíyù érān 随遇而安). All the best, juniors!