Charles Lim Yi Yong: Sailing Yacht to Singapore

18 May 2017 - 20 Aug 2017 | Johann Jacobs Museum

Founded by a British colonial officer in the early 19th century, the city-state Singapore has always been a hub for migratory flows from Malaysia, India and China and remains a dynamic, constantly-growing organism (and financial center) to this day. Charles Lim Yi Yong, one of Asia’s best-known artists and former Olympic sailor, dissects the historical layers of this organism using the example of trapeze sailing – a local technique that British sports sailors copied during the colonial period and claimed as their own invention in Europe. At the same time, Lim Yi Yong takes a look at Singapore¹s current reality as a global center that, in the course of land reclamation, continues to expand its territory piece by piece into the sea.


Charles Lim Yi Yong (b. 1973) officially represented Singapore at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015) and participated with the collective tsunamii.net, which he co-founded, in documenta 11 (2002).



Sailing Yacht to Singapore

Charles Lim Yi Yong links two narrative strands with this exhibition. The first has do to with sailing. Unlike Impressionists who painted sail boats simply as a pretty motif, Lim has technical expertise in sailing and brings a wealth of experience on board. The artist represented the city state of Singapore (where he was born in 1973 and still lives today) at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The other narrative focuses precisely on the phenomenon that is “Singapore”: on the fate of a once-colonial establishment in the throes of hypermodern development for decades. “Land reclamation” plays a critical role in this development on the narrowest of spaces, as the country has systematically been expanding its own borders by pouring enormous amounts of sand into the ocean, most of it imported from Malaysia, Indonesia and China.

Singapore has used this technique to expand its territory by around 25% so far, but “land reclamation” is not without sacrifice. Its victims include the natural habitat along the once rugged coastline, as well as entire islands in the expansive archipelago between Malaysia and Indonesia. Two photographs (left and right at the entrance to the gallery) testify to the surreal drama of the modernization project. One image shows an island that has just become part of a sandy land mass, thereby losing its existence as an island, while the other confronts us with an iron wall erected in the middle of the sea. The signpost states in the local languages that movement beyond this point is not possible, as residential buildings will soon be raised there. The artist’s manipulated map (on the pedestal in the middle) fillets Singapore to a certain extent, illustrating the dynamics of these interventions.

A double projection with sail studies (in the gallery on the left) reveals intimate knowledge of the material. Unlike typical sports-TV broadcasts, we do not see a “live” take of the goings-on from outside, but are transported to the sailor’s imaginary world instead. One experiences something of the sailor’s subjective viewpoint regarding his activity. The sporting competition, positioning of the boat and beauty of its rhythmic movements on the water are one thing, but Lim’s visual exploration of so-called “trapeze sailing” aims to enlighten us in other ways as well.

In the shores along the Strait of Malacca – one of the most important sea trade routes in the world for centuries, since it is here that the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea (the Pacific) converge – the waters are so flat that sailboats can not be stabilized with keels. Instead, the long and flat boats have to be balanced by the team in play with or even against the wind. To do this, sailors lean out of the boat on the windward side – a breakneck, sometimes acrobatic technique in which man, thing and the elements merge. (Hanging in the White Salon on the ground floor of the museum is a moving, late 19th century report written by a European who had the rare privilege of traveling on such a boat). This much is certain: Trapeze sailing responds to the natural conditions of the coastal waters of Southeast Asia and established itself there centuries ago. It has been passed from generation to generation ever since. (Incidentally the famous catamaran, also intended for shallow waters, has its origins in this region as well.)

As an art student in England, Charles Lim came across a text in which Sir Peter Scott, a famous sailor and representative of the English establishment, reported that he had invented trapeze sailing on the River Thames in 1938. The claim infuriated Lim, but how do you, as someone who knows better, deal with such an obviously erroneous assertion? It is quite possible that Scott actually thought he was the inventor of the technique, although that seems hard to believe. There was too much contact between London and its various colonial outposts, including the Strait of Malacca and especially Singapore, which was founded by Stamford Raffles in 1819.

Going beyond a simple corrective statement with slightly pedantic, even moralizing features, Lim draws attention to the mechanisms of truth production with his sound installation (in the White Salon). The installation confronts Scott’s report of his “invention” with the already mentioned description of trapeze sailing from 1895, whose author is unknown. The comparison includes not only the content of the two descriptions, but also the form. Scott’s voice speaks from the center as a matter of course; in it, we hear the voice of the Empire as well: Scott is named as the inventor of trapeze sailing in all the relevant sailing manuals. The non-Western, local knowledge went ignored until Lim decided to make it the focus of this fictional dialogue.

