Ramsay Ong: How life and art entertwine

By Danielle Ringgit

DESPITE HIS FATHER’S disapproval in his choice of career, he continued doing what he loved and today, Ramsay Ong is a well-known artist and his artwork is recognisable anywhere.


CEMPAKA: Ramsay Ong with one of his artwork ‘Cempaka’ featuring a lady with a cempaka flower on her hair.

CEMPAKA: Ramsay Ong with one of his artwork ‘Cempaka’ featuring a lady with a cempaka flower on her hair.


His interest in art developed from a very early age. Since young, he was often intrigued and highly fascinated by his surroundings. His creativity never ceased as inspiration easily came to him as he was always surrounded by nature, making his artwork unique, distinctive and eccentric.


Ramsay grew up with five other siblings and his parents in a small, humble house on a piece of a hatchery land at Batu Lintang that used to belong to his great-grandfather, Chinese Kapitan Ong Tiang Swee.


He remembered fondly how in that simple house overlooking a fish pond, he would be able to see the magnificent view of Mount Serapi and a plateau of Mount Singai from his window.


“As young boy I would look out for miles and I could see Mount Serapi, so could you imagine how clear and open it was back then?” After school, he would sit at his balcony and make endless sketches of the landscape.


Another aspect that influenced his artwork was his great-grandfather’s house, which was a very beautiful old house. According to Ramsay, back when his great grandfather was a Chinese Kapitan, they usually had British officers and the governor general coming over as his guests for Sunday lunch.


‘TREE OF LIFE” CHINESE ZODIAC: A painting portraying the 12 Chinese zodiacs.

‘TREE OF LIFE” CHINESE ZODIAC: A painting portraying the 12 Chinese zodiacs.


When he used to visit his great grandfather at the old mansion, he remembered there was an atrium in the middle of the house with Chinese paintings of bamboo and fish, stuffed animals hanging from the walls and art creations made out of feathers alongside it. Ramsay can still picture his great grandfather’s house clearly in his mind today.


As theirs was a Buddhist family, he remembered how the house was filled with Chinese tablets, altars and deities during his great grandfather’s time.


“While most people have the perception that keeping all these sort of things means that you are a pagan or worshipping, I take it as a cultural thing and they probably had it around for security and protection,” he said.


MEDITATION UNDER THE TREE: A Buddhism-inspired painting.

MEDITATION UNDER THE TREE: A Buddhism-inspired painting.

For Ramsay, the ancient relics, antiques, and heirlooms do not necessarily represent one’s religion but projects one’s cultural aspects. For him as an artist, they serve as a source of inspiration and creativity.


Originally, his interest in batik started off at a later stage in his life when a German art lecturer at Batu Lintang Training College spotted him doing a collage with different kinds of papers. The lecturer suggested that he turn his collage into batik, introducing him and another wellknown fellow local Batik artist, Michael Lim to batik painting.


According to Ramsay, he later learned that before one can actually learn how to create elaborate designs, it was important to initially learn the basic techniques of applying dye and wax.


During that time, however, Ramsay’s father had planned for his son to be an agriculurist, sending him to Tarak Training Center to be trained as one. However, according to an officer in charge at the time, seeing that Ramsay was too young to join, he was asked to reapply the following year.


Probably determined to secure his son’s future, Ramsay’s father finally landed him a job in a telecommunication department as a draughtsman where he was assigned to do mechanical engineering drawing for five years.


“It was so boring,” he said with a laugh. “I mean how can you do engineering drawing when your talent is on to more something more expressive?”


Despite his reluctance, however, it was during his time as a draughtsman that he learned control and self-discipline. It was thanks to this self-discipline that he produced enough artwork for his first exhibition in 1964 under the British Council at the museum ground.


It was well received by the public, and so after the success of his first exhibition, Ramsay realised that he could no longer continue working as a draughtsman, feeling that he needed to spread his talent elsewhere and do something more creative.

ULU HORNBILL: A painting made from wild ‘sukun’ tree depicting two hornbills on top and a man-made hornbill on the bottom.

ULU HORNBILL: A painting made from wild ‘sukun’ tree depicting two hornbills on top and a man-made hornbill on the bottom.


Although he never really agreed with his decision to quit his job, Ramsay’s father never discouraged him, eventually allowing him to follow his dream to be an artist.


After quitting, Ramsay then had an exhibition in Serian where he said that his batik artworks were quite popular among the British settlers there who were eager to buy anything cultural from Sarawak.


“They were fighting for my work and I could not produce enough,” he recalled.


But after a while, he realised that time Sarawak was a bit too slow in the art world and he finally decided to travel abroad where he spent the next six years in the United States constantly moving between San Francisco and Hawaii.


Living in the big cities in the US was tough as he had to juggle his time with multiple jobs and also his artwork. There, aside from teaching students batik painting, he sometimes worked at the launderette, selling some of his small pieces of artwork in the market just to earn extra cash.


Knowing that he would someday return back to his homeland, he kept some of his big pieces. Sure enough in 1974, he returned to Malaysia and had an exhibition at Samat Gallery, the only renowned art gallery at that time where it was officiated by his uncle, Tan Sri Datuk Ong Kee Hui, then Minister of Technology.


Knowing that Ramsay had previously lived in the US for six years, the art gallery owner, Australian Frank Sullivan expected his artwork to be westernized, abstract and modern but after seeing Ramsay’s artwork, he was surprised to see them to be typical local pieces portraying wood carvings and local Sarawak scenery.


Stunned and amazed by his artwork, the art gallery owner never expected his artwork to still be heavily influenced by local elements but for Ramsay, being away from home only made him miss his homeland even more and it was obviously projected through his artwork.

BODHI TREE: Collage painting made of tree bark.

BODHI TREE: Collage painting made of tree bark.


Over the course of his 50-year involvement in the art world, Ramsay has drastically changed his technique from batik painting to tree bark and now, organic handmade paper after he realised that he cannot keep on continuing his artwork with batik.


As an artist, one must change and not be stuck in a comfort zone as one has to go through a certain phase in your life where you must be innovative and constantly in a state of creativity so that one can evolve into something different and better.


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3 Responses

  1. John Weeks says:

    Hi, it’s John Weeks from Kuching and Batu Lintang Teachers College back in the 19650/60s!
    Knew Ramsay and family very well and have had an original Ramsay Ong batik – still hanong on the wall at my home!
    Ahy way to get in touch with Ramsay?

  2. Robert Walsh says:

    I have two batik painting of dyak tribesmen. One playing a lute and the other of ladies pounding rice or wheat in a stone gourd.

    These were purchased from Ramsay in the mid 1960’s at Sarawak or at Brunei by my parents who worked there for Shell Oil Company from 1947.

    I was wondering if I could get some more information on the history of the paintings and scenery…like where were they painted and the village of the tribes people…????

    • Donald Tan says:

      Dear Robert,

      Just saw your little comment on the Borneo Post SEED by BPOnline. As Ramsay Ong is my uncle and we are in constant touch, I could probably assist in getting the info you seek on your collection of works if you could provide me with the images. I can be reached at [email protected]. Hope to hear from you soon.

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