Land Reclamation


In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles concluded a lease agreement with Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor concerning Singapore, which is at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. With it, the small island became one of the most important outposts of the British East India Company. Its outstanding importance owes to its strategic position on the Strait of Malacca, which connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. (Some 25% of international trade by sea passes through this 800 kilometers-long waterway, i.e. 2000 ships per day). As Singapore became the central hub for raw materials and merchandise from all over Asia, the city and its population grew. Thousands of immigrants from China, India and Southeast Asia came to work in the port, in British trading houses, or on pepper and gambir plantations.

Tropical Modernism

You can try to live with nature, you can try to fight it, or you can try to keep a middle course – today’s much-vaunted “ecological balance.” The element is domesticated in the pool, this one at the Singapore Airlines Country Club. There are no storms, no sharks, no corals as beautiful as they are sharp. But there is also little excitement. The tracks at the bottom of the pool hint at competition – so that much excitement is still allowed after all – but discoveries happen elsewhere. Or do they? The swimmer navigating the green algae in Charles Lim’s film is a lonely figure. He’s also too late. No one sees to the elaborate upkeep a modernist building like this one requires in the tropics: the cheap servants have gone home; the masters, too.

Islands of no return

The process of land reclamation involves filling the shallow coastal waters around Singapore with tons of sand. This sand comes from the same regions from which migrant workers flowed into the country in the 19th century: Indonesia, China and Malaysia. Onetime islands become part of a land mass, giving them the look of oases in the desert – until the excavators come.







The Housing Development Board (HDB) is claiming land in Singapore’s three local languages – English, Chinese and Malay – before it even exists: new apartments will be built here in the coming years to accommodate Singapore’s steadily growing population.
HDB has built around one million residential units since its founding in 1960, creating some 80% of the city state’s total residential space. While most of the apartments were officially sold to private individuals, the state has kept a back door open: purchase of an HDB apartment only entitles the owner to use it for 99 years. After that, it goes back to the state and is sold again.






The trapeze “thief”

In his autobiography, Sir Peter Markham Scott (1909 – 89) describes how he invented sailing with a trapeze in a regatta on the Thames in 1938. But as anyone who has seen Charles Lim’s film installation downstairs in the gallery and read the 1885 “Sailing Regatta in Malaia” report knows, the trapeze sailing technique stems from a centuries-old tradition in Southeast Asia. The Englishman Scott’s account that made its way into schoolbooks, thus becoming part of the official knowledge. Scott’s is the voice that speaks from the center: the voice of the Empire.

Peter inherited this voice from his father, the famous polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who died in 1912 during an attempt “to reach the South Pole [for the first time] and to secure the honor of this achievement for the British Empire,” his biographer notes. In his last letter “to my widow,” written from the polar abysm, Scott asks his wife “to take care that the boy is interested in natural science; that is better than playing.”

But the son only partly heeded his father’s advice. He made a name for himself as ornithologist, and carried out numerous expeditions around the world. But he was even more taken with painting and, above all, sailing. While his semi-naturalistic representations were only moderately successful, sailing proved his true talent: Scott won the bronze medal for one-man Olympic dinghy at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Peter Scott was a founding member and first vice president of the “World Wildlife Fund” (WWF), founded in Switzerland in 1961. The famous Panda logo draws on Scott’s design.


Malay Yacht Racing

The following account, written by a well-known Yachtsman of Singapore was published in the London Field of March 7th 1885:


Whilst showing Unkoo Khalid (a well-known sporting Malay gentlemen of Singapore, a brother of the Maharajah) some recently received photographs (of West and Son, Gosport) of the latest racing cracks, such as Irex, Genesta, Marjorie, &c., he said to me “If you would care to see some really good Malay boat sailing, come with me in my boat in the New Year’s Day Regatta, and I will show you what we can do without lead keels or ballast.”
This was an experience I had long since wished for, and only too gladly availed myself of, particularly as no European had ever ventured on such a decidedly semi-amphibious expedition, i.e., a race with Malays in a “sampan panjang.” Here let me first explain that the “sampan panjang” or “long” sampans, are kept by wealthy Malays solely for racing purposes, being exquisitely modelled craft of great length, small beam, and beautiful lines.

The ones in which I raced was about the length of one of our modern racing ten-tonners, i.e., 47ft., with a beam of 6. 10 ft., but differing from an English yacht in depth of hull, being 3 172 ft. only, and drawing in racing trim 2ft. There was, moreover, no deck of any sort, being quite open fore and aft, the ballasting consisting of a few mat bags of stones only, any stability, I might almost say, being obtained by the crew balancing out to windward by ropes from the mastheads — most ticklish and extraordinary sailed craft, it must be acknowledged. It was, therefore, with a certain amount of misgiving that I stepped over the low gunwales, 18in. only from the water’s edge, and cast my eye along the crowded, narrow, open shell of a hull, with its stout heavy masts and splendid bamboo yards (46ft. long) of the enormous latteen cut sails of light American drill. These bamboos were single sticks, which the Unkoo told me had to be procured from the Celebes, the Straits not being able to produce such long poles.

Knowing well how thoroughly at home the Malays are both in as well as on the water, I was not at all disconcerted by my friend’s apology for the rawness of his crew, twenty-three in all; but few, except the steersman, having, he said, raced with him previously. I had not, however, much time for reflection at my novel position before the starting-gun fired, the way in which the large yards and sails were run up convincing me that, at any rate, the crew were no novices at this sort of work, and we were off tearing before a fine breeze, wing and wing, the sails being boomed out with long forked poles.

In company we had a similar, but slightly smaller and less heavily manned, sampan, called the Hariman Bettina, or Tigress in English, belonging to another brother of the Maharajah, Unkoo Abdul Madjid; both boats were, by the bye, decorated with large bunches of ferns, and the bright scarlet and yellow flowers of the hibiscus attached to their stem heads, furnished by some gentle, if not fair, hands, I’ve no doubt. Our craft, I must tell you, went by the quaint appellation of “Khelat Barat,” or Western Lightning; our worst thunderstorms, called Sumatras, coming from the westward, are as a rule very severe, and much dreaded by the Malays in their fragile, open craft. The run for the first flagboat (two miles) was a very rapid one; the pace was simply clipping, even following steam-launches were “nowhere;” but what struck me most was the absence of any sound of the swift motion. There was a peculiar quivering, slithery (if I may use the expression) sensation of being irresistibly propelled by some silent motive power, a clean cut rip through the water left a sharp curling wave many feet behind us, before it closed over, and subsiding, left a particularly clean wake.

A glance overhead at the yards towering above us, contrasted with the long slender hull, made me, I must say, a little skeptical as to how it would ever be possible to keep it above water, when it came to luffing up. Two men were behind me, one at the slight rudder (14 in.) while the other stood by with a fine 11ft. long, diamond-shaped paddle, which came into requisition to aid the rudder, in the event of any sudden manoeuvre, also when tacking.

I was next, perched on the slight gunwale, rigged in an old canoeing suit of flannels, barefooted, and, with the rest, quite prepared, at a moment’s notice, for a swim. Next to me was a jovial stout Malay, whom I assisted in “hanging on to” the mainsheet. This was rove through blocks leading aft, the end being led along and round a wooden bollard on the gunwale; in fact, all the sheets were held in hand all the time, as I learnt to my cost — having had to hold on to the main one for over three hours, with, at times, some awful doses of cramp in my hands.

As soon as we were up to the first flag-boat, it was a case of a sharp “luff up” — most exciting work too, the principal order, frequently repeated in Malay, being “Mind the mast ropes,” as we rounded up to the now fresh breeze, being well clear of all the shipping, six men jumping on to the weather gunwale, holding on to stout knotted ropes, suspended for that purpose from the mainmast head, whilst five others manned those from the foremast head, many having loops or slings into which they swung themselves clean out over the weather side, and with each successive freshening puff out went their bodies at right angles to the boat’s side — a most extraordinary sight, as we had at times all hands out overboard, with their toes just grasping the gunwale, the waves frequently making a clean sweep over their bodies, whilst we also were all perched on the weather gunwale, holding on as best we could, the only men on board being a couple hard at work balling most of the time, the lee gunwale being awash, the waves sweeping over it pretty freely, the fore and main sheets being ”hung on to” an alarming extent.

There was no such thing as reefing, or, in fact, any means of reducing the huge sails; it was simply a question of weight of crew versus propelling power, the sheets being eased off only when there was a dangerous amount of water on board. Once on a wind, the boat was kept fairly buoyant and well under control; but when it came to easing off the sheets, the amount of water that came on board was really even alarming, and, in fact, at time, one might as well have been sitting in a sluice of salt water.

The pace can be imagined from the fact of our overhauling and passing to windward of all the European racing craft, men-of-war cutters, &c., some which had started three quarters of an hour ahead of us, before they had got up to the third flag-boat (five miles). I was much amused at the astonished looks of the Caracoas peeping over the weather gunwale of their cutters as we went by them at a steamer’s pace with our array of human bodies poised out over the side.

Having raced in ten, twenty, and ninety-tonners in English waters, I must admit that this sort of racing where every man is so thoroughly a component part of the boat, the sustained pitch of excitement, as well as the pace, beat any of my previous experience. Taking the Malays in their own waters, coupled with their exceptional dexterity as boat sailors, I really think that they would run away from vessels of similar length — even Ulidia and Buttercup — except perhaps in a case of a hammer to windward in a sea-way, where the depth of hull and lead would, I think, prove the victor— a conclusion I should very much indeed like to see tried. Unfortunately, the yacht club here possess nothing that can come near the Malay “sampan panjang,” as, when competing with any of our local yachts, the native craft come in fully half to three-quarters of an hour ahead.

Having a fine breeze outside, and being able to fetch the fourth flag-boat in one tack, we soon reeled off the first round, a good eight miles, in a little over the hour; our boat being heavier maned and ballasted, the Tigress, in the run in with the lighter wind along shore was able, with a favourable puff, to run up to and overhaul us. This lead us, as it unfortunately subsequently proved, to pitch overboard a lot of our ballast, for when once more outside on the second round we met with a harder breeze coming more from the eastward, necessitating this time a lot of tacking — the loss of ballast here telling, as we had hard work to overhaul the other boat. The breeze hardening, everyone was out to windward, and we had frequently, even then, to let all sheets “go flying” before we could spare a hand to bale out. Once or twice I quite thought we should never be able to get rid of all the water on board, and, as a finishing touch when close up to the flagboat before the final run in, with no less than twenty men out on the gunwale, a sudden whirlwind, caused by some heat eddy coming off shore, caught us “slap aback.” This, with the huge lateen sails, tacks hard down to the masts, all hands out on the one side near as a toucher finished us, the only expression escaping the Malays, as some went into the sea, whilst others sprang across to the opposite gunwale, being “this time swamped!” Luckily, the gust swept over us as suddenly as it came, leaving us filled right up to the thwarts; whilst the Tigress profiting by our mishap — for, strange to say, she escaped this sudden gust — just managed to weather the flag boat, and was off flying, leaving us with all hands hard at work baling, there luckily being a large stock of balers always carried on board. It was nearly ten minutes before we got sufficiently clear of water to enable us to bear away after our opponent, who, however, had got too far away by this time, and ran in an easy winner.

The Malays said that in all their experiences they had never, whilst in a hard breeze, been caught in a similar violent eddy. The Unkoo told me that he thought that nothing could have saved our swamping, and made sure that we were all in for at least an hour’s floating about before the masts could have been unshipped and all the sails and gear got clear.

For my own part, I did not at the moment think much of the danger of being swamped, having such confidence in the Malays and their mode of treating such a mishap, having so frequently seem them racing in their “Kolehs” — a smaller canoe-shaped craft; and when quite swamped, the crew, generally of four hands going overboard immediately, holding the boat upright, whilst one hand remained inboard and baled away, the others then scrambling in, and were off sailing again, all in the space of a few minutes.

This, however, I learnt, could not have been so readily done in so much larger a craft as ours. Unke Khalid significantly marking that he invariably took care to get well into a sail when overboard, i.e., to avoid any undesired attention on the part of the numerous and inquisitive sharks, of which he told me the  Malays invariably have a great dread, when overboard anywhere beyond the harbor limits; and just now the water police report an unusual number of sharks about the roads, the late heavy monsoon weather probably having caused them to leave China seas for smoother waters. With a knowledge of this, and the constant risk of having to swim for it, I shall in future most decidedly venture with less confidence in a race in a “sampan panjang.